THE Review: “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend”

willieWillie Mays is a towering figure in baseball — arguably the best player ever. Yet up until recently there was no definitive biography of the man, in part because the very private Mays would never cooperate on one. But now there is James Hirsch’s “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend.” Hirsch was able to convince Mays, who notoriously distrusts reporters, to open up to him. Well, that is a relative term, because even while Mays is opening up, he never reveals too much of himself. Still, the book paints a vivid picture of Mays that we’ve never seen before.

As a Mets fan, I was most interested in his time with the Mets. The team acquired Mays a month into the 1972 season, but if Joan Payson had had her way, Mays would have been an original Met. Payson was part owner of the New York Giants — the only member of the board to oppose the move to San Francisco in 1958. She loved Mays, and vowed to bring him back to New York somehow.

The opportunity came in 1962 when Payson became the owner of the new Mets franchise. She had to sell her interest in the Giants, so she offered her share of the team (valued at $680,000) to Giants owner Horace Stoneham in exchange for Mays. Stoneham, flush with cash in those early years following the move West, said no.

Ten years later, however, San Francisco was less than enamored with the Giants — attendance was plummeting and Stoneham was going broke.  He could no longer afford Mays’ $165,000 a year salary, so he came crawling to the Mets. Stoneham, who a year early turned down Payson’s offer of $1 million for Mays, now wanted players — specifically infielder Teddy Martinez, and either Jon Matlack or Jim McAndrew.

M. Donald Grant knew Mays was all-but washed-up, and was not about to trade away useful players. In the end, minor league pitcher Charlie Williams and a reported $100,000 were sent to Frisco for Mays. Stoneham later insisted that he never got any money for Mays. Either way, Mays was back in New York.

One other interesting tidbit about the trade — in addition to the two-year deal paying Mays the aforementioned $165,000 per year, the Mets also agreed to pay Mays $50,000 per year for ten years upon his retirement. Stoneham was trying to work out a similar deal with Mays before the trade, and Stoneham, who always looked out for Mays, wanted to make sure he would be taken care of.

The book details Mays’ struggles during his injury-plagued two seasons with the Mets. It also talks about Mays’ troubles with Mets manager Yogi Berra. Mays was used to getting special treatment with the Giants — Berra was not used to giving anyone such treatment. Years later, when talking about his troubles with George Steinbrenner interfering with the Yankees while he was their manager, he acknowledged his problem with Mays. “It was not just one guy like Willie Mays when he came to the Mets in 1973 (sic),” Berra said. “It was four or five guys who (Steinbrenner) wanted and the coaches and I didn’t.”

I didn’t realize Mays sat out the final three weeks of the 1973 season with injury, thus not being part of the great comeback to win the NL East. He played in just one game in the NLCS win over the Reds. He started the first two games of the World Series, in which his age finally caught up with him. He stumbled around the bases, and famously fell down in center field trying to catch a ball.

He would pinch hit once more in the Series, and was sitting on the bench with two outs in the ninth of Game 7 as Wayne Garrett strode to the plate as the tying run. Mays was hoping to get the call to pinch hit — one last chance at glory. But Berra, his confidence in Mays shot after those first two games, never looked his way. Garrett popped out, the Series was over, and so was Mays’ career.

Mays then began his ten-year retirement package. His role was never clearly defined. He was in uniform before games, but he was never really a coach. Had Payson still been alive, she would have found important work for him to do. But she was long gone, and no one seemed to care about Mays anymore.

And that seems to be the case for Mets management today. While they have an entire rotunda dedicated to a man who never played for the team, the Mets make no mention of Mays — a far better player than Jackie Robinson who also played a significant role in baseball history, and one who actually wore a Mets uniform. 

I’ve written about this before, but I’ll do it one last time — the Mets should retire Mays’ number 24. Sure, his actual performance on the field was forgettable, but one of the greatest players ever wore your uniform — that alone makes retirement appropriate. Also, the Mets claim Citi Field is not just a monument to the Brooklyn Dodgers; it is also an homage to the New York Giants. Well, Mays played for those Giants, winning a World Series and an MVP award. He deserves some honor in the city.

There is a precedent for this — Hank Aaron played for the Milwaukee Braves, moved with the team to Atlanta, then came back to the Brewers for the final two years ago his career. One difference is that Aaron played 12 years in Milwaukee before the move while Mays played just half of that in New York. But still, Mays was as beloved in New York as Aaron was in Milwaukee.

But back to the book — a fine read and an important historical piece about a great, misunderstood player.

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