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Tag: Willie Mays

Bronx Banter Book Excerpt: Mickey and Willie

Hot off the presses comes Allen Barra’s new book, on sale today.

Here’s an exclusive excerpt from Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age.

Dig in.

Mickey and Willie

By Allen Barra

I don’t know that anyone’s ever calculated this, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, in that order, are the two most written-about players in baseball history, or at least two of the top three, along with Babe Ruth. The year 2010 saw the publication of a thick and well-researched biography of Willie, Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend, by James Hirsch, and there are countless shorter lives of Willie, several autobiographies and memoirs, and a superb life-and-times account, Willie’s Time, by Charles Einstein that, in my opinion, stands as the best thing ever written about him. Also published in 2010 was Jane Leavy’s Mantle biography, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, the most detailed of the nine versions of his life.

There are also six volumes of autobiography, memoirs, and recollections, as well as numerous books by fans and collections of letters to and from Mickey, that have been published since his death. And yet, it seems to me that there has always been one major element missing from the many books on Mantle or Mays: each other. Though they are and always will be linked in the minds of millions, I don’t think it’s ever been noted exactly how much they had in common and how each man’s image reflected the other. The similarities in their lives were uncanny. Both were children of the Great Depression, born in 1931. They were almost the same size (about five-foot-eleven and 185 pounds, at least early in their careers); Mantle had a bit more muscle, and for most of his playing career probably outweighed Willie by five to ten pounds.

Both were heralded as phenoms when they arrived in New York in 1951 after brief but legendary minor league careers. (If integration had come along a couple of years earlier, they probably would have played against each other as minor leaguers.) Both started out playing for Hall of Fame managers, Mantle for Casey Stengel and Willie for Leo Durocher. Both played stickball in the streets of New York with kids (though only Willie was lucky enough to have TV cameras record the games). The burden of expectation caused each of them to break down in tears before his first season was over. Mickey exploded on the national scene in 1953 when he hit the first “tape measure” home run, and Willie the next year when he made the most famous catch in World Series and probably baseball history. In 1958 and 1959, they barnstormed against each other with specially selected All-Star teams.

Together they defined baseball in the 1950s and through the mid-1960s. Both made the covers of Time and Life, and they were the subjects of popular songs. In the 1960s, they were often pictured together on the covers of baseball magazines, including some devoted entirely to them. They were paired off on television on the popular show Home Run Derby, did commercials and endorsements together, and appeared together on numerous TV shows. Together they created nostalgia and the autograph and memorabilia craze. Finally, in the early 1980s, they were both banned from baseball by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for doing public relations work for Atlantic City casinos.

They had exactly the same talents—everyone who saw them observed that no other players in the big leagues possessed their astonishing combinations of power and speed. And despite Willie’s far greater durability, they were, in terms of effectiveness on the field, remarkably similar. Both batted over .300 ten times and hit over 50 home runs in a season twice. Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball ranks Mays as the best player in the NL from 1954, the year he returned from the Army, through 1965, except 1959, when he ranked fourth. (For the 1956 and 1961 seasons, he shared the top spot with Henry Aaron.)

Mantle was Total Baseball’s best player in the AL every year from 1955 through 1962; he was also ranked second in 1952 and fourth in 1954. (Mantle was surely poised to top Total Baseball’s ranking in 1963, when he batted .314 but was limited to just sixty-five games by injuries.) In every season from 1954 through 1965, Mickey and Willie were selected for the All-Star teams. From 1951 through 1964, the Yankees or the Giants were in every World Series except in 1959. Their fortunes in the World Series and All-Star Games contrasted oddly. Mays was the ultimate All-Star, hitting .307 in twenty-four games, producing 29 RBIs and runs scored, while Mantle hit just .233 in sixteen All-Star Games without a single home run. But in twenty World Series games, Mays managed just .239 without a single home run; in sixty-five games, Mantle set the all-time World Series home run mark with 18.

That Mickey and Willie were the most dominant players of that period isn’t simply a myth built up by worshipful New York sportswriters—it’s a fact. The ultimate question isn’t “Were they the greatest of their time?” but “Which of them was the greatest?” (That’s a subject I explore in detail in Appendix A.)

