This article was written by Andrew Goldblatt
This article was published in Summer 2010 Baseball Research Journal
On John Klima’s 2009 book about Willie Mays and the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons and James S. Hirsch’s 2010 book, “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend.”
Willie’s Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, the Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend
by John Klima
John Wiley and Sons (2009)
$25.95, hardcover. 303 pages
Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend
by James S. Hirsch
$30.00, hardcover. 628 pages
Willie Mays last played professional baseball in 1973, which means a generation of fans have heard stories about him and secretly thought, “No disrespect, Grandpa, but he probably wouldn’t hit .250 today.” Two recently published books seek to set the record straight: Mays would be just as dominant today as he was from 1954 through 1966, when he did everything required of a major leaguer better than anyone else. Believe it, children. He had that much talent.
And durability. Most fans are familiar with the concept of the five-tool player: one who can hit for average, hit for power, run, field, and throw. Durability is the sixth tool, because those other skills are useless if you’re on the disabled list. Over those peak years of 1954 to 1966, Mays set a record by playing at least 150 games in each of them. That iron-man quality gave him the edge over his equally talented contemporary Mickey Mantle and a more recent five-tool player, Ken Griffey Jr. Before him, Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb might have proven equal had power been valued in their time. Ruth and Williams were better hitters, but you don’t hear much about their baserunning or fielding. Mays’s contemporary Henry Aaron came close, but few claimed that Aaron ran, fielded, or threw better than Mays. Joe Morgan didn’t have Mays’s power, and Barry Bonds didn’t have Mays’s arm.
By the time he’s finished, Alex Rodriguez might turn out to be Mays’s equal, but, if you had a choice, which man would you want in your clubhouse? Because there’s a seventh tool, character, and Mays showed more of it in a single moment in 1965 than A-Rod has shown in his entire career. Character animates the other six tools but isn’t as easily measured (or even defined), which makes it an attractive subject for ambitious baseball writers.
In Willie’s Boys, John Klima traces Mays’s character back to the coal mines and steel mills of Birmingham, Alabama. The baseball diamond was the only place African American men working the mines and mills felt free, and as a result they played with an urgency and daring distinct from so-called white-folks’ ball. Mays’s father, William Howard “Cat” Mays, named for President Taft and nicknamed for his feline quickness, was a talented center fielder, but he played for fun. For him, the mills offered a better future. By the time Cat’s prodigiously gifted son joined the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League in 1948, however, the integration of the major leagues made it possible for black players to escape the “hot box”—Negro League slang for a run-down play, more broadly applied to mean an inescapable situation.
For the older Black Barons, including player-manager Piper Davis, Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough paradoxically made the hot box hotter, dealing a fatal blow to the Negro Leagues while offering few opportunities in white-folks’ ball. They were facing the end of their careers at the same time their 17-year-old center fielder was drawing attention from the Braves, Red Sox, White Sox, Indians, and Giants. Jealousy could have led them to destroy young Mays. Instead, they tutored him—not just about baseball, but about the challenges he would face in years ahead, racial and otherwise.
That noble choice is the heart of Klima’s book. “The men of the Negro Leagues remain largely lost to time, and it was my sincerest hope to illuminate their way of life, as well as their happiness, hopes, and dreams,” Klima writes. As a veteran of book-title battles, I may be projecting, but my guess is that Klima knows the title Willie’s Boys betrays his intentions.
Willie was the Birmingham Black Barons’ boy, not the other way around. It’s easy to imagine the marketing geniuses insisting that Willie’s name be in the title, because who would buy a book about Piper Davis? Klima had to submit, but to his credit, within the text he largely resists the temptation to characterize Mays as the king and his older teammates as the court.
Like ballplayers, writers need multiple tools to succeed: research, intellectual honesty, narration, and wordcraft. When it comes to research, Klima is “very desirable,” as Buck O’Neil wrote in his scouting report of Willard Brown. Klima interviewed Mays’s four surviving teammates from the Black Barons, combed archives and libraries in Birmingham, Memphis, and the University of Kansas, pored over stories in African American newspapers of the period, and even succeeded in getting quotes from a wary Mays. Barring the discovery of fresh documents, Klima’s account of the 1948 Negro League postseason and his mythbusting chronicle of the often conflicted, never straightforward efforts of major league teams to sign Mays figure to remain definitive for years.
