An admiring—at times even worshipful—portrait of one of baseball's greatest players, whose on-field exploits were astonishing but whose inner life remains largely hidden.
On the first page, former New York Times and Wall Street Journal reporter Hirsch (Cheating Destiny: Living with Diabetes, America's Biggest Epidemic, 2006, etc.)—who wrote a bestselling biography of boxer Rubin Carter (Hurricane, 2000)—compares the body of Willie Mays to “Michelangelo's finest work” and notes later that his “best catches seemed to be guided by some divine spirit.” Fans of Mays will no doubt applaud such effusions, but they signal that celebration is higher on the author's agenda than critical analysis. Mays's Hall of Fame career was indeed marvelous. Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1931, he endured the Jim Crow South, thrived on the baseball field and then left for greener outfields. Hirsch discusses how he learned baseball's fundamentals from his father, mastered his unique “basket catch” (in the Army), got the nickname “Say Hey Kid,” rocketed through the minors, debuted with the New York Giants in 1951 and quickly became baseball's dominant star and its most exciting player—for decades (he played into his 40s, ending his career with the Mets). The author attends well to those most celebrated Willie moments: “The Throw,” “The Catch,” the four-homer day, the bare-handed catches, the daring base running, the dramatic hits, the peacemaking during base-brawls. But he also portrays a man who had difficulty with personal relationships and with intimacy—a failed first marriage, a need for pampering managers. Other black athletes—most notably Jackie Robinson—chided Mays for lassitude during the civil-rights movement, and others wondered why he did not support Curt Flood's lawsuit. But Hirsch remains an apologist, and Mays's 40 years of retirement are relegated to a 30-page epilogue.
Well-researched and fluid, but tendentious and tunnel-visioned.