On May 24, 1951, a young center fielder who had dazzled crowds in the minor leagues left Sioux City, Iowa, traveling light: a change of clothes and some toiletries, his glove, his spikes, and his two favorite thirty-four-ounce Adirondack bats. The twenty-year-old Alabaman was driven to the airport in Omaha, Nebraska, where he bought a ticket from United Airlines for an all-night journey, landing in New York early the following day. He had been there once before, three years earlier, to play in the Polo Grounds with the Birmingham Black Barons. On that team the veterans had protected him, instructing the youngster on how to dress, act, and play ball; on how to represent his team, his city, and his race. But now, on a sunny morning at La Guardia Airport, Willie Mays slid into the back seat of a taxi and pressed his face against the window, alone. He had never seen so many people walk so fast in his life.
Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend
By James Hirsch
Hardcover, 640 pages
List price: $30
Mays was driven to the midtown offices of his employer, the New York Giants, and promptly escorted inside. At 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, he did not yet have the sculpted body that would later evoke comparisons to Michelangelo's finest work. He was taut and fluid, but not physically imposing. Only his rippling forearms and massive hands, each one large enough to grip four baseballs, hinted at his crushing strength.
Mays entered the office of Horace C. Stoneham, the Giants' shy but personable owner, who was rarely seen in the clubhouse or interviewed by reporters. He had thinning hair, a ruddy complexion, and thick-framed glasses, and while his counterpart at the Brooklyn Dodgers — Walter O'Malley — had the aura of a corporate chieftain, Stoneham more closely resembled a rumpled bank manager who preferred the intimacy of his office to the bustle of the lobby. Alcohol was his most notorious vice, but undue loyalty wasn't far behind. He liked to hire family members and fellow Irishmen and hated to trade or cut Giants who had lost their usefulness. But give him his due: he cared deeply about his players, about their finances, their family, and their well-being, and he would help them as he would his own children.
He also needed good players, and he never needed one more than he needed Willie Mays.
The Giants were a family business, and Stoneham was only thirty-two when he inherited the team after his father's death in 1936. At the time, the Giants were the National League's preeminent franchise, having won eleven pennants and four World Series since the turn of the century. They captured consecutive pennants in Horace's first two years at the helm — clubs essentially assembled by his father — but the team grew stale, fan interest declined, and championships became a memory.
In 1951, after a dismal start, the Giants risked, not just a losing season, but irrelevance or even ruin. The franchise had lost money in each of the last three years and had been eclipsed by New York's other baseball teams. Their blood rival, the Brooklyn Dodgers, had won three pennants in the last decade, with Ebbets Field featuring social history as well as fierce competition. Since 1947, the Dodgers had been led by Jackie Robinson, whose breaking of the color barrier, combined with electrifying play, made for riveting theater. Yankee Stadium, meanwhile, was its own showcase of dominance and glamour: five World Series championships in the past decade, one deity in center field. Joe DiMaggio would turn thirty-seven in 1951, his final season, after which the landscape would be ready for a new hero. But the Yankees had already found their next wunderkind in the zinc mines of Oklahoma. The rookie Mickey Mantle — his brawn and speed exhaustively chronicled in spring training, his alliterative name tripping off the tongues of wide-eyed reporters, his blond crew cut and blue eyes capturing the hearts of young fans — was poised to be Gotham's next baseball god.
Who needed the Giants?
"Glad you could make it so soon," Stoneham told Mays as the rookie entered his office. "But they aren't glad where you came from."
Mays, confused, said nothing.
"The Minneapolis fans," Stoneham said. "They're upset." Mays had begun the season with the Minneapolis Millers, a Giants' farm club. In thirty-five games, he had hit .477; one searing drive, in Milwaukee, punctured a hole in the fence. Stoneham told Mays that the Giants were putting an ad in a Minneapolis newspaper to apologize for taking the local team's prodigy. "We're going to tell them," Stoneham said, "that you're the answer to what the Giants have got to have."
Mays remained silent.
"It's unusual, I know," Stoneham said, "but — is something the matter?"
Mays finally found his voice, high-pitched and earnest: "Mr. Stoneham, I know it's unusual, but what if — "
"What if what?"
"What if I don't make it?"
Stoneham pointed to a folder on his desk, stuffed with papers. Mays saw his name on the cover.
"You think we just picked your name out of a hat?" Stoneham demanded. "You think we brought you up because somebody saw your name in a headline one day in Louisville or Columbus or Milwaukee or Kansas City? You think nobody's been watching you? You think managers haven't been up nights doing progress reports, that our own scouts haven't checked you out time and again? You think all of this is something somebody dreamed up in the middle of the night two days ago?"
