So the first review of the blog–James Hirsch’s “Willie Mays-The Life, The Legend.”   First of all, it’s March, the Reds are about to start playing and to quote what Willie says each year during Spring Training, “there’s a feel in the air.”  I won’t see spring training this year, but this book was enough to get me excited about the hope and promise of a new baseball season.

This was a great book.  I don’t usually like sports biographies, but this one got some good reviews and Jon Stewart’s interview with Willie on The Daily Show convinced me to read it.  I’m glad I did.  I admit to being less educated about the history of baseball than your better fans.  Reading a quality bio of one of the greatest players of all time was a treat for me.

Nope, I didn’t know about Willie being on deck for the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”  I didn’t know about “The Catch” (or about the other catches that were so great they also could have been described as “The Catch.”)  I didn’t know about his instincts, his sense of the rhythm of a game, and his unfailing dedication to baseball.  Or the power homers.  I just didn’t really get how great of a player he was.  This book brings it all to life for someone too young to have seen it.

Some baseball highlights–tops was the description of a 10 pitch at bat vs. Claude Raymond that ended with Willie jacking the ball out of the park during the height of a pennant race.  Descriptions of seasons when fans would boo or be dissatisfied would always end with Willie’s stats for the year–always incredible, despite ungrateful fans.  I really enjoyed the description of Leo Durocher, a colorful figure who helped Willie gain the confidence to play the game.

Hirsch does a fine job describing Willie’s role in race relations and the significant differences between Mays and Jackie Robinson.  Some expressed dismay with Willie’s reluctance to “speak out” or fight about unfair treatment.  But Hirsch gives Mays credit for just having focus on the game and showing through actions that African Americans deserved equal treatment.   In the real world, not everyone is a fighter or an activist.  But sometimes the quiet types can have just as much impact.  I would venture a guess that Mays did as much to change people’s opinions about African Americans than did some who were more vocal about the injustices that existed.

To all who got to see Mays play, tell me about it sometime.  I’m very jealous.  He played during a different era, one when everyone knew who was in the pennant race.  He was a hero.  He was at the end of a golden era of players. And he was at the beginning of an era when the business of baseball took a greater focus.  It’s hard to imagine this Willie Mays playing in a game where it costs $7 for a beer, $4 for a hot dog, and every inch of the cavernous stadium is littered with advertisements.

One more thing about this player.  He took everything personally.  Those who know me might perceive something similar.  I think it’s a gift.  For Mays, he lived for baseball.  He took every boo, every slight, and every critique to heart.  Why shouldn’t he?  He was giving it his all day in and day out.  If he screwed up, well, it was a personal screw up. I don’t disagree.    Criticize my performance, and I’m going to feel personally responsible.  I try to bring my A game, and when I am doing it, and I don’t get desired results, of course disappointment sets in.  If it doesn’t then I think that demonstrates a cavalier attitude that shows a lack of investment in the results.  Players today are often that way.  Mays never was and everyone knew he was great because of the heart he brought to his work.  That’s a good role model if you ask me.

His first game, Durocher said to Mays: “Son, your batting third and playing center field.”  That game, Mays hit a home run that Durocher described thusly:  “I never saw a fucking ball leave a fucking park so fucking fast in my fucking life.”  His entire career followed the trajectory of that first home run.  Wish I would have been there to see some of it.  This book helped bring a legend to life.