In the midst of several years’ worth of “shocking” scandals involving baseball players and performance enhancing drugs, it is refreshing to have several biographies hitting the bookstores this year that consider a kindler, gentler Golden Era of the game.
Legendary players meriting the literary treatment include Hank Aaron, Roger Maris, and Mickey Mantle (by Jane Leavy, author of the critically acclaimed Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy). But the book that’s getting the most buzz is James S. Hirsch’s Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend (Scribner).
While Aaron, Maris, and, especially, Mantle, have received their share of attention over the years, an adult biography on the “Say Hey Kid” had been sorely missing. Mays, who turns 79 in May, has a reputation of being mistrustful with strangers, a philosophy that no doubt stems from being taken advantage of in financial dealings. In an interview with NJ Jewish News, Hirsch said it took the better part of seven years to get Mays to agree to a meeting.
Willie Mays made his debut in 1951, only four years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s tacit “color line.” Mays and his contemporaries suffered the same indignities from racist fans, from not being able to stay in the same hotels as his white teammates to not even being able to eat in the same restaurants in some areas of the country. But while Robinson was an outspoken critic of such treatment, Mays, who had grown up in Birmingham, Ala., was less confrontational in the face of such behavior.
Although Mays was considered in the same athletic class as the Yankees’ Mantle and the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Duke Snider — as heralded in Cashman’s nostalgic song, “Talkin’ Baseball: Willie, Mickey, and The Duke” — he was never afforded the same opportunities to make money off the field in advertisements and endorsements, a situation Hirsch said was racially motivated.
Things took a different slant when the Giants moved out to the West Coast, where Mays made several appearances on some of the era’s most popular television shows.
Hirsch, a former reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, said Mays had a great rapport with the Jewish community, especially after the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958.
“Willie was very much embraced by the Jewish community in San Francisco,” Hirsch said. “He was invited to a Jewish social club — the Concordia-Argonaut Club — as the first black member. It was a Jewish banker in town named [Jacob] Shemoni who really took Willie under his wing in the early 1960s and helped Willie with all kinds of financial problems that he was experiencing. There were some other Jewish businessmen and philanthropists who reached out to Willie.”
Hirsch — who has written about racial issues in previous books, including Riot and Remembrance: America’s Worst Race Riot and Its Legacy and Two Souls Indivisible — said that while Robinson was embraced by Jewish fans in Brooklyn in the late 1940s, the relationship between Mays and that group came during “the height of the civil rights era when the connection between Jews and blacks was extremely close. So many Jews of the time were involved in the civil rights movement [so] it was natural for Jews in San Francisco to accept and embrace and try to help Willie Mays.”