Mays stood there, unsettled by the barrage.
The owner pushed a buzzer beneath his desk and spoke into the intercom: "Ask Frank to come in here." He looked at Mays. "Got luggage?"
"No, sir. It's still back in Minneapolis. They're sending it on."
Stoneham nodded and pushed the buzzer again. "Ask Brannick to save out seventy, eighty dollars," he said, referring to the team's dapper traveling secretary, Eddie Brannick. Then to Mays: "Buy yourself a couple things — underwear, shirts, socks — until your stuff gets here."
The door opened, and Frank Forbes, a black fight promoter hired by the Giants to be Mays's chaperone, walked through. "Here he is," Stoneham said. "Take him with you." He extended his hand. "Good luck, Willie."
"Thank you, Mr. Stoneham. I hope I can get into a few games, get a few chances to help. I hope you won't be sorry."
"I won't be sorry." Stoneham turned away, then suddenly turned back. "Get in a few games? Get a few chances to help? Don't you know you're starting tonight?"
Mays's mouth went dry. "Starting? Where?"
Stoneham glared at him, then laughed. "Center field!" he barked. "Where else?" He looked at Forbes. "Get him out of here, Frank."
The Giants were already in Philadelphia, where they would begin a three-game series that night at Shibe Park. Forbes and Mays hustled to Pennsylvania Station, boarded a train, and sat in a Pullman parlor car. Mays had seen the opulent coaches in the movies, the ubiquitous Negro porter fawning over white passengers. But now Mays was the passenger, and the swivel armchairs were layered with meaning. His father, Willie Howard Mays, Sr., had been a Pullman porter, making beds in the sleeping cars chugging out of Birmingham. The train's quiet rhythm lulled the white passengers to sleep, and the elder Mays, wearing a white jacket, would listen to the sound of the whistle at night, signaling which engineer was driving the train. "He'd lay his hand on that rope," he said, "and it was like an autograph."
Now his son sat in a Pullman car, heading south on an eighty-five-mile trip that the young man could not have envisioned even a month earlier, with the clicking of the wheels saying to Willie: You're a Giant. You're a Giant. You're a Giant. You're a Giant....
Willie Mays began his major league career poorly — he went 1-for-26 — but he slowly found his way. He blasted home runs over the lights at the Polo Grounds, chased down fly balls in the cavernous outfield, unleashed deadly throws to the plate, and ran the bases with daring glee. But what mesmerized his teammates, what captivated the crowds, was his incandescent personality, bringing, his manager said, "a contagious happiness that gets everybody on the club" and moving Branch Rickey to observe that the rookie's greatest attribute "was the frivolity in his bloodstream [that] doubled his strength with laughter."
Newspapers promptly hailed the "Negro slugger" as "the Amazing Mays" and "the Wondrous Willie," a unique blend of speed and power who performed with childlike exuberance. But the most prescient account appeared on June 24 in the New York Post — one month after his debut — which chronicled a stunning baserunning feat as "part of the legend" of this new marvel.
Long before his Rookie of the Year Award, long before his two Most Valuable Player awards and his one batting title and his 12 Gold Gloves, long before his 24 All-Star Games and his 3,283 hits and his 660 home runs, and long before "the Catch," Willie Mays was a legend. And by the time he retired, he was an American icon whose athletic brilliance and stylistic bravado contributed to the assimilation of blacks during the turbulent civil rights era, a distinctive figure of ambition, sacrifice, and triumph who became a lasting cultural touchstone for a nation in search of heroes.
Mays represented the quintessential American dream. He was the poor Depression-era black kid from the segregated South who overcame insuperable odds to reach the pinnacle of society, and he succeeded by hewing to the country's most cherished values — hard work, clean living, and perseverance. He also benefited from great timing. Had he been born fifteen or even ten years earlier, he would have played most if not all of his career in the Negro Leagues, probably remembered, along with Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Cool Papa Bell, as a mythic but ill-defined figure who was victimized by America's racial hypocrisy. Had he been born ten years later, he would never have been part of perhaps the most celebrated era in sports history — New York in the 1950s — when baseball dominated the sports culture, integrated teams stole the march on civil rights, ballparks sponsored miracles, and legends were born.