And then there are the little gems Klima tosses off every few pages: the young Piper Davis inspired by Bull Connor’s radio broadcasts of Southern Association games—the same Bull Connor who turned dogs and hoses on Martin Luther King’s civil-rights demonstrators in 1963; the perfidy of Bullet Joe Rogan and the other umpires working home games for the Kansas City Monarchs, part of an ugly rivalry between the Black Barons and the Monarchs’ white owner, Tom Baird; Mays and Jackie Robinson playing against each other for the first time on October 12, 1948, years before they faced off as Giant and Dodger; the fiery demise of the Black Barons’ beloved team bus as it passed through the Holland Tunnel en route to the Polo Grounds the day Mays’s future as a Giant was sealed. At times the detail gets a little too thick, but Klima’s excitement over what he’s discovered is contagious.
Other than the occasional forced nod to the book’s title, Klima consistently lets the evidence guide his judgment rather than the other way around, and his chronological narrative structure is sturdy and straightforward. If Klima has a weakness, it’s with that last tool, wordcraft. If a sentence like “But the Black Barons had to win at Blues Stadium, which was a you, it’s probably because you’ve grown accustomed to a pervasive blight on modern baseball writing: the conviction that the more strained the metaphor, the better the sentence. It’s the literary equivalent of a long, looping swing, and it produces the same result. And Klima isn’t always clear. I often found myself reading sentences—sometimes whole paragraphs—twice, trying to puzzle out Klima’s intent. When Willie Mays was struggling to hit .200 in the summer of 1948, Piper Davis gave him simple advice: “Aim, don’t peek!” In other words, square up the pitch and take a level swing; your power will flow from there. Writers as serious about craft as the Black Barons were about baseball would do well to heed Davis’s words.
In Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, James S. Hirsch tracks Mays’s character through his entire life rather than through one formative experience. Wordcraft is not an issue here. Hirsch has been a reporter for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and has written four other nonfiction books. His good fundamentals make for smooth, pleasurable reading. Like Klima’s, his narrative is chronological, although he interjects chapters on marriage, housing problems, race relations, and other concerns to break up what might otherwise prove a monotonous march of seasons. And Hirsch too has exhaustively researched his subject.
The challenge for this project is intellectual honesty. As it says right on the cover, the book is authorized by Willie Mays. Just how independent of his subject is the writer? Hirsch addresses the concern in an author’s note. Mays sat for interviews, shared his personal archives, and encouraged friends and associates to speak with Hirsch. In exchange, Mays had the right to correct factual errors (he found only one) and to receive a share of the book’s profits, which go largely to his Say Hey Foundation. Most critically, Hirsch retained the right to make his own interpretations and conclusions. Though he is sympathetic to Mays, his book is no hagiography. Mays’s warts are contextualized, not ignored or excused.
Hirsch duly recounts the on-field exploits that confirm Mays as baseball’s greatest all-around player, and it’s a service that he’s gathered them in one place for easy reference. But his real contribution is to give us a credible and comprehensive portrait of Mays the man. From birth, Mays exhibited a gentle, joyful—and hence vulnerable—spirit that brought out a ferociously protective streak in the adults around him. Cat Mays was the first to recognize that Willie blossomed when praised and withered when scolded. Despite long work-related absences, he provided the emotional support young Willie needed. Always the life of the party, Cat was also a deeply private man who seldom shared his inner thoughts. Willie absorbed that dual aspect of his father’s personality.
Annie Satterwhite, Willie’s mother, never married Cat, and entrusted Willie to the care of her younger sister Sarah. Just thirteen years old when she essentially became Willie’s mother, Aunt Sarah was also considerate of his sensitive nature, excusing him when it was time to slaughter an animal for dinner. She inculcated a fanatical work ethic in Willie. “He wasn’t raised to do anything halfway,” said his cousin Loretta, who grew up in the same household. Aunt Sarah defined family for Mays as a place of acceptance, trust, and protection. But she didn’t provide affection, and as a result Mays became deeply reserved, to the point where his wife Mae would dare him to kiss her in public and he’d answer, “You’re crazy.”
For the anxious six-tool player promoted to the Giants shortly after his twentieth birthday, success depended on which facet of his character would dominate. Striving to excel just as Aunt Sarah taught him, he pressed—and went 1-for-26. Had manager Leo Durocher berated him or returned him to the minors, his confidence might have been ruined. But Durocher (cleverly used by Hirsch as comic relief) promised the despairing Mays that “as long as I’m the manager of the Giants, you’re my center fielder.” Mays understood: This was his family now, where he was accepted, trusted, and protected. Out popped the joyful persona that soon had New Yorkers calling him the Say Hey Kid. Though just one side of his character, it forever shaped the nation’s perception of him and cemented his place in the American psyche.
