An excerpt from the Sunday New York Times Book Review by Pete Hamill
Willie Mays, the Say Hey Kid, The Life, the Legend, By James S. Hirsch
Illustrated. 628 pp. Scribner. $30
A long time ago in America, there was a beautiful game called baseball. This was before 30 major-league teams were scattered in a blurry variety of divisions; before 162-game seasons and extended playoffs and fans who watched World Series games in thick down jackets; before the D.H. came to the American League; before AstroTurf on baseball fields and aluminum bats on sandlots; before complete games by pitchers were a rarity; before ballparks were named for corporations instead of individuals; and long, long before the innocence of the game was permanently stained by the filthy deception of steroids.
In that vanished time, there was a ballplayer named Willie Mays.
He came to a Manhattan ballpark named the Polo Grounds in 1951, when he was 20, to play for the New York Giants. Within a few months, he showed that he had the potential to become one of the greatest players ever to walk on the green grass of the major leagues. He could hit, he could run, he could catch, he could throw. And he brought to the playing of baseball a mysterious, almost magical quality that has disappeared from the professional game. Willie Mays brought us joy. All of us.
Even those of us who from birth were fanatical acolytes of the secular church of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers were in my DNA. My father was an immigrant from Belfast and didn’t become truly American until he got baseball. I’m sure that passionate embrace was true of millions of other immigrants, and was swiftly passed to their American children. My father took me to my first ballgame at Ebbets Field in 1946. I went with my own friends one June day in 1947, just before my 12th birthday, and saw Jackie Robinson in his first brave season, saw him get hit by a pitch, then steal second, then drive the pitcher nuts with his jittery feints, and then score on a single. And heard the gigantic roar from all the Brooklyn tribes. Bed-Stuy was joined at last with Bensonhurst and Park Slope, Flatbush and Bay Ridge. For Robinson and the team president, Branch Rickey, had done more than simply integrate baseball. They had integrated the stands. From the box seats to the bleachers, we were consumed by love of the Dodgers. The phrase “Dem Bums” was uttered with deep affection.
All those old passions rose in me again when reading James S. Hirsch’s fine new book, “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend.” Above all, I remembered Mays getting a thunderous round of applause when he first came to bat in games at Ebbets Field (the only other visiting player to hear such cheers was Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals). Even the most fanatical Dodger fans wanted Mays to go 3 for 4, steal two bases and make one astounding catch in center field, as long as the Dodgers won, 6-4. Here I must plead guilty to nostalgia, but not to sentimentality, which is always a lie about the past. Like millions of others, I was there. And I remember the joy of watching a young man named Mays play the game for everything it was worth. To all of us then, it was worth a lot.
“By the time he retired,” Hirsch writes, “he was an American icon whose athletic brilliance and stylistic bravado contributed to the assimilation of blacks during the turbulent civil rights era, a distinctive figure of ambition, sacrifice and triumph who became a lasting cultural touchstone for a nation in search of heroes.”
In his long, fascinating account, Hirsch tells the full story of Mays’s baseball life. He was born in 1931 in a mainly black mill town outside Birmingham, Ala., where he was raised by his father, Willie Mays Sr. (known as Cat), and his mother’s two younger sisters. His mother, Annie Satterwhite, never married his father, but the strapped Depression household was full of feminine warmth. Beyond that small community, the world could be ominous with danger. In Alabama, there were still living Americans who had been born into slavery. The Ku Klux Klan, the most enduring of American terrorist organizations, remained the ultimate enforcer of the iron rules of segregation. When Willie was 7, the family moved to Fairfield, a nearby town that was biracial. By then, the boy had discovered baseball, and he was tutored by Cat, who played semipro ball. Young Willie learned to hit and run and slide and catch and throw. The full curriculum. Most important, he learned the rules of the game. They were at once a challenge and a comfort.