Both were consummate all-around athletes who excelled at basketball and football in high school. Reversing the stereotype, Willie was a great passing quarterback at Fairfield Industrial High School in Westfield, Alabama; at the same time, Mickey was a dazzling running back at Commerce High in Commerce, Oklahoma. If circumstances had been different, they might have ended up playing for the two greatest college football coaches of their era: Willie for Bear Bryant, then at Kentucky—Bryant had been hugely impressed when he saw Willie play baseball for the Black Barons at Rickwood Field—and Mickey for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma.

They were both natural center fielders, but both played other positions when they were young. Mantle spent more time at shortstop than Willie, but neither of them ever quite got the hang of it. Willie began his rookie season in center field; Mickey began his rookie year in right field while Joe DiMaggio struggled through his final season, and in 1952 Mickey became the Yankees’ starting center fielder. Both had great throwing arms and were told during their early careers that they had a shot to make it as a pitcher. Mickey and Willie both idolized Joe DiMaggio. Both loved Westerns and, as boys, dreamed of growing up to be cowboys.

Their lives were dominated by their fathers, who saw baseball as a way for their sons to escape a life of brutal manual labor. For Cat Mays it was the steel mills, for Mutt Mantle the hellish zinc mines. By the time Mickey and Willie graduated from high school, both their mothers had almost disappeared from the narratives of their lives. It was often said of both that they were “born to play ball.” Whether or not that was true, they were certainly bred to the game. Cat began rolling a ball to his son while Willie was still an infant. Mutt began to throw to his son as soon as Mickey could hold a broom handle.

Both men were southerners. (New York sportswriters were fond of labeling Mickey a cowboy, a westerner—he did, after all, once ride a horse to school—but Mickey regarded himself as a southerner and often said so.) The Mantles and the Mayses were living, breathing Americana. The Mantles were what John Steinbeck’s Joad family might have been had they chosen to stay and scrape a living out of the harsh Oklahoma earth rather than emigrate to California. Willie’s folks were the country cousins of the Younger family in Lorraine Hansberry’s great play, A Raisin in the Sun; they resisted the lure of northern cities like Chicago and stayed near their roots.

They were both the products of two generations of ball-playing men, and both honed their skills through competition with industrial leaguers. Though neither of them was actually a member of an industrial league team, their fathers, uncles, and close friends played industrial ball, and Mickey and Willie played with and against them. Mantle and Mays were probably the last products of the great age of industrial league baseball that died out a few years after World War II. Neither man ever truly understood how to manage money. Mantle envied Willie’s salary; Willie was notoriously jealous of Mantle’s income from commercials and endorsements.

Needless to say, in spite of all these similarities, there were enormous cultural differences. Mickey grew up listening to country stars such as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys; his favorite singer was Hank Williams. Willie and his family listened to country blues singers like Amos Millburn, the more sophisticated R&B sounds of Louis Jordan, and even jazz artists like Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. The one singer both men enjoyed was Bing Crosby. The Mantle clan was large and closely knit; Mays came from a broken home. Mickey’s father drove him relentlessly toward baseball; Willie’s father helped him along and let him find the way to baseball on his own.

Mickey drank prodigiously and recklessly from an early age; Willie got sick on his first taste of alcohol and never touched it again. Mantle, though he remained married to his high school sweetheart for decades, led a sex life that was an unreported scandal. Mays, in contrast, was never the subject of rumors of promiscuity; his first marriage, to an older, more sophisticated woman, went badly. He had no biological children and, if the journalists who knew him are to be trusted, seldom saw his adopted son after his divorce.

One Mantle biographer, writing seven years after his death, concluded that “Mickey Mantle, like most heroes, was a construction; he was not real. He was all that America wanted itself to be, and he was also all that America feared it could never be.” Surely, it would be no stretch to say the same thing of Willie Mays. In his mammoth one-volume history of the decade, The Fifties, David Halberstam wrote that “Willie Mays seemed to be the model for the new supremely gifted black athlete. . . . He showed that the new-age black athlete had both power and speed. . . . [Mays was] a new kind of athlete being showcased, a player who, in contrast to most white superstars of the past, was both powerful and fast.” At the same time Mays was at his peak, there was a supremely gifted white athlete named Mantle who had at least as much power and speed. Bob Costas says, “There was one thing about Mantle that screamed out ‘The Natural.’ He was a God-made ballplayer.” Surely the same God made Willie Mays.