When Durocher left the Giants after 1955, Mays had to face the world without a father figure, a challenge compounded by the Giants’ move to San Francisco in 1958. Mays was the best player on the field and, except for an inability to handle money, irreproachable off it. He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t chase women, and stayed out of the tabloids. But he wasn’t the exuberant Say Hey Kid anymore. There were whispers about his aloofness and complaints that he was coddled. More seriously, he was belittled as a purely instinctive player and, as the civilrights era progressed, characterized as an Uncle Tom.
Mays bristled at the criticism, but outwardly his gentle nature prevailed. He wouldn’t dignify demeaning remarks with a response unless cornered by interviewers, and then he would almost always turn the other cheek. Inwardly, however, he fell back on his emotional inheritance from Cat and Aunt Sarah, growing increasingly suspicious of strangers and reticent with friends. He became “a loner who does not like to be alone,” in Hirsch’s apt phrase, trusting only pets (he adores poodles), children, and fellow players, even though some players numbered among his loudest critics.
This is where Hirsch comes closest to losing his distance. He feels compelled to defend Mays against the charges of stupidity and submissiveness. We’re told that even the feat popularly deemed Mays’s most stupendously instinctive—the over-the-shoulder catch and whirling throw off Vic Wertz’s line drive to the deepest part of the Polo Grounds during the 1954 World Series—was thought out beforehand. As he raced to the wall with his back to home plate, Mays planned the throw. “To keep my momentum, to get it working for me, I have to turn very hard and short and throw the ball from exactly the point that I caught it. The momentum goes into my turn and up through my legs into that throw. That’s what I did.”
When it came to civil rights, Mays and his most vocal critic, Jackie Robinson, reflected the larger divide within the African American community between the nonviolent, patient approach of Martin Luther King and the militant, confrontational tactics of Malcolm X. In defending Mays’s lead-by-example efforts to combat racial discrimination, Hirsch criticizes Robinson as few have done in recent years. “Robinson could not recognize that any great social movement needed a continuum of voices—the militants who would prod a reluctant country to change, and the conciliators who tried to find common ground among hostile factions,” he writes. Mays the conciliator (who termed Dr. King “my president”) may not have issued statements to the press and carried signs at rallies, but whenever the child of a bigot caught a fly ball and said, “Hey, I’m Willie Mays!” Jim Crow waned.
In both instances, Hirsch’s arguments are persuasive. And it’s important for Mays’s authorized biographer to set the record straight. But these criticisms of Mays were made nearly half a century ago, and time has exposed the absurdity of both. Dwelling on them to the extent Hirsch does may be the surest sign that even as Mays approaches his eightieth birthday, he still elicits a protective impulse from those around him.
For Hirsch, Mays’s core character was most vividly displayed on August 22, 1965, when he stopped a potential riot at Candlestick Park after the Giants’ Juan Marichal assaulted Dodger catcher Johnny Roseboro with a bat. The fight between the rival teams was genuine, and the fans were braying for more blood than the stream flowing from the two-inch gash in Roseboro’s skull. Mays somehow reached Roseboro, led him to the Dodger dugout, and held him while the Dodger trainer examined the wound. The fighting eventually ceased, and when play resumed, Mays, in a uniform speckled with Roseboro’s blood, hit a three-run homer off Sandy Koufax to win the game.
Asked why he pulled Roseboro from the fray, Mays said, “I hate to see good friends fighting like that.” Years after all pretense of innocence was gone, Mays still saw baseball players as family. He still played every day, no matter how banged up he was, out of loyalty to his teammates and to the fans who paid to watch him. Above all he remained a peacemaker, a gentle soul for whom baseball was not just a source of income, but a medium for sharing joy. As Hirsch summarizes: “Baseball has always been an imperfect institution, but as much as anyone, Mays evokes its highest ideals.”
Top that, A-Rod.
ANDREW GOLDBLATT is author of “The Giants and the Dodgers: Four Cities, Two Teams, One Rivalry” (McFarland, 2003) and contributed the entry on the Giants to the “Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Clubs” (Greenwood Press, 2006). His book about current major-league umpires is expected in early 2011.