Mays was the youngest black player to reach the major leagues, and his ascension in 1951 coincided with other powerful social and economic forces. Television, for one, was emerging as a transformative medium in sports. Fans across the country could now watch baseball in real time, the grainy black-and-white images turning an anonymous player into a national hero (Bobby Thomson, following his "Shot Heard 'Round the World," being the most conspicuous example). Several decades would pass before baseball highlights became daily fare, but television still contributed to Mays's popularity by broadening access to his spellbinding performances: the spinning catches followed by laser throws; the churning legs rounding second base, his feet barely brushing the dirt, his cap sailing off like a flimsy derby in a windstorm; the giddy smile that bespoke his love for the game. Mays was a completely new archetype, the first five-tool player before anyone else had even opened the shed.* But he always saw himself as an entertainer first, and television gave him a national stage.
Mays was an unlikely celebrity, but he flourished in an increasingly intense media culture. He appeared on television variety shows, talk shows, sitcoms, and in documentaries — timid, to be sure, but also handsome, respectful, and self-deprecating. Magazines splashed him on their covers while recording artists celebrated him in song, screenwriters immortalized him in films, and cartoonists grandly etched him in print. He was the game's first true international star, playing before huge crowds from Mexico to Venezuela to Japan in winter league games or exhibitions. He was a worthy antidote to Ralph Ellison's lament that the Negro was the "Invisible Man."
Mays's star power made him the most luminous prize in baseball's great migration westward in 1958, when the Giants and Dodgers moved to California. This shift symbolized the broader demographic tilt of the country and turned the national pastime into a transcontinental enterprise. Mays benefited from baseball's entrance into new markets and new stadiums with new corporate sponsors, all of which helped make him the highest paid player in the league, topping the magical $100,000 figure in 1963. He left the game ten years later, just as the system that had restricted players from the open market was about to collapse. A new era of baseball was about to begin.
Mays's career exquisitely overlapped one of the great social movements in American history — the modern civil rights era. One of the most recognized and admired black people of that period, Mays led by example, yet his role in the movement became the most controversial part of his legacy. In some quarters, he was scorned as a "do-nothing Negro" or an Uncle Tom for refusing to actively support civil rights or even to speak out when he himself was victimized or his hometown of Birmingham was terrorized. But Mays countered racial discrimination on his own terms in ways that he understood — as a role model who never drank or smoked, who avoided scandal, and who gave his time and money to children's causes; as a player who excelled through discipline, preparation, and sacrifice; and as a man who brought Americans together through the force of his personality and his passion for the game. Mays knew his influence, particularly on the bigots. "I changed the hatred to laughter," he said. "That's what I think."
Mays also had his disappointments. His first marriage ended badly, with a painful public divorce and an adopted son with whom he is no longer close. (His second marriage, however, to a beautiful, educated professional has been a source of love and strength for more than thirty-five years.) Financial troubles, caused mostly by overspending, dogged him through his playing days. Bad financial advice cost him as well. He was one of the most durable players in history, but the pressures took an enormous toll, physically and emotionally, causing several hospitalizations during his career. At times gruff and impatient, Mays was not the easiest to approach, and his desire for privacy contributed to flare-ups with reporters, some of whom attacked him in print. The give-and-take of friendships was not his strength. His distrust of others, born of betrayals and affronts, ran deep, and strangers with uncertain motives needed to tread lightly when they entered his space.
Who is Willie Mays? It's a fair question. He has a small circle of loyal friends who love him unconditionally, but even they rarely see his wounds. To his fans, he has long been an enigma who spoons out just enough biographical morsels to nourish their curiosity but not satisfy their appetite.
The pity is that the most appealing parts of Willie Mays have nothing to do with baseball.
But baseball is his rightful legacy, and now, almost sixty years after he nervously asked Horace Stoneham if he was good enough, his accomplishments loom larger than ever. Baseball has never been more popular, but the steroid era — an endless train of congressional hearings, legal maneuverings, and hollow pledges of reform — has tainted records, vindicated cynics, and placed the biggest names under suspicion.
No one ever doubted Willie Mays. He not only played the game as well as anyone who's ever taken the field but he also played it the right way. He is now revered for capturing the joy and innocence of a bygone era, a transcendent figure who is compared to the most important men in American history. In the presidential campaign of 2008, Barack Obama emphasized his biracial appeal by pairing John F. Kennedy with Martin Luther King, Jr.; Abraham Lincoln with Willie Mays.
Heady company indeed, though maybe not a stretch for a man who seemed to embody the impossible. "The first thing to establish about Willie Mays," Jim Murray once wrote, "is that there really is one."
Copyright © 2010 by James S. Hirsch