three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
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The Life, the Legend

A-WillieMaysJames S. Hirsch's last book was Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter.

The Topic: The career of Willie Mays spans many of the changes that made baseball the game it is today. He was one of the last great players to make the transition from the Negro Leagues to the Majors; he was one of the first "five tool" players, excelling in his batting average, power batting, baserunning, throwing, and fielding; he led the Giants from New York to San Francisco; and his most famous play--known simply as "the Catch"--was one of the first great televised moments in sports. But despite his importance to the game, Mays has been relatively reticent with writers, and until now there has never been an authorized biography. James S. Hirsch fills this significant gap by telling the story of one of the greatest players in baseball's history.
Scribner. 628 pages. $30. ISBN: 9781416547907

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"For those too young to have seen Mays on the field, the book will make for a wonderful introduction to the magical life of one of the finest athletes ever." Andrew Hoyem

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[W]hat I'm most grateful for is the chance to ‘see' the player whom I've only imagined. I grew up idolizing Willie Mays but was too young to ever see him play. This book makes me feel like I have." David Takami

Providence Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A]lthough The Life, the Legend is the type of exhaustive study that historians and sociologists will love (count 'em: 628 pages), I'm glad to say that it doesn't struggle to turn a charismatic, occasionally cranky centerfielder into a Jackie Robinson-style crusader for justice. Instead, with a just-cracked can of Narragansett at your elbow, Mays: The Life, the Legend lets you take a Pullman car down the day-to-day track of Mays' life and achievements." Peter Mandel

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Willie Mays is a thoroughly researched and sympathetic book that will probably stand as the definitive biography of baseball's greatest performer. What's disheartening is that, in peeling away the layers of Mays' insularity, Hirsch has found a prickly personality and a naive apologist." David Davis

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend is packed with fresh, salty details, but it bogs down in its replaying of season after grueling season. Mr. Hirsch is a capable writer, but his prose sometimes sounds soulless, as if its generalities were being intoned over a Ken Burns documentary." Dwight Garner

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Hirsch's strategy is to portray his subject, who is now 79 years old, in the larger context of America and the civil-rights era. ... The result is a heavily researched book that is tautly written but occasionally sprawls far from the baseball field, leaving Willie Mays behind. That's too bad, because ‘the life' and ‘the legend' provide plenty of material." Gerald Eskenazi

Critical Summary

The readers who seemed to appreciate Hirsch's biography the most were those who either had a personal connection to Mays's story or those who delight in baseball records and minutiae. The book is undoubtedly a must-read for anyone who is excited about an entire chapter devoted to the famous catch in the 1954 World Series (according to Mays himself, the catch was less impressive than the throw). But many reviewers felt the book dragged, either because of the vast detail or the digressions into contemporary American history. But all critics recognized Hirsch's achievement in producing a thorough biography of this major figure in sports history.