Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend — by James S. Hirsch

Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend -- by James S. HirschWe’re all familiar with the idea of being in the right place at the right time, but that concept leaves out an important factor — being the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

To say that Willie Mays exemplifies the concept of being the right person in the right place at the right time would be a gross understatement, and in his recent authorized biography of Willie Mays, author James S. Hirsch goes into never-seen-before detail as to just what launched Willie Mays into the stratosphere of baseball history.

As Hirsch notes in the prologue, Mays “has long been an enigma who spoons out just enough biographical morsels to nourish (fans’) curiosity but not satisfy their appetite.” For someone such as myself who hasn’t followed Mays’s life all that closely, that seems about right. While he doesn’t stay completely out of the public eye, for someone of his stature in the game of baseball he certainly isn’t at the forefront of many off-the-field discussions.

Taking on the task of bringing the complete story of Willie Mays was no small task as Hirsch reminds the reader, and his treatment of his subject is admirable and complete, at least to the reader who doesn’t have additional information. I’m sure some of Mays’s teammates and longtime friends could add pages of stories and anecdotes if they were given the chance. However, speculation on how many pages this book could reach if more cooks were allowed in the kitchen is not the point of this review.

Hirsch manages to keep a fairly level tone and sense of excitement throughout the book, which left a tinge of disappointment with me at the conclusion of the book. Mays’s life had some clear points that were defining both on a personal and professional level, and while they are discussed fairly thoroughly, Hirsch didn’t seem to take the brakes off and give the reader the full tilt of emotion that was I had to think was present at the time. His attempt to purchase a home in San Francisco, while detailed poignantly, felt like it was missing something, as did the sections that covered the response to Mays’s lack of desire to get involved in race relations the way his contemporaries were. While I respect Hirsch’s ability to keep the train from running off the tracks, I wouldn’t have complained about hearing the wheels grind and feeling the car sway a bit more.

There is no way to avoid mentioning that the book weighs in at a relatively hefty 560 or so pages, depending whether you read the acknowledgments or not. Some will say this is nothing, some will say this is a beast of a book — I tend to skew towards the latter, especially in this age of sound bites and Tweets. However, Hirsch never seems to waste a page in telling Mays’s story. He keeps the chapters at a length that in turn keep the book moving and keep the reader’s attention focused on the topic. Thankfully he went with 36 chapters, as opposed to opting for 24 and trying to draw a connection to the number Mays wore on his back throughout his career.

For fans of one of – if not the greatest to play the game of baseball, this book is an invaluable read that will pique your interest and show you sides of Mays that you have likely never seen before. The things that he doesn’t talk about in interviews come up in this book, and while neither scandalous nor overly salacious, they are poignant and important in understanding this legend of baseball.

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