“Today,” Arnold Hano, one of Willie’s first biographers, wrote in 1965, “players are as skilled as most stars of the past, but something is lacking. Call it color, call it magic, but you call for it in vain. Except for Willie Mays. Oh, there are a few others. Mickey Mantle has always brought his own sense of excitement to the game.” He most certainly did, and who, at their peak, could have denied that Mantle’s “own sense of excitement” was a brand quite similar to Willie’s?

Though their names are melded in the minds of three generations of American sports fans and their careers ran along uncannily parallel lines, they are still, oddly, segregated. Indeed, for most of their playing careers the realities of American life dictated that they be segregated. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that they could meet together at restaurants and nightclubs in most parts of the country, and even then not in the Deep South. And it wasn’t until the 1970s that they began to appear together regularly at card shows, in commercials, and on television shows. Mantle and Mays were friends, probably as close as it was possible for a white man and a black man to be at that time.

In any event, their work schedules didn’t allow them to see each other more than a couple of times a year. Always, the newspapers kept one apprised of what the other was doing. “We kept an eye on each other, Willie and me. I was always aware of him,” Mantle remarked. “I’d go long periods without seeing him,” Mays said after Mantle died, “but I couldn’t go for two days without hearing about him. It was like we were never far apart.” Mickey and Willie—they were given boys’ names that they never grew out of. The private lives of both men revealed that they were ill equipped for life after baseball, a fact that those of us who loved them found almost impossible to understand. How, though, could we have understood? From our perspective, what could have been better than being Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays? Even after baseball, what better life could a fan imagine than being Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays?

“In some ways,” Roger Kahn told me, “I believe they knew each other better than anyone else knew them. They were the only two men in America who understood the experience they had both been through.”

Reprinted from Mickey and Willie by Allen Barra. Copyright © May 2013. Published by Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, Inc.

The Banter Gold Standard: Love Song to Willie Mays

Here’s another sure shot from the great Joe Flaherty (reprinted with permission from Jeanine Flaherty). You can find his story on Toots Shor, here; his wonderful piece on Jake LaMotta, here.  Meanwhile, enjoy a…

“Love  Song to Willie Mays”

by Joe Flaherty

When Willie Mays returned to New York, many saw it—may God forgive them—as a trade to be debated on the merits of statistics. Could the forty-one-year-old center fielder with ascending temperament and waning batting average help the Mets?

To those of us who spent our boyhood, our teens, and our beer-swilling days debating who was the first person of the Holy Trinity–Mantle, Snider, or Mays?–it was a lover’s reprieve from limbo. No matter how Amazin’ the Mets were, a part of our hearts was in San Francisco.

Mays was special to me as a teenager because I was a Giant fan in that vociferous borough of Brooklyn. This affliction was cast on me by a Galway father who reasoned that any team good enough for John McGraw was good enough for him and his offspring. So as boys, rather than take a twenty minute saunter through Prospect Park to Ebbets Field, the Flahertys took their odyssey to 155th Street, the Polo Grounds.

In that sprawling boardinghouse of a park I had to content myself with the likes of Billy Jurges, Buddy Kerr, and a near retirement Mel Ott whose kicking right leg at the plate was then a memory, no longer an azimuth which his home run followed. The enemy was as star laden as MGM: Reese, Robinson, Furillo, Cox, Hodges, Campanella, et al. So when Willie arrived in 1950, the Davids in Flatbush who had been hoping for a slingshot instead were bequeathed the jawbone of an ass.

Of course, we did have Sal Maglie, that living insult to Gillette, who thought the shortest distance between two points was a curve. But it was Willie who did it. It was he who gave the aliens in that Toonerville Trolleyland respectability. Even the enemy fan was in awe of him. He was no Plimptonesque hero about whom the beer drinkers in the stands fantasized. He was beyond that. His body was forged on another planet, and intelligent grown men know they have no truck with the citizens of Krypton. It has always amazed me to hear someone taking verbal vapors over the physical exploits of a ballet dancer while demeaning the skills of a baseball player. After all, is it not true that such as a Nureyev is practiced and choreographically moribund within a precise orbit I should swoon at such limited geography, when I have seen Mays ad lib across a prairie to haul down Vic Wertz’s 1954 World Series drive? No. Willie, like Scott Fitzgerald’s rich, is very different from you and me.

