Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend….James Hirsch

Willie Mays making "The Catch" during the 1954 World Series. The YouTube footage of this catch is priceless.

I have never in my reading life been turned off by the size of a book. Especially if that book is captivating and amazing; then the book is never long enough. 🙂 A  great example of a book that was plenty long, but still not long enough for me is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I could easily have gone another 800 pages in that world. There was no despair greater than mine to discover that there was no sequel forthcoming. Gone With The Wind easily falls into that category, too.

So…. how much does it suck when a long book isn’t that great?

James Hirsch’s Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend is not super long  (560 pages of the main story and epilogue), but for some reason it feels like I started reading this book back in 2009. It. Just. Took. Forever.

I’ll start with the positive: Willie Mays was an AMAZING ballplayer. That message came across loud and clear. He rose above poverty, racial discrimination, and an unconventional family background to make it to the major leagues, in a time when African American athletes were not widely recruited. He was taught the game of baseball by his father, Cat Mays, a fantastic baseball player in his own right, who had been denied the opportunities his son would get.  As a player, Mays was unstoppable, and gave 250% on the field. There was one day he played 32 innings in a double header on the same day, and very seldom missed a game during his 22 seasons with the Giants.  The guy left it all on the field, making amazing, over-the-shoulder catches in center field, throwing home from the outfield to nail opposing runners at the plate, hitting hundreds of home runs and batting in his teammates. Even more amazing, Mays managed to stay pretty classy off the field too, despite a messy divorce and his not-so-warm welcome from San Francisco fans when the Giants franchise left New York. He had a genuine commitment to his fans and to children, who were his special interest, tirelessly giving of his time and money to children’s organizations, even playing stickball with his young fans in the streets. Along with Jackie Robinson, Mays’s level of play and professionalism helped to pave the way for racial integration in sports. The level of discrimination he endured during his playing years, and the way he kept his head above the fray and just played ball, is inspiring.

This controversial 1955 Sports Illustrated cover, featuring Mays, his manager Leo Durocher, and Durocher's actress wife Laraine Day outraged white supremacists, who were horrified to see a white woman touching a black man.

And now, for the negative, which you may find surprising. For some reason, Hirsch felt we would get the best measure of the man by chronicling, in detail, almost every single at-bat and almost every play in the outfield Mays had in his 22-year career. Which was really cool at first, and then got really tedious. I felt like I was being beat over the head with the man’s greatness. I appreciate that Mays shattered dozens of records and was a tremendous athlete and all that. I got that within the first two hundred pages. The problem was that there were still three hundred-some pages to go.  Hirsch interspersed short vignettes about Mays’  life outside of baseball in between these incredibly detailed game summaries, and it was these personal parts of the book that I really enjoyed. I felt like I got to know Mays as a person, rather than a pile of statistics. I realize that Mays was a very guarded person and didn’t share much about his personal life and his feelings; maybe it’s amazing that we are allowed to know what we know about him (Hirsch’s book was authorized by Mays). There were about ten key games I think would have illustrated Mays’ greatness very well. I just didn’t understand the drive to include all the rest of them.

I love sports books. I’ve devoured almost everything John Feinstein has ever written, and loved Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. Kahn did a much better job of bringing us the Brooklyn Dodgers as men rather than athletes in his book, and his book was about a team rather than one player, which may be why I enjoyed Kahn’s book so much more.  This was just not a favorite for me. I learned more about Willie Mays than I ever bargained for, and saw some great footage of his best moments on YouTube.

Grade: B-


2 thoughts on “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend….James Hirsch

  1. Thanks for the review – especially the parts that you thought were negative. It’s been such a long time since I’ve read a baseball book that it’s about time I went looking for one. Not sure if this will be it, but perhaps….

    • There are so many better sports books out there. I really had high hopes for this one. I tend to like books that cover teams more than focusing on one person (John Feinstein’s Next Man Up , Mark Bowden’s Bringing the Heat, and Stefan Fatsis’ A Few Moments of Panic are great examples of books I liked), so it may just be a taste thing for me. Granted these are football books. 🙂 I would check out Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. I really liked that one.

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