Willie Mays

The Life, the Legend

By James S. Hirsch

Authorized by Willie Mays

Scribner's. 628 pp. $30

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Reviewed by Bill Lyon


There he is, back to the ball, racing through the autumn shadows, running out from under his cap, he and the batted ball more than 400 feet from home and climbing, and there, see, like a collector of butterflies, he reaches out and delicately scoops the ball, and even as it settles into his glove he is planting his lead foot and spinning 'round and, like a discus hurler, unleashing the ball on a line to second.

The announcer, having nearly swallowed his tongue, says that a lot of people are pretty sure they have just been witness to an optical illusion.

Fifty-six years later, it lives on in grainy black and white, arguably the single most memorable play in all of sports, known simply as The Catch. It has come to be the signature legacy of Willie Mays, who is nominated by some as the greatest player in baseball history. It occurred in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. It prevented two runs, maybe three, and demoralized the Cleveland Indians, who were swept by Mays' New York Giants. "I had it all the way," Mays allegedly told teammate Monte Irvin as they jogged in. He was serious.

To those who suggested it was a phenomenon unlikely ever to be repeated, like some incredibly fortuitous capture of a bolt of blue lightning, Mays' cousin, Loretta, recalled: "When Willie would wash dishes he would throw them up and reach out for them and dive and catch them. That's where he got that catch from."

Rarely, if ever, has a single play in any sport been as thoroughly researched and as exhaustively re-created as has The Catch, which is part of the latest attempt to get the elusive Mays to sit still for his portrait. The book is Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend, and it is an earnest, well-intentioned, officially authorized biographical effort, a 628-page tome that is impressively meticulous, perhaps to a fault - in spots, the reader is overwhelmed with detail until he is left numb.

Mays is famous for ducking those who have attempted to chronicle his life, but he has relented at last and given his approval to James S. Hirsch, who has written four nonfiction books, whose scholarly digging is admirable, and who gets bonus points for persistence - his campaign to capture Mays stretched over seven years.

Finally, at 78, Mays has relented, perhaps, the author suggests, because he is sensing his mortality. As for the book, surely there can't be anything left unsaid about the subject. And with good cause.

Mays was built like a thoroughbred, with a torso you could strike a match on. He could beat you with his bat, his arm, or his feet. He was the consummate five-tool player, a .302 career hitter, a slugger of 660 home runs, thief of 338 bases, and still the holder of more putouts than anyone.

Willie Mays' glove, it was rhapsodized, is where triples went to die.

Opposing pitchers said the only sure way to get Mays out was to hit him in the back and then pick him off first base.

But it was not only his incandescent talent that elevated him - it was the unadulterated joy, the unbridled exuberance, the innocence with which he played the game. Here, clearly, was a man who cherished his work. Such an approach was laudable then, and, in stark contrast to the dour, scowling ways of many of today's mercenaries, would be even more remarkable now.

"Baseball and me," he said, "we had what you might call a love affair."

In another emotional burst he proclaimed: "I'd play for free."

It was only a small exaggeration - he was, after all, richly compensated. The years did their work, however, and toward the end ground him down. He played the game with such ferocity that he would periodically pass out.

He played for the Giants on both coasts, the Polo Grounds in New York with its vast outfield acreage, and Candlestick Park in San Francisco, with its chill, its capricious winds, and the fog. He gave baseball 20 shimmering seasons, and then at the end baseball gave him two more in the form of a curtain call back in New York, with the Mets.

It was a poignant, bittersweet farewell. His body was riddled with hurts, and the crowning ignominy came when he misplayed a routine fly ball and sprawled ingloriously on the turf. For those who had seen him through the 1950s and '60s, it was painful to watch. And he knew it was time to retire before any more tarnish dulled the legend.

"When you're 42 and hitting .211," he said, "the people of America shouldn't have to see a guy play who can't produce."

Mays broke into the major leagues just as baseball was starting to admit black players, and he was criticized by some, most notably Jackie Robinson, for not speaking out when the civil rights movement began.

Mays' response was to endure rather than speak out. It was his nature - win them over with your play. In 1950, he joined Trenton as the only black player in the Interstate League. His first appearance was in Hagerstown, Md., on a Friday night.

"They were calling me every name they could think of," he said. "But by Sunday they were cheering me."

In a nice turn of phrase, Hirsch calls him "a man of deference at a time of defiance."

He had an affinity for children, and through the Willie Mays Foundation has raised millions for it and other charities.

"Kids, unlike adults, will appreciate your efforts and never betray you," he said.

And what of the claim by some that Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player of all time? Hirsch states his case but, in my opinion, not convincingly enough. Babe Ruth is my No. 1. Being No. 2 behind George Herman Ruth hardly detracts from Mays.

Hirsch settles for this: "Ruth was baseball's most dominant. Mays was its greatest master."

The man himself says: "I did things that no one else did."

No argument there.

Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer sports columnist.