Yet, looking back on him (call it mysticism, if you like), I have the feeling his comet could have sputtered. This fall from grace, I feel, could have happened if he had come to bat in the final playoff game against the Dodgers in 1951. I was in the stands with a bevy of other hooky players, and I can’t help thinking Mays would have failed dismally if he had to come to the plate. He was just too young, a kid constantly trying to please his surrogate father, Durocher. Something dire surely would have happened: The bat would have fallen from his hands, or he would have lunged at the ball the way a drunk mounts stairs. Of course, this is all conjecture, since Bobby Thomson’s home run was his reprieve.

Still, let the mind’s eye conjure up the jubilant scene at home plate as the Giants formed a horseshoe to greet Thomson. Willie, who was on deck, should have been one of the inner circle, but he was on its outer fringes—at first too paralyzed to move, then a chocolate pogo stick trying to leap over the mob, leaping higher than all, which is an appropriate reaction from a man who has just received the midnight call from the governor.

But that’s rumination in the record book. Now, the day is Sunday, May 14, 1972, the opponent those lamisters from Coogan’s Bluff, Willie’s recent alma mater, the San Francisco Giants. The day was neither airy spring nor balmy summer but overcast and rain-threatening. I liked that—the gods were being accurate. This was no sun-drenched debut of a rookie; the sky bespoke forty-one years.

The park was as displeasing as usual. Shea Stadium is built like a bowl, and when one sits high up, he feels like a fly who can’t get down to the fudge at the bottom. An ideal baseball park is one that forces its fans to bend over in concentration, like a communion of upside down L’s. Ebbets Field was such a park.

The fans at Shea have always been too anemic for me. Even the kids with their heralded signs seem like groupies for the Rotarians or the Junior Chamber of Commerce: ”Hicksville Loves the Mets,” “Huntington Loves the Mets”; alas, Babylon can’t be far behind. And today the crowd was behaving badly, like an affectionate sheepdog that drools all over you. Imagine, they were cheering Willie Mays for warming up on the sidelines with Jim Fregosi! A Little League of the mind.

But there were dots of magic sprinkled throughout the meringue. The long-ago-remembered black men and women from the subway wars also were in attendance: the men in their straw hats, alternating a cigar and a beer under the awnings of their mustaches; the women, grown slightly wide with age, bouquet bottoms (greens, reds, yellows, purples) sashaying full bloom. These couples wouldn’t yell “Charge” when the organ demanded it (a dismal, insulting gift from the Los Angeles Dodgers), nor would they cheer a sideline game of catch. They were sophisticates; they had seen the gods cavort in too many Series to pay tribute to curtain-raising antics.

Mays was in the lead off spot, and one watched him closely for decay. Many aging ballplayers go all at once, and the pundits were playing taps for Willie. This (and a .163 batting average) roused speculation about Mays’ demise. Nothing much was learned from his first at bat. He backed away from “Sudden Sam” McDowell’s inside fast ball, a trait that is much more noticeable in him lately against pitchers who throw inside smoke. But he wasn’t feverishly bailing out, just apprehensively stepping back. Not a deplorable physical indignity but a small one, like an elegant man in a homburg nodding off in a hot subway. He walked, as did Harrelson and Agee after him. Then Staub, as if disturbed by the clutter, cleaned the bases with a grand slam. Mets 4–0.

His second time at bat I noticed he shops more for his pitches these days. There is a slight begging quality, where once there was unbridled aggressiveness. This time patience paid a price, and he was caught looking at a third strike. This was more disturbing. The head of the man in the homburg had just fallen on the shoulder of the woman next to him.

In the top of the fifth the Giants roughed up Met pitcher Ray Sadecki for four runs. Also in the course of their rally they pinch hit for their lefty McDowell, which meant that Mays would have to hit against the Giants’ tall, hard-throwing right hander Don Carrithers in the Mets’ bottom half. Bad omens abounded. If a left hander could brush Willie back, what would a right hander do? And now the game was tied, and he would have to abandon caution. Worse, the crowd was demanding a miracle, the same damn crowd which had cheered even his previous strikeout. The unintelligent love was sickening. He was an old man; let him bring back the skeleton of a fish, a single, this aging fan’s mind reasoned.

