Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend

Article excerpt

James G. Hirsch. Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend. New York: Scribner, 2010. 628 pp. Cloth, $30.00.

In this authorized biography, James G. Hirsch, the author of a fine history of the 1924 Tulsa race riot and a biography of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, provides an opportunity for the enigmatic Willie Mays to present his story. Often perceived by his critics as a gifted athlete who failed to use his privileged position to address civil rights issues, Mays asserts that in his own quiet, unassuming manner he did advance the race, letting his play on the field do the talking. Relying upon both print and interview sources to describe ballgames which he never had the opportunity to witness, Hirsch does an excellent job of chronicling Mays's exploits on the field. Nevertheless, it is the voice of Mays as a man explaining his approach to integrating a white world, a topic upon which the ballplayer has usually remained silent, that makes this biography a unique contribution to the literature on baseball and race.

Hirsch argues that Mays embodied the assimilation philosophy and approach of Booker T. Washington. Born on May 6,1931, Willie Howard Mays Jr. grew up in Fairfield, Alabama, near notoriously racist Birmingham. His parents, Cat Mays and Annie Satterwhite, never married. Young Willie was essentially raised by his aunt Sarah May, while Cat provided for the extended family from his wages in the steel mills and playing baseball. In addition to teaching his son the game of baseball, Cat instructed Willie to avoid conflict with Southern whites. Hirsch concludes, "Long after the civil rights movement had reached the South, Willie Mays continued to embrace those lessons of hard work and self-improvement as well as compliance and accommodation" (21).

Willie also internalized his father's warnings about the dangers that tobacco and alcohol posed for an athlete, and he neither smoked nor drank in his adult life. As a high school student, Mays focused upon athletics, but in 1947 he joined the professional Birmingham Black Barons, bringing his amateur career to a halt. With the Barons, Mays grew under the tutelage of Lorenzo Davis, who heeded the advice of Cat Mays that his son responded to praise and encouragement rather than criticism. With the Black Barons, young Mays learned to play the game of baseball with an intensity and flair; a good ballplayer was also an entertainer with obligations to the paying customers. In addition, Mays told Hirsch that his experience with the Barons taught him that defiance was self-defeating. The players did suffer racial indignities from whites, but they enjoyed a privileged position within the black community.

At nineteen, Mays was signed by the New York Giants, and in 1950 he was the only black player with the Trenton Giants of the Class B Interstate League. Although he was subject to racial taunts by opposing players and fans, his work ethic and outstanding play earned the respect of his teammates. Mays asserts that the solidarity of a baseball team was able to trump racial considerations, and he enjoyed an outstanding season with the Trenton franchise, hitting.353.

Mays opened the 1951 season with the Class AAA Minneapolis Millers, but on May 24 the young outfielder was summoned to join the struggling New York Giants. He was welcomed as a savior by Giants owner Horace Stoneham, with whom he established a friendly but paternalistic relationship. Mays was also embraced by legendary manager Leo Durocher, who understood that the ballplayer responded best to encouragement and assumed the role of a father figure to his young protege. Although some perceived the relationship to resemble that of a slave owner who enjoyed showing off his most treasured property, Mays adored Durocher. Mays needed the steady leadership of Durocher during a rookie season in which he sometimes stumbled at the plate. Hitting .274 with twenty home runs, Mays was spectacular in the field, leading the Giants to the 1951 National League pennant and earning the Rookie of the Year Award. …