With James S. Hirsch's new biography of Willie Mays just hitting the bestseller list this week, Hirsch was kind enough to answer a few questions about Mays and the book:
Rob: Willie Mays, probably more than any other player -- and perhaps more than any other professional athlete -- has inspired some particularly brilliant writing over the years. I'm thinking especially about Arnold Hano and Charles Einstein, but I'm sure there were many others. How did you grapple with all the great work done by your many predecessors?
Jim: Well, I never grappled but tried to improve upon it.
Willie received the attention of many fine writers -- not just Hano and Einstein, but Arthur Daley, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Roger Kahn, Roger Angell, Ed Linn, Milton Gross, Jim Murray, Frank DeFord, and Wells Twombly. Perhaps Willie played in the Golden Age of Sports Writing. Integrating those writers' observations and insights was one of the great joys of this book.
Rob: A story I don't believe I've ever related ... Some years ago -- this would have been in the late 1980s or early '90s, I suppose -- I went to a baseball card show at which Mays was charging for his autograph, and I got in the long line with everyone else and paid my 14 bucks (or whatever) for a signature. I used to go to a fair number of those shows, and I (briefly) met Stan Musial and Bob Feller, two all-timers nearly on Willie's level. Both took the time to smile and exchange a few words, which at the time meant a lot to me. There was none of that with Mays. Someone handed him my baseball, he signed it without looking up, then handed it to someone else who handed it to me. More than just that, though, Mays seemed actively grumpy, a scowl on his face all the while. And apparently it wasn't just me; later, I heard someone refer to Mays "terrorizing" children at shows all over the country. I don't believe Mays owed me anything except his signature, which I got (granted, his signature was singularly unattractive, but that's another story). I did believe for many years that he was a bitter old man, but his recent appearances to promote your book suggest that he's not unhappy all the time; maybe he just didn't enjoy meeting strangers in convention halls. Sorry, there is a question in here somewhere ... How does Willie Mays feel about his fans? And if he's still doing the card shows, does he enjoy them more now?
Jim: Willie's first priority as a player was to entertain the fans -- to give them something to talk about when they left the ballpark. The basket catch, the hat flying off his head, the flair and bravado with which he played: all were designed for the fans, and his powerful appeal, at home, on the road, and in other countries, is well documented. A few months shy of 79, Willie has probably signed more autographs for more kids than any athlete alive. Has he pleased everyone? Of course not. A Giant batboy from the late 1950s, Roy McKercher, told me that whenever Willie left the ballpark or the hotel, he was besieged by autograph seekers. In some cases, he would sign for two hours and then finally have to leave -- and someone who was left wanting would call the newspaper and accuse Willie of being a jerk. He couldn't win.
Since the 1980s, Willie's principal source of income has been signing his name at trade shows. It's hard work. Small talk with strangers is not Willie's thing, and the pressure to satisfy everyone wears on him. Some fans, no doubt, wish he could give more of himself in those settings. That's a fair criticism. But those episodes shouldn't obscure Willie's long record of generosity and kindness toward children (the hospital visits, the financial contributions to families in need, his Say Hey Foundation) -- almost all of these efforts have been performed outside the media glare, but they're a powerful thread throughout his adult life and are now documented in the book.
Rob: I think one of the more interesting things about Mays is just how much playing took out of him. Could you discuss his various bouts of exhaustion, etcetera? I don't know of any other player in the game's history who landed in the hospital the way Mays did.
Jim: It's a corny notion, but baseball simply meant more to Willie Mays than it did to most players. It didn't matter whether he was playing in a spring training game, an offseason exhibition or a World Series contest. He would crash into walls, slam into catchers, take the extra base, back up throws and compete with injuries. When he was once asked why he played so hard in a spring training game, Mays said, "That's the onliest way I know."
That style -- combined with the fact he was rarely given a day off -- drained him, and his penchant for bottling up his emotions also took its toll. The result: Willie pushed himself up to and beyond his physical and emotional limits, so on several occasions in his career he had to seek refuge in a hospital to recover and revive.
Being Willie Mays, in short, was not always easy for Willie Mays.