But one should not try to transmute the limitations that time has dealt him on the blessed. Even the former residents of Mount Olympus now and then remember their original address. Mays hit a 3-2 pitch toward the power alley in left center–a double, to be sure. I found myself standing, body bent backward like a saxophone player humping a melody, ’til the ball cleared the fence for a home run. The rest was the simple tension of watching Jim McAndrew in relief hold the Giants for four innings, which he did, and the Mets won, 5–4.

The trip home was romance tainted with reality. I knew well that Mays would have his handful of days like this. He still had enough skill to be a “good ballplayer,” though such a fair, adequate adjective was never meant to be applied to him. But life can’t be lived in a trunk, so I closed the lid on the memory of his lightning, and for a day, like an aging roué who has to shore up the present, I boldly claimed: “Love Is Better the Second Time Around.”

August 26, 1972

Morning Art

In Living Color. Nifty redesign by John Turney over at Uni Watch.

Say Word

Over at Baseball: Past and Present, Graham Womack interviews Robert Creamer:

Who’s the greatest baseball player you covered?

Creamer: Willie Mays. Period.

I seem to remember that Bill James, using his fabulous, desiccated statistics, demonstrated that Mickey Mantle, who was Willie’s almost exact contemporary, was actually the better player, and I’m not equipped to argue with Bill, although I’ll try. And there are DiMaggio, Williams, Musial, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez – no, wait. I didn’t cover DiMaggio, who retired after the 1951 season — I didn’t start with Sports Illustrated until 1954. But that’s still a pretty impressive collection of players to put Willie on top of.

I saw Mays play a lot. My father and I were in the moderate crowd at the Polo Grounds in May 1951 when Willie played his first game for the Giants. My father was only a mild baseball fan, although he told me his favorite ballplayer when he was a kid in New York back at the beginning of the 20th century was a bearded outfielder for the Giants named George Van Haltren, which indicates a certain degree of baseball intensity. In any case he and I drove down from Tuckahoe to the Polo Grounds, bought tickets (which you could do then) and sat in the lower stands between home and first base. Willie had broken in a few days earlier in Philadelphia where he went 0 for 12 in three games. He was batting third which if it seems a high spot for a brand-new rookie seemed a proper spot to take a look at a rookie who had been batting something like .477 in the minors.

The top of the first took some of the fun out of the game right away. Warren Spahn was pitching for the Boston Braves and in the top of the first Bob Elliott hit a three-run homer for Boston, which took a lot of the starch out of the Giant fans. If Spahn was on, and had a three-run lead already, we didn’t have a prayer. Spahn set the first two Giants down in order and here came Willie, our fabulous new rookie. I forget what the count went to — a ball and a strike, something like that. Spahn threw the next pitch and Willie hit it on a line high and deep to left center field. I cannot recall if it hit the wooden façade high in left field or went over the roof and out of the park. All I remember is the electric excitement that shot through the park at the sound and sight of our precious rookie in his first at-bat in New York hitting a tremendous home run off the great Spahn. “He’s real!” was the feeling. “He’s real!”

[Photo Credit: When in doubt, laugh]

Bronx Banter Interview: John Schulian

“Perhaps because he decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, while he was still in his prime, John Schulian has never quite been recognized as one of the last in the great line of newspaper sports columnists that started with Ring Lardner, ran through W.C. Heinz and Red Smith, and probably ended when Joe Posnanski left the Kansas City Star in 2009. This is a shame. On his better days, he rated with anyone you might care to name.”

Tim Marchman on John Schulian’s latest collection, “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us.” (Wall Street Journal)

John Schulian has been entertaining us this year with the story of his career in “From Ali to Xena.” He has a new collection of sports writing out and we recently caught up to talk about it. Here’s our conversation.

Enjoy.

BB: Your work has been collected twice before: “Writers’ Fighters,” a boxing compilation, and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” a collection of baseball writing. What was the genesis of your new anthology, which is both broader and more specific than those two?

