Though biography/memoir is the leading genre in this 10MillionWords project, few that I’ve read in this category have been traditional biographies. Most have, instead, been memoirs and often memoirs of celebrities who, honestly, will never be worthy of a full-length biography. It was nice, then, to read Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James Hirsch. This is a biography that is traditional in every way and, to my knowledge, the first authorized biography of Mays.
Willie Mays is, of course, a man who needs little introduction. His contribution to the game of baseball is widely known and his status as a hero of the game is forever cemented in the record books. Though his reputation has been tarnished a little bit by remaining in the game too long and by eventually being loosely linked to performance enhancing drug scandals (such as they were in the 60′s), he remains a uniquely respected player.
The book is set in roughly the same timeframe as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book I reviewed just last week. The stories of those two lives could hardly be more different. Mays was wildly popular in his lifetime while Lacks was utterly unknown; Mays was fantastically rich while Lacks lived in abject poverty; Mays lived a long life while Lacks died at just thirty years of age. And yet there are a few important similarities. Both dealt with the systemic racism that plagued the United States not too long ago. It is amazing to read of a bus taking the Giants from the ballpark to their hotel but taking a detour into a poor part of town, a negro district, to drop off Mays and the other African American players. Though they may have been able to share an outfield with their teammates, they were not allowed to share a hotel.
Mays was not, as some wished of him, a racial activist. He was often labelled an Uncle Tom and looked down upon for not doing more to fight for equality. And yet in his own way, he did just that. Once America’s national sport was integrated, it would not be long before the nation followed suit. After all, how could America cheer year after year for negro players and then, at the end of it all, still see them as nothing but negros? The tale is told of the son of a Klansman running onto the baseball diamond yelling, “I’m Willie Mays!” The walls were crumbling and would inevitably fall. Mays may not have marched, he may not have had the anger and passion of a Jackie Robinson, but he still played the role that was his.
One of the most notable aspects of Mays’ life was his desire to give of himself to his fans. Endearingly childlike in many ways, Mays would (quite literally) give the shirt off his back to someone in need. He was eager to please those who looked up to him. And yet through his life he was torn by the knowledge that many of these people loved him only for what he did, not for who he was. Included in this number, it seems, was his first wife with whom he had a short, turbulent and costly marriage. He wanted to trust people but learned quickly that he could not. Later in life people would ask, “Why doesn’t Willie Mays trust people? The answer is: for good reason.” As Mays said, “‘You have to assume that everyone wants something from me because of who I am.’ It is why there are only three groups that he trusts: baseball players, children, and household pets. None will ever betray him.” Even today he does not and cannot trust others; for so much of his life he was used and betrayed by his “friends.”
Mays was a strange combination of a willing and an unwilling celebrity. He enjoyed the perks of celebrity–the free cars, the acclaim, the money, the easy entrance into private places; yet he hated the loss of privacy, the demands and the criticism. He insists that he only ever wanted to play the game and, certainly, he had a passion for baseball that few others have matched. And yet he wanted more than just the game; he wanted the money and the adulation. Like most celebrities, he had to take the bad with the good. Reflecting on his life he says, rightly, that when you achieve his level of fame, “The world owns you.” He got what he wanted, but not without the world demanding its pound of flesh for all it had given him.
It is perhaps ironic that for a man who wanted to be known for who he was rather than what he did, this biography focuses predominantly on what Mays did. Though there is plenty of focus on the man himself, the book ends when his career ends. The decades after his retirement are consigned together to a single Epilogue of thirty pages.
Though by no means a truly brilliant biography (it’s not quite in David McCullough territory, for example), this one is still plenty good and has a lot to commend it. It tells the story–the definitive story, I suspect–of an important and an interesting life and does so with class. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Verdict: Read it if you’re a fan of baseball or a fan of good biography.