NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
A new authorized biography of Willie Mays came out a couple of weeks ago and the all-time baseball great made the rounds of the talk shows to talk about indignity and triumph, about the catch that came to symbolize his career - I had it all the way, he told us, again - and about breaking racial barriers and being called an Uncle Tom about a debut when he embodied youth and power and joy and about hanging on a little too long and letting us see the ravages of time.
Today, we have the opportunity to speak with the man who wrote the book that prompted this reconsideration of Willie Mays. If you'd like to speak with James Hirsch about Willie Mays, his life and his legend, give us a call, 800-989-8255. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you could join the conversation at our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
James Hirsch joins us today from our member station in St. Louis, KWMU. And his book is called "Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend."
And it's nice to have you with us today.
Mr. JAMES HIRSCH (Author, "Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend"): Thank you, Neal. It's good to be here.
CONAN: And it is amazing to think about the time - the span of time of Willie Mays's career. He obviously begins in the area of the Negro Leagues, literally a world of black and white, and sort of then explodes unto the national scene.
Mr. HIRSCH: Yes. He joined the New York Giants in 1951. And it was really America in its post-war zenith and baseball and its zenith in terms of its popularity. And in New York, you know, it was really the capital of the baseball world. You had the Giants, the Yankees and the Dodgers, three hall of fame centerfielders, Mantle, Duke Snider and Willie. And it was great for Willie because it brought so much attention to him, the media attention, it put him on the big stage from the outset.
CONAN: And you describe him as a transformational baseball player, a man who brought, well, not only an incredible combination of speed and power, but the verve and the life of Negro League Baseball.
Mr. HIRSCH: Right. I mean, what he learned in the Negro Leagues is that your first job wasn't so much to win. It was to entertain the fans where the entertainment options in the black community in that era were not as great as they are now. Of course, so, baseball was really a central part of life. And you would go to the games and what they really - the players wanted the fans to leave the ballpark with something to talk about. So they figured out plays of, you know, dazzling base running plays, throwing the ball behind your back. And Willie took those kinds of skills and imported them into the Major Leagues.
And of course, Willie was known for the basket catch, for the hat flying off his head. His rookie season, he made a play where he was running for a baseball in center field, the hat flies off his head, he grabs the ball with one had and grabs his hat with the other. It was called the double catch. That's what he brought to the game.
CONAN: That kind of ability to connect with the fans. And he became almost instantly a national phenomenon, at the same time, you point out, an extremely private person.
Mr. HIRSCH: Willie's an intensely private person and also very modest. He doesn't like talking about himself or his accomplishments. And he's been this way from the time he entered Major League Baseball and all throughout his career and beyond. If you ask him, well, Willie, you know, weren't you the greatest player who ever played? His first response will be, well, you have to talk to someone else. Let them say. He's very humble. And that's, I think, you know, in this age of self promotion, his reticence is very admirable.
CONAN: To this day, though, decides he would rather not deal with controversy. For example, that great charge of the New York Giants who finally tied the Brooklyn Dodgers in the last day of the season, or second to the last day of the season, and went on to win in a three-game playoff, the shot heard around the world and all of that sort of stuff well, somewhat tarnished, as you point out, by the revelation that the manager of the Giants had set up a telescope out in the centerfield stands and in the Polo Grounds to intercept the other team's signals.
Mr. HIRSCH: Yes. And that has put of a tarnish on Bobby Thompson's homerun. And we asked Willie about that, you know, were you getting signals? Willie will quickly point out that he was actually in a terrible slump the last month of the season and that lasted throughout the playoffs. So he said, if it was out there, it sure didn't help me.
CONAN: But, in other words, he doesn't answer the question. He didn't say whether he was getting signals or not. He's saying, if I did...
Mr. HIRSCH: No.
CONAN: ...it didn't help.
Mr. HIRSCH: That's right.
CONAN: And this is an approach he took to all kinds of things until the steroids issue of this day, and of course, that has to deal with his godson, Barry Bonds.
Mr. HIRSCH: Right. You know, thing to you remember about Willie: He grew up in the Deep South in the 1930s and 1940s. And he was taught at a very young age, if you're going to survive in the white world, you had to keep your mouth shut. You had to keep your head down. You couldn't make waves. You have enormous natural ability, enormous intellectual ability on the baseball field so you can succeed. The only thing that prevent you from success is if you run a foul of white authorities, which was an understandable position, given the - what the climate was in the Deep South at the time.
And Willie has never changed from that. You know, he's always believed that his celebrity was perishable. If he were to say the wrong thing, create controversy, all the goodwill that he's built up could be gone. And he's been that way ever since.
And in terms of steroids, you know, Willie isn't going to criticize Barry Bonds, not because Barry is his godson, but Willie isn't going to criticize any baseball player, past or present, because to Willie, baseball is his family. And he will no more turn his back on a family member than he would turn his back on a fellow baseball player.
