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Willie Mays

This article is more than 10 years old.
Toward the end of James Hirsch’s superb biography of baseball’s greatest player, there is a charming anecdote. Hirsch describes Willie Mays at home in his easy chair, half awake before the television set.

“He’ll be watching a game and the announcer will pose some baseball trivia question,” Hirsch writes. “'Me'! Mays will answer. And then he’ll rest his eyes.”

It is no small claim to contend that James Hirsch has done Willie Mays justice in this book. Mays combined his extraordinary talents with an infectious enthusiasm for the game, thereby giving several decades worth of baseball fans a player to cherish. Beyond that, his career began early enough so that he was the only black player on the first minor league team that employed him. His story, like the stories of Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and Satchel Paige, transcends the game and reflects the prejudice and daily tension black players faced and the grace with which they handled their challenges. Though he has been criticized for not being a more vocal champion of equal rights when he was a celebrated athlete, Hirsch argues that Mays did what he could within the limits of his experience and capacities, and he makes a convincing case that simply by being so good at what he did, Mays altered attitudes wherever he went.

My bias in favor of this book stems in part from my unshakable conviction that nobody has ever played baseball more brilliantly and more entertainingly than Willie Mays. Beyond that, I grew up a New York Giants fan, and the team took my loyalties west when the Giants moved to San Francisco. I watched, read about, and fantasized over the Giants as only a small boy – and then a larger boy – could. James Hirsch reports on page 231 of his book that on one Halloween, I dressed as Willie Mays, corked face and all. The story is true, and I am proud and happy to be mentioned in the book, which I would have enjoyed thoroughly even if that little kid in the Giants uniform half a century ago had been left out.

This program aired on February 11, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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