We’ve been blessed with two recent books about the greatest baseball player of all time – Willie Mays. I wrote about the first, Willie’s Boys, in a post in January. I’ve just finished the second, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, and found it is as satisfying as a well-played game on a warm summer evening. (Although at 556 pages it takes a bit longer to complete.)
Author James Hirsch, who never saw Mays play live, has nonetheless captured the essence of a deeply private, and in many ways unknowable, larger-than-life legend. Mays is one of those people who touched so many people in so many ways. As Hirsch notes, “If you write a book that allows you to talk to Bill Clinton, Woody Allen, Hank Aaron, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sandy Koufax, and Tom Seaver, you’ve probably got a pretty good subject.” Bill Clinton says that Willie Mays, “…lives his life with more than talent – he has the mind and heart of a champion.” Woody Allen, in the movie Manhattan, said Willie Mays was one of the things that made life worth living, right after Groucho Marx but before “those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne.”
What kind of man makes presidents and famous film-makers swoon? One who was humble (unlike DiMaggio, he did not require his introduction to be preceded by “greatest living player”) but also knew he was great (“I did things that no one else did”). One who won the MVP award in his first full season, after leading the 1954 New York Giants to an improbable World Championship over the heavily favored Indians. One who inspired a classic line, written by sportswriter Bob Stevens after Mays hit a game-winning triple in the eighth inning of the 1959 All-Star Game, which went, “Harvey Kuenn gave it honest pursuit, but the only center fielder in baseball who could have caught it hit it.” One who lost a season to the Korean War and played his entire career in two ballparks that were murderous on right-handed gap hitters, yet still finished with 660 career home runs, a .302 batting average, 3,283 hits, 1,903 RBI’s and a .557 slugging percentage.
Hirsch goes into great detail about each year Mays was in the big leagues, and there are wonderful stories throughout. While the accounts of his baseball exploits are fun, some of the most enlightening tales are not about bases stolen or home runs hit. I was especially taken with Hirsch’s account of the role Mays played in the famous Juan Marichal-John Roseboro bat brawl. Hirsch sets up the moment with great skill, describing how both the Giants and the Dodgers were responsible for elevating tensions in a hotly contested pennant race during the summer of the Watts riots. Then came the pitch that set off one of the worst brawls in baseball history.
Roseboro (the Dodger catcher) went to the mound and told Koufax to throw the ball down and in, which would position him to buzz Marichal (the Giant’s pitcher, who was batting) from behind the plate. The first pitch was a strike, but the second was low and inside. Roseboro dropped the ball, picked it up, and fired it back to Koufax. Marichal later said that the ball nicked his ear, and it would have killed him if it had hit him squarely. Roseboro said it was two inches past his nose, but he readily acknowledged his intent – to scare the shit out of Marichal, which he did. (Maury) Wills said, “When a hard-thrown ball goes past you that closely, it makes a noise like a bullet.” Mays, watching from the bench, couldn’t believe it. He had never seen a duster thrown by a catcher, and he knew something bad was about to happen.”
What happened was that Marichal confronted Roseboro, who rose from his crouch. Then Marichal raised his bat and, before anyone could reach him, he hit Roseboro three times in the head. Blood came from Roseboro’s head – and all hell broke loose. Benches and bullpens emptied and – in contrast to most baseball fights – the hostilities increased. Players went berserk, the Dodgers thought Roseboro had lost an eye, and everyone lost their head.
Everyone, that is, except for Willie Mays.
As Marichal ran for the dugout, Roseboro – a former boxer – chased him. But he never made it there.
A massive right hand grabbed his jersey, next to his chest protector, and began walking him to the Dodger dugout. The hand belonged to Willie Mays. “You’re hurt, John, you’re hurt,” he said. “Stop the fighting, your eye is out.” On their way, Roseboro gave the finger to the fans, who booed him….Mays took Roseboro to the dugout and sat down next to him, which defied all tradition and logic – a player, in the heat of a brawl, taking a seat on the enemy’s bench. Mays used some towels to stanch the bleeding then cradled Roseboro’s head while the trainer, Bill Buhler, examined the injury.
…So when the Dodgers and Giants staged their epic brawl, it was, to Mays, like a family being ripped apart. He did what most would do in a serious family disagreement. He tried to separate the belligerents. He tried to make peace. But the violence had occurred. So in the dugout, his hands holding a towel soaked with blood from the deepest of wounds, he wept.
A man of incredible talent, a man of contradictions, but – most of all – Willie Mays is a man of character.
In assessing whether Mays was the greatest player ever, Hirsch lets others make the arguments. He simply notes that “His legacy, ultimately, will never be about his numbers, his records, or how he helped his team to win. It will be about the pure joy that he brought to fans and the loving memories that have been passed to future generations so they might know the magic and beauty of the game.”
Say Hey – what a life.
More to come…