CONAN: We're talking with James Hirsch, author of "Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend." You've seen Willie Mays being interviewed on all the talk shows these past few weeks. This is why it's an authorized biography, James Hirsch. And what does that mean? Did Willie have a veto power over some things you wanted to put in the book?
Mr. HIRSCH: No, Willie had no editorial control. The agreement we had was that, Willie would read the manuscript in advance, and can make any factual changes, but he couldn't make changes that we didn't agree that I didn't agree with. And really to Willie's credit, you know, he allowed me to take a complete look in his life to talk about not just the accomplishments, but also the disappointments.
And what I didn't really appreciate about Willie when I first met him, was that he's very proud of that life. So at the end of the day, I think, he welcomed the opportunity for essentially a complete outsider to come in and validate what he's done, both on and off the field, to create a clear record of what his legacy is.
CONAN: Warts and all?
Mr. HIRSCH: Yes.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. We'll start with Will(ph), calling from Albany in California.
WILL (Caller): Yes. Hello. Everyone knows about the catch in the 54th World Series and has scene of footage, but there is - and there was a much more amazing piece of footage of Willie Mays at 39 years old at Candlestick Park, leaping over Barry Bobby Bonds, Barry Bonds' father - who was a great young athlete in his own right, catching the ball, robbing - it was almost a home run, it was at the fence - knocking himself out, landing on the ground. I've always thought that was his greatest catch.
He actually told Bob Costas that he thought that was his greatest catch. I wonder if Mr. Hirsch, if this rings a bell with him. Did Willie ever talk about what he thought his greatest catch was?
Mr. HIRSCH: Yeah. I mean, you're referring to the ball hit by Bobby Tolan, and that was one of his greatest catches. It when you ask Willie that question, you know, what was your greatest catch, or name the your five top catches, he tends to beg off of that because he he's again, it goes back to that sense of modesty and humility. He's very uncomfortable bragging about himself. But, you know, certainly...
CONAN: Yet it's interesting - and well, he does mention that catch in the book. And there was another catch in his rookie year at Ebbets Field, where one of the rare times that he left his feet, diving to make a catch and then almost to knock himself out and perhaps James Hirsch suggests it may have suffered a slight concussion in the process, but made a great catch in the alley in Ebbets Field.
Nevertheless - and thanks for the call - he bristles when people say that play in the World Series, where he caught Vic Wertz's fly ball to the neither reaches of the out field in the polo grounds, that that was a great instinctual play, because he was thinking all the way.
Mr. HIRSCH: Right. And this of course, in 1954 World Series. And many people have seen the film footage, of course, but the footage doesn't really capture the greatness or the artistry of the play because it just looks like he's running back and makes the catch. The straightaway center field in polo grounds with 500 feet, so you don't have a sense of how far he ran and how fast, because the ball itself was not a high fly-ball, it was kind of tailing line drive.
So as Willie is running back to try to catch the ball, he's thinking that he is going to catch it, but the real problem is that there's a man on second base. And it the polo grounds, it was relatively easy to tag up from second base and score on a very deep fly-ball to straight away to center, so Willie is trying to think, how can I get the ball back to the in-field quickly enough to keep the runner from on second, from scoring.
And the way Willie describes it, it was all about using his momentum. He had to pivot, and then the momentum, he says, went from his ankles, through his legs, through his torso and out his arm. And that enables him to make this great throw that you can't see on in the film footage, but the second base umpire, Jack O'Conlin, said it was the greatest throw he'd ever seen. And it kept the runner in second from scoring.
CONAN: We're talking about, of course, the incomparable, Willie Mays. And one of the things that I found most interesting in your book, was that first period of his career when he was in New York. And of course, the apex of that was the 1954 championship. Well, after that, Willie Mays committed the unforgivable sin, of not being 23 anymore.
Mr. HIRSCH: It's really is interesting when you read the journalism about Willie in those early years. There's always a sense of lament from the reporters that everyone loved Willie when he was 20, 21 years old, young, innocent, vulnerable. But as Willie got older, you know, he lost some of that and the reporters almost complained about it.
In 1954, the New York Times said that, Willie Mays could be the most popular player in baseball since Babe Ruth, as long as he doesn't loose his, quote, "childlike simplicity and innocence." Well, you know, guess what, Willie Mays grew up and he couldn't always be that little child. And some reporters always begrudge the fact that couldn't be 23.
CONAN: An email from Stu(ph). No other word for how he played. He played with panache. And I think, that's good a word as any. Let's see if get another caller in on the conversation. This is Dan(ph). Dan, with us from Menasha in Wisconsin.
DAN (Caller): Yes. Menasha. It's great to I heard you here when you did an interview here in Appleton. Just want to quickly say, 20-years ago when my boys were eight and 10, we have a Willie Mays card, and I saw it was Fullerton, California for his where he lived - and I sent a self-stamped envelop and has a card and they wrote a littler letter, saying how much they admired him and he was a great ball player and could we have your autograph please, Mr. Mays. He signed it, sent it back. And I tried that with Willie Mays - with Mickey Mantle in Dallas, Texas, where he had lived and never heard a damn thing.
