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There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away.
—BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, Thunder Road
It always seemed that there were ghosts in the eyes of Willie Mays. Here he was: the greatest living baseball player. The Say Hey Kid. Numbers could never capture Willie Mays's genius as a ballplayer, but, oh, he has numbers. He is the only player in baseball history with 500 doubles, 100 triples, 600 homers and 300 stolen bases. He was, surely, the best defensive centerfielder in major league history. He played with a brilliance and joy that defined baseball for a generation, from Ethel Barrymore* to Woody Allen† to every American president for the last 30 years.
*"Isn't Willie Mays wonderful?" she said in an interview on her 75th birthday.
†Woody Allen's reasons to live, from his film Manhattan: "I would say Groucho Marx, to name one thing. And Willie Mays. And the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony."
"Willie could beat you every way you could be beaten," my friend and Negro leagues icon Buck O'Neil used to say all the time, and this was true.
But Buck also said this: "Careful around Willie, now. He has a lot of sadness and pain in him." And that seemed true also. Mays rarely smiled when I saw him at events and autograph signings and appearances. He would snap at seemingly simple requests. His face would go blank when people—hundreds a day—tried in vain to explain to him how much The Great Willie Mays (and The Great became part of his name) meant to them.
I once wrote that being Willie Mays—or Mickey Mantle or Michael Jordan or Bruce Springsteen, for that matter—must be like living your wedding day again and again. Everyone wants your time, your attention and your presence next to him in a photo. Everyone wants to tell you how much he loves you. Mays always seemed worn down. Ghosts in the eyes.
Maybe a year ago, an author named Jim Hirsch e-mailed to say that there was much more to Willie Mays than I had seen. He had written a book about Mays that he hoped would show the man behind the ghosts. Hirsch had worked, on and off, for eight years to gain Mays's trust and to get him to open up.
"What people don't realize," he wrote, "is that the most appealing parts of Willie Mays have nothing to do with baseball."