Published this month, Willie Mays—The Life, The Legend certainly does a better job than any book before of getting at what it means to be Willie Mays. It begins in 1951, when a scared 20-year-old is called up to the New York Giants. "What if I don't make it?" he asks owner Horace Stoneham. As the book continues, you see Mays lose that fragility. You also see him lose his innocence.
"It always seemed to me that when the fans cheered, I did better," Mays says at one point.
"You go into a slump," Mays says at another point, "and that's the worst sadness I've ever come across."
Mays was the most prominent black athlete in America from the time in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus through the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. In 1963 a TV documentary called A Man Named Mays was broadcast just three weeks after the 16th Street Church in Birmingham was bombed. Because of racial tension, the documentary was blacked out in Birmingham—Willie Mays's hometown.
Mays was always uncomfortable being in the middle during the Civil Rights movement. He was so visible that he was a clear target for bigots. But he also did not have the soul of a crusader, and he was savaged by many civil rights activists, particularly Jackie Robinson, who thought he should have done more. It was unfair. Willie Mays could only be Willie Mays. He could only change hearts and minds by playing beautiful baseball.
"I changed the hatred to laughter," Mays says, and one of the more touching stories in the book is about a Little League game in Texas where the grandson of a Ku Klux Klan member catches a fly ball and is heard shouting, "Look at me! I'm Willie Mays!"
Hirsch does not deny Mays's crustiness and reclusiveness—"He will never be as happy as he was playing between the white lines," he says—but he does try to soften his moodiness. He says Mays is always surrounded by friends. Mays is proud of his life. He has ridden on Air Force One. The book also has brought Mays out in public again. I have never seen him look happier than he did on Feb. 10 on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The ghosts were gone from his eyes.
Stewart: "I want to run down some of your stats."
Mays: "They're too long!"
My favorite scene in the book has nothing to do with Mays's scoring from first base on a single or making his breathtaking catch in the 1954 World Series or playing stickball in the New York City streets.