JS: “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” was born of a mixture of ego and an urge to remind readers of the kind of sports writing they’re no longer getting in newspapers. What writer doesn’t want to have his work, at least that portion of it which isn’t embarrassingly bad, preserved in book form? I got my greatest lessons in writing by reading collections of my favorite sports writers—Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner—so having a collection with my name on it became a goal early on in my career. Because “Sometimes” is my third, I may have exceeded my limit, but I hope people will forgive me when they see that it’s wider in scope than “Writers’ Fighters” and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods.” I’m not just talking about the number of different sports it touches on, either. I’m talking about the personalities involved, and how open they were about themselves and their talents.

I realize, of course, how rare such accessibility is in today’s world, with athletes wary of any kind of media, protected by their agents, and generally paranoid about revealing anything about themselves except whether they hit a fastball or a slider. I think it was you who told me the change came about in the early ‘90s, which did a lot to shape this book. Suddenly, I knew how to make it more than a vanity project. The key was to make it stand as a tribute to the kind of sports writing that enriched newspapers when guys like Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Leigh Montville, Bill Nack, Tony Kornheiser, Tom Boswell and I were turned loose with our portable typewriters. It was my great good fortune to work in an era so rich in talent, so full of talented people who were both my competition and my friends. Likewise, the athletes were there to talk to when you needed them. I know I didn’t always get the answers I wanted, but I got enough of them to give my columns and my magazine work the heartbeat they needed. It was a wonderful time to be a sports writer, and I hope “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” bears that out.

BB: I was struck by your piece on John Riggins in Super Bowl XVII. Your starting and closing image is the most famous one from that game. You didn’t get any special access that your peers didn’t have and yet within those limitations the piece is just so writerly. The kind you don’t see today. How were you able to condense a guy’s career into a single column?

JS: It was pure reflex. I forget how much time I had for post-game interviews, but it wasn’t much before I had to get back to my computer. I’m guessing I had an hour or so to write the column. There were some guys who routinely finished in less time than that, but for me, that was a sprint. I still wanted the column to be as stylish as possible. Sometimes that was my undoing, because I spent too much time massaging the language and not enough just saying what I wanted to say. With the Riggins column, though, things fell into place. I’d spent a lot of time around the Redskins during the regular season and into the playoffs, so I was pretty well steeped in his story. As for working with the same post-game material everybody else had, there was something liberating about that. No scoops, no exclusive interviews, just a good old-fashioned writing contest. When you get in a situation like that, if you can get your mind right, everything just flows. And that was certainly the case when I wrote about Riggins. I knew instantly where all the pieces of the puzzle were supposed to go—imagery, post-game quotes, back-story. Then my instincts took over, and I even made my deadline. What could be better than that?

BB: The majority of the stories in the collection were written for newspapers. Can you describe the atmosphere of that business in the post-Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein days when columnists were stars?

JS: The newspaper business became truly glamorous after Watergate. Robert Redford played Woodward, Dustin Hoffman played Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor, practically became Jason Robards, who portrayed him on the screen. It just didn’t get any cooler than that, and the people at the Post were certainly aware of it, maybe too much so. I noticed the self-importance and inflated egos when I showed up there in 1975, in the wake of Watergate. The Post was a wonderful paper—beautifully written, smartly and courageously edited—but it was still a newspaper. There were still typos and factual errors and the kind of bad prose that daily deadlines inspire. The ink still came off on your hands, too. And there were still desk men with enlarged prostates and reporters who stank of cigar smoke, and one night some son of a bitch stole my jacket. Maybe worst of all, if you looked beyond the Post, you could see the storm clouds gathering. More and more afternoon papers were dying, and there was a segment of the population that hated the Post for unhorsing Dick Nixon and the New York Times for printing the Pentagon Papers. But newspaper people, who can be so sharp about spotting trouble on the horizon for others, tend to be blind when it comes to their own house. No wonder it felt safe and good and even magical to work on newspapers after Watergate. I loved it as much as anybody. And I probably would have liked the dance band on the Titanic, too.

BB: Before we get to the players, let’s talk about the section you have on the writers—Red Smith, A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Mark Kram and F.X. Toole—because it reminds us that the era you cover wasn’t just about the athletes, it was about the writers too. Can you talk about what a remarkable stylist Mark Kram was in his prime?

