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Mays story told in new biography
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Forsyth County News
Willie Mays.

The greatest baseball player I ever saw play.

Such brazen statements always ignite rollicking debate, usually well-substantiated and fervently supported on all sides. Were you to choose Henry Louis Aaron, I can’t declare with finality that you’re wrong.

But I choose Mays. That’s what made “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend” by James S. Hirsch a must-read. In the first authorized biography of Mays, Hirsch presents a full picture of Mays for the first time.

Getting Mays to cooperate on the book proved no small obstacle for Hirsch. It took an introduction from May’s personal friend Sy Berger, who signed Mays to his first baseball card contract in 1951. Even with Berger’s help, it took seven years before Mays would even speak to Hirsch.

That’s just one of the conflicts presented in the book. Mays has been intensely private and guarded since he achieved superstardom, almost 60 years ago. Very few people have managed to penetrate Mays’ inner circle.

Compare that image with the memory of Mays the ballplayer, who displayed everything out on the field for all to see. He played the game with unparalleled exuberance, a calculated abandon that always left witnesses to marvel at his skills.

Mays always went from first to third on a single, his cap flying off as he rounded second. But did you know that he always wore a hat a size too big, to insure that it would detach?

By all accounts, Mays is the only player in baseball history to score from first on a single to left. And he did it twice.

Mays would deliberately allow himself to get caught in rundowns, allowing other baserunners to either score or move up, before he artfully eluded the hot box.

That was just one part of his game. In 1956, Mays became the first member of the 30-30 club, hitting 36 home runs to go along with 40 steals.

He also hit 660 career home runs, which ranked third behind Babe Ruth and Aaron, when he retired in 1973. Playing home games in Candlestick Park for 12 years cost Mays, conservatively, 100 home runs.

“Until I played at Candlestick,” Ozzie Smith says in the book, “I never realized how great Willie Mays was. My God, what would he have done in a real ballpark?”

In August 1965, as his Giants battled the Dodgers for the NL pennant, Mays blasted a record 17 home runs. He finished the year with a career-high 52. That season also marked the seventh year in a row he knocked in over 100 runs, and the 12th year in a row in which he scored over 100.

He also hit .317 in that MVP season, the 10th time in 12 years he hit over .300. He finished his career with a .302 average.

But as amazing as Mays was holding a bat and running the bases, he was even more amazing with his glove.

In the 1959 All-Star game played in Pittsburgh’s cavernous Forbes Field, Mays hit a triple. No wonder. The outfield was so spacious that they just wheeled the batting cage out to center field and left it there during games.

Bob Stevens of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote of Mays’ triple, “Harvey Kuenn gave it honest pursuit, but the only center fielder in baseball who could have caught it, hit it.”

Mays developed the “basket catch” while in the Army, and that became another distinctive flair that separated him from the mere mortals. But his most famous catch, the one off Vic Wertz in Game One of the 1954 World Series, wasn’t conventional, either. Made over-the-shoulder, running full speed away from the infield, about 450 feet from home plate, this play begins all discussions of the greatest catches in baseball history.

But to Mays, the best part of the play was the ensuing throw. He planted one foot, spun in a full turn, and unleashed a throw as if hurling a discus. Larry Doby, the runner on second, could only advance to third. The Giants went on to win the game and sweep the series. By all accounts, Mays’ catch had made the Giants appear unbeatable to the Indians.

There’s much more to Mays than his baseball exploits, of course. The purpose for telling Mays’ story is revealed with a personal anecdote in the epilogue. The author tells of seeing 15 people lined up to have their picture taken beside a statue of Mays before a Giants game outside AT&T Park, located at 24 Willie Mays Plaza.

“I then walked into the Borders bookstore across the street and checked out the sports aisle. There were biographies of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, and Roberto Clemente. But there was none of Willie Mays.

“When I went back outside, I saw there were now 20 people waiting to have their photos taken next to the Mays statue. I realized then that it was my job to tell those people what was inside that bronze sculpture.”

Hirsch did a marvelous job, and the story makes a great read.