Willie Mays, The Cautious Legend

The authorized biographer of the great baseball player says Mays' Deep South upbringing is the reason he kept his mouth shut during the civil rights era.

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When Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball in 1947, he became the public face of integrated professional sports. A few years later, Willie Mays built on that achievement by becoming the public face of baseball. His high batting average, his ability to hit with power, his speed on the base paths and in the field, and his throwing arm--in baseball lexicon, the five tools--have become the template against which all other young position players are measured.

Yet Mays' story is a complex one. He was largely silent during the civil rights era. He suffered a failed marriage, and he stayed in the game well after his skills deteriorated. He's also a famously private man who rarely gives interviews. When approached by James S. Hirsch, author of Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter (Houghton Mifflin), about collaborating on an authorized biography, Mays took seven years to agree.

The result of that collaboration, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend (Scribner), is a stunning book that tells Mays' story in voluminous and loving detail, from his upbringing in Fairfield, Ala., to his present-day stature as one of baseball's living Gods. But this book is more than your fawning sports biography; Hirsch brings a clear-eyed view to the stubbornly changing prism of race in America during the '50s, '60s and '70s. Hirsch is a lifelong baseball enthusiast, and he recently fielded some questions from The Root's Martin Johnson.

The Root: When did you become interested in writing on Willie Mays and why?

James Hirsch: I've always been a huge baseball fan, and I've long believed that race relations in America has been a central theme in our country's history. So in 2000, after my biography on Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was published, a reader suggested I write about Willie Mays--arguably baseball's greatest player whose big-league career, from 1951 to 1973, overlapped the modern civil rights movement. No comprehensive biography of Mays had ever been written, so you'd have to be blind not to recognize the opportunity.

TR: It took seven years to gain Mays' participation in the book. How did you resist the temptation to give up on the project?

Hirsch: It might sound trite or self-serving, but only the hard books are worth doing. If the book had been easy--if Willie had opened his arms to me the first time I tried to contact him and spilled out his life story, well, the book would have already been written. To be sure, I knew this project was a long shot. But think about it: How many living legends do we have in America today? I mean legitimate legends, not those fabricated by publicity machines. The answer is very few. So despite the odds, I knew the upside was huge, and that's why I persisted.

Hirsch: Willie never wavered. He is intensely private and trusts very few people, but once he trusts you, and you enter his circle of confidantes, he is both loyal and generous. Though Willie considers me a friend, he knew that I had a job, and my job was to tell his life story, the successes and the disappointments, and to define his legacy both on and off the field.

I would not describe Willie as a great interview, because he is reluctant to talk about himself. He is modest to a fault and never wants to be accused of being self-promotional. But over time, he did open up on many subjects that he's never discussed in public before. For example, he talked about his teenage mother, who gave him up as a baby then married and had 10 children, and how that experience--what I describe as the spector of abandonment--contributed to his own development. And he discussed how now, in the twilight of his life, he has no biological children (he has one adopted son) and no grandchildren, and what that feels like for someone who's always loved kids.

TR: Mays' approach to the civil rights era was to lead by example rather than by declaration. How much of this owed to his upbringing in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era and how much of the contemporary misunderstanding of his stance is a result of media saturation, where everyone takes a stand on everything?