Currently, I am moseying through James Hirsch's fine authorized biography of baseball great Willie Mays and it has a lot of connections for me --- especially now since my younger daughter Bonnie and her husband Tim live in Birmingham.
Last year I bought Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend (2010) for $3 on a remainder table at the 2nd and Charles Bookstore in Birmingham. I didn't read much of it at first, but enough to learn that Mays grew up in the coal and steel town of Fairfield on the outskirts of Birmingham. By the time he graduated high school in 1947, Mays was playing professionally and in 1948 played for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball in 1947 and within a year, most of the franchises of the Negro Leagues were already declining in attendance. The pennant-wining 1948 Black Baron team shown above (Mays is on the top row in the middle), lost in to the Homestead (PA) Grays in the Negro League World Series.
One of the strengths of the Hirsch's book is that he does not gloss over the racial indignities and dangers of the Jim Crow era (especially in Birmingham), but he puts into context Mays's ways of coping. Jackie Robinson publicly criticized Mays for not speaking out against racial inequality, but Hirsch explains that it didn't fit into Mays's personality and Southern upbringing. Not that Mays didn't break down barriers -- he just did it in more subtle ways.
Mays the Player
But there is a lot of baseball lore as well:
- In 1951, the rookie Mays was on deck when Bobby Thomson hit "the shot heard around the world," which gave the Giants the pennant over the Dodgers.
- In the first game of 1954 World Series, May's famous catch of Vic Wertz's deep fly ball at the Polo Grounds was not his greatest defensive play. "The Catch" as it is known, is considered a secondary feat compared to "The Throw." In a August 15, 1951 game against the Dodgers when the Giants were making their famous run for the pennant, Mays ran from left center to the almost the right field line to snare a line drive by Carl Furillo, and then doing a 180 degree with his back to home plate, whirled and threw a strike to cut down a runner trying to tag up and score from third base. Unfortunately there is no video of "The Throw." If you decide to view the famous video of The Catch instead, pay attention to a couple of things. One, even though it looks like a wall that Mays is heading into it is actually a short fence with a dark screen. (It always looked like a tall wall to me). Secondly, why did Mays plant his foot and throw so early? The reason: Mays knew that Larry Doby, who was on second base, could have scored on a sacrifice -- even from second base. Doby was held at third and the score remained tied. This set the tone for the Series as the Giants swept the Indians.
- Outfielder Mickey Mantle was chasing a Mays fly ball when Mantle tore up his knee on a Yankee Stadium sprinkler head in the 1951 World Series. It was also the only time Mays played on the same field as Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, who retired after the season.
- In the winter ball after the 1954 season, Mays played centerfield for the Santurce Cangrejeros (Crabbers). The team was made up many fine players, including a 19 year old rightfielder named Roberto Clemente. And the batboy was Future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda.
This book coupled with my recent trip to Birmingham for the annual Rickwood Classic, a turn-back-the-clock game where they played a Double A ball in the stadium built in 1910. (This is before they tear down 20 year old stadiums like they do in Atlanta). This game was on my bucket list. (I have a very modest bucket list). It was fantastic to go with my daughter and her husband. As you enter the stadium you can see the black and white photographs reflecting the history of the ballpark, which was the home of the Black Barons. And when you see the mounted photograph of young Willie Mays with his Baron teammates, you are transformed into different time. Not always good. Not all bad. But a reminder that these are the roots of arguably the best all-around player to have ever taken the field.