My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As a fan of the San Francisco Giants, I knew all about Willie Mays. He played center field, had a great arm and hit lots of home runs. His nickname was the “Say Hey Kid” and he made an amazing catch in the 1954 World Series (I have a copy of the famous photograph on the wall of my office at work). So, yeah, I knew everything about Willie Mays.
At least, I thought I knew plenty about Mays, but after reading James Hirsch’s entertaining biography, I realized that there was a lot that I didn’t know before. Like how when Mays was growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, he played baseball, football and basketball (many people thought football was his best sport, but since there weren’t black quarterbacks in college or pro football, Willie focused on baseball). He played for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues and was one of the last Major League stars to start his career playing in the Negro Leagues; after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball, the Negro Leagues went into a decline. Mays loved sports cars, and bought big flashy ones with his major league paycheck. He hardly ever took a day off, usually playing all but one or two of the games each season. If asked to visit a school, kid’s club or children’s hospital, Mays would do his very best to get there, because he always enjoyed interacting with kids.
Hirsch’s biography is chock-full of interesting facts and anecdotes like the ones above. Hirsch turns in a balanced report of Mays, not glossing over his relationship or money troubles, and talking frankly about both the racial insults Mays endured, and the criticisms he took from other black Americans for not speaking out about segregation and racism. But the Willie Mays that comes through the book is a genuine and very likeable human being, the kind of person that is easy to root for, not just because of his stellar play on the field, but also because of his positive attitude and actions off it. It makes me wish I could have seen him play.