CONAN: Well, might not have gotten to him, but you never know anyway.
Mr. HIRSCH: And, Neal, if I could interject one thing, and I'm sure the reason Willie did it is that it came from kids. Willie has this long history, dating back from when he first came up with the Giants just having a soft spot for kids. And it's not driven by any publicist or by any agent. That's the way he's always been. To this day, he goes to Stanford Hospital near where he lives and he sees the kids on the cancer ward and he signs balls for them. He's less likely to do that for adults. But kids, he trusts, he knows that they will never betray him.
DAN: And we still have that card. It's just lovely.
CONAN: Thank you, Dan.
DAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with James Hirsch about his book "Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go to Andrew(ph) calling from Roanoke in Virginia.
ANDREW (Caller): Hey. It's great topic. I remember actually doing a -sort of a famous person's report on Mays when I was a kindergarten. I was - became a big fan of his although most of my life, I've been a bigger Hank Aaron fan, being a Braves fan and all. But one of the things I was wondering about this, you know, Mays came up in an era where the South of the Major League was basically, you know, St. Louis or Philadelphia, and that's suddenly expanded through the West Coast, and -which was obviously very - it was sort of coming to an end of its own. It was becoming more urbanized, more suburbanized I guess you would say.
It was sort of - it was definitely a new frontier still, wasn't as connected to the East Coast. What was the racial situation like that he encountered on the West Coast versus the East Coast is what I'm wondering?
Mr. HIRSCH: Well, because Willie and Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, and at the time, San Francisco liked to tout itself as a very sophisticated and tolerant city. But in fact, when Willie got there, he was initially denied buying the house that he wanted to buy. And this became a very public controversy. And Willie himself never spoke out, critically, against the builder or the developer or the real estate agent. The politicians got involved, and ultimately Willie was able to buy the house that he wanted.
But it was an important moment in Willie's career because Willie always try to downplay the racial discrimination that he suffered. And suddenly he came out onto the front pages, not just in San Francisco but throughout the entire country, and it made the public aware of and reminded them that, in fact, Willie Mays was just like the other black players of that era. He suffered the same indignities that they did.
CONAN: Andrew, thanks very much for the call. It also brings to mind the comparison - and you devote a chapter to this in your book - the comparison between Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson, of course, the man who broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a man who, you quote Willie Mays is saying, he never had a substantial conversation with in his entire life.
Mr. HIRSCH: Well, Jackie, first of all, was older than Willie, and really was a completely different background. Jacky came from California, went to UCLA. Willie, of course, is from the deep South. But they - and while the two of them had great respect for each other as baseball players, Jackie in particular was very critical of Willie for not being more outspoken on civil rights. Jackie Robinson was, of course, very outspoken and really tried to encourage other blacks to be more active. But that just wasn't who Willie Mays was.
He was uncomfortable in that position. He felt wasn't qualified to speak on those issues - a lack of education, just being uncomfortable in that type of spotlight. And so, he - and those criticism from Jackie Robinson hurt Willie. But Willie makes the case, and I certainly make it as well, that he did make a significant contribution in the civil rights era, just by being Willie Mays, by being so beloved by fans across the board.
I spoke to Bill Clinton for the book, and Clinton talked to me about growing up in Arkansas in the 1950s, surrounded by segregationist who would fight tooth and nail to preserve Jim Crow during the week. But then on Saturday, they would stay home and cheer for Willie Mays, watching him on TV on the game of the week. A sportswriter in San Francisco in the 1960s said he understood Willie's contribution to America when he was at a Little League game in Texas and a boy was out in centerfield, the grandson of a Ku Klux Klan's man, and he's out there running around yelling, look at me, look at me, I'm Willie Mays.
CONAN: Hmm. Let's get one final call, and this is from Alan(ph) calling from Centerville, Ohio.
ALAN (Caller): Hi. How you doing?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
ALAN: Good. First of all, the greatest player ever to play the game, hands down, sorry. Okay, that's number one. Number two, did you talked to him about missing those year - the year and a half in the early '50s beginning of his career because of the military obligation, which I'm guessing some people even then could have gotten out of and maybe did?
CONAN: Read a chapter about that in the book. I don't mean to cut you off, Alan, but we just have a few seconds left. James Hirsch?
Mr. HIRSCH: Yes. Willie missed almost two full seasons when he was drafted. It was - spent that time in the Army. He basically played baseball for the Army on the Army team. And I think in the context of his career, it was significant because if he had played those two years, he almost certainly would have gotten close to surpassing Babe Ruth's all-time homerun record.
CONAN: James Hirsch said he learned the basket catch there at Fort Eustis.
Mr. HIRSCH: That's true as well. Thank you.
CONAN: James Hirsch joined us today from member station KWMU in St. Louis. His book is called "Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend." Thanks very much.
Mr. HIRSCH: It's been my pleasure.
CONAN: Tomorrow, we'll talk about the high stakes in the Marja offensive in Afghanistan. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.