Baseball lauds five-tool players, those rare ones who can hit for average, hit home runs, steal bases, play flawless defense and throw out runners from the outfield. If such players are held in high esteem, meet Willie Mays Ė perhaps baseballís only six-tool player. That is, if panache were a tool. More than being arguably the greatest centerfielder of all time, Mays brought a certain joy to his game, perhaps reminding everyone of the gameís inextricable link to oneís childhood. Whether it was his aggressive base-running or the laser-accurate throws from centerfield to nail the errant runner at home, Mays performed with an attitude that was in stark contrast to the grimness with which most players played.
Willie Mays, however, had eschewed having his life and career chronicled, save for a couple of hastily put-together books. James S. Hirsch tried for seven years to breach Mayís defense and thankfully, finally succeeded. Thankfully, because Maysí career straddled both sides of the Civil Rights movement, and also the New York Giants sojourn in the city and its subsequent relocation to San Francisco. Thus, he occupied a central role as a black baseball player. Hirsch tracks Maysís life from a hardscrabble Alabama upbringing to his zenith as baseballís finest player.
Mays joined a New York Giants team that was playing third fiddle to both the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Giants owner Horace Stoneham needed Mays both to attract ticket buyers and to spark his moribund club. In his rookie year, Mays was the on-deck player who watched Bobby Thompsonís home run that clinched the pennant for the Giants and completed an amazing come-from-behind win over the Dodgers. His role with the team increased geometrically in the years to come and, while Mays performed his role admirably, his teamís fortunes typically took a nosedive. Hirsch vividly describes Maysís play on the field and his offseason activities that not too rarely created some controversy or the other.
It is no secret to longtime observers that Jackie Robinson was critical of Mays remaining silent in the race struggle. Hirsch does not shy away from this and confronts Mays directly on this question. While his baseball prowess insulated Mays from most racial issues, it did not bypass him altogether. Using newspaper accounts and interviews with the people involved, Hirsch devotes an entire chapter to the problems that Mays and his wife had in buying a house in San Francisco. The seller, fearing retribution from angry neighbors for selling to a black man, rescinded the offer at the last minute. In Hirschís poignant description, Mays handled it admirably, defusing what could have been an incendiary situation.
Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio are the exemplars of baseball outfielders who underscored their importance to their team repeatedly. That Willie Mays was black and that he dazzled defensively in addition to being a sublime hitter makes his life and career singular. Hirschís well-observed book makes this perfectly clear.