If you're old enough to remember Willie Mays as one of the greatest ballplayers of all time, you should hurry and buy a terrific new book about The Say Hey Kid. And if you're not old enough to remember him, buy it anyway. You'll be glad you did.
"Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend," by James S. Hirsch, belongs on every baseball fan's bookshelf, but more than that, it belongs on everyone's bookshelf. This is a monumental, insightful look into a truly great life and a tremendous ballplayer, but it's also a book about a fascinating figure in American history.
Buy it, read it, cherish it.
Mays, now 78, has battled glaucoma. He wears a hearing aid and had a hip replaced. That seems hard to belief, because he was always the picture of health, vitality and tremendous energy during his playing days, except for a few painful moments near the end of his Hall of Fame career. But after all, the man is 78 years old and he left everything he had on the field, from 1951 through 1973.
There's no need to bore everyone with the statistics. They're all in the book, near the end of this 628-page treasure trove of baseball, Americana and humanity. You know about the 660 home runs. The 1,903 RBIs in 22 campaigns. The 2,062 runs, the 338 stolen bases, the career .302 batting average, the 3,283 hits, the 13 straight years when he played at least 150 games.
The stats don't tell the whole story, however. Not even close. He grew up in the Jim Crow South, played briefly in the Negro Leagues, joined the New York Giants when he was barely 20 years old in 1951. He won the hearts of New Yorkers during the Golden Age of baseball in New York City, when the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants all played in different boroughs, and he eventually won the hearts of baseball fans in San Francisco after the Giants moved west.
You'll read about his exploits -- the amazing catches and historic home runs -- but you'll also read about his quiet, unpublicized trips to visit sick kids in hospitals. You'll read about his generosity, but also about his carelessness with money. You'll read about his reluctance to speak out about the racial issues of his day, but you'll also come to understand how he helped the civil rights movement in his own quiet, dignified way.
Willie Mays hasn't played a major league baseball game in 37 years, yet his story is still vital, still important, still relevant to America of today.
Do yourself a favor. Buy the book. Give one to a friend, to a loved one, to a baseball fan, to somebody who would enjoy reading about a legend, about baseball, about American history, about life. You'll be glad you did.