JS: I don’t think any sports writer ever wrote prose as dense and muscular and literary as Mark Kram’s. He opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you could do in terms of pure writing even though the subject was fun and games. If you want to read classic Kram, you need only turn to the opening paragraphs of his Sports Illustrated story about the Thrilla in Manila. It has to be one of the most anthologized pieces in any genre of writing. I know that it was a mortal lock to be in “At the Fighters” as soon as George Kimball and I sat down to edit the book. Kram had been on my radar since I was in college. He absolutely killed me with his bittersweet love letter to Baltimore, his hometown, on the eve of the 1966 World Series. He was under the influence of Nelson Algren when he wrote it, but I wouldn’t figure that out until years later. All I knew was that he had taken a mundane idea and turned it into a tone poem about blue collar life. Baseball was only a small part of it, and even though I was under the Orioles’ spell—Frank Robinson! Brooks Robinson! Jim Palmer!—I loved Kram’s audacity. He wasn’t afraid of the dark no matter how bright the lights on what he was writing about.

No wonder he was so great when the subject was boxing. When I was in grad school, he did a piece about the fighting Quarry brothers and how their old man had ridden the rails from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the supposedly golden promise of Southern California. He had LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, and Kram left me with a picture of him standing in a boxcar door as the train carried him toward a future filled with more sorrow than joy. I read the story standing at the newsstand where I bought SI every week, and when I got back to my apartment, I read it again. I would discover A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner, and all the other giants of fight writing later, but Mark Kram was the one who lit the way for me. And it began with that story about the Quarry brothers and the image of their old man in the boxcar door.

(more…)

Built to Last

Good long piece by Hillel Italie in the Huffington Post on Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and cooperative biogrpahies:

“Before I got to Aaron, the best advice I got was from David Halberstam, who wrote a book on Michael Jordan without getting Jordan and a book about Bill Clinton without getting Clinton,” [Howard] Bryant said of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist.

“He said to me, `The strategy was very simple – for every day they didn’t talk to me, make three phone calls to other people.’ You have to work around obstacles. It was the best piece of advice anyone’s given me.”

After Bonds overtook Aaron, in 2007, Aaron opened up to Bryant.

“When Henry and I finally spoke, he was tremendous, he was unbelievably gracious,” Bryant said. “He was even somewhat embarrassed someone was taking an interest. He didn’t ask for any money. He didn’t ask for any review copy of the book. He could have made the one phone call that every author dreads – which is to call all of his people and say, `Hey, this guy is writing a book about me. Don’t talk to him.’”

Earlier this week, Allen Barra gave his take on Bryant’s book:

Just when it seemed as if all the great baseball subjects had been done, Howard Bryant checks in with this biography of Henry Aaron, which, amazingly, Mr. Aaron had to wait 34 years to get.

Mr. Bryant, author of “Shutout,” the definitive study of race in baseball, and “Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball,” is a great writer for a great subject. Mr. Aaron’s story is the epic baseball tale of the second half of the 20th century, in many ways the equal to Jackie Robinson’s.

And in the Village Voice, Barra praises Bryant’s frank handling of the relationship between Aaron and Mays:

Bryant argues that “so much of the relationship between Mays and Aaron was perceived, often rightly, as tense if not acrimonious, stemmed from their personalities — the self-centered Mays and the diplomatic Aaron.”

There’s no doubt, says Bryant, that “Mays exemplified the rare combination of physical, athletic genius, and a showman’s gift for timing. What went less reported and, as the years passed, became an uncomfortable, common lament was just how cruel and self-absorbed Mays could be.”

…Bryant cites a first-hand account from 1957, a United Press/Movietone News reporter named Reese Schoenfeld, that Mays ragged on Aaron from the sidelines while Henry was being interviewed in front of a TV camera: “How much they paying you, Hank? They ain’t payin’ you at all, Hank? Don’t you know we all get paid for this? You ruin it for the rest of us, Hank! You just fall off the turnip truck?”

While Aaron became more and more agitated, Mays laid it on thick: “You showin’ ‘em how you swing? We get paid three to four hundred dollars for this. You one dumb nigger!”

According to Bryant, “Henry’s reaction for the next fifty years — to diffuse, while not forgetting, the original offense — would be consistent with the shrewd but stern way Henry Aaron dealt with uncomfortable issues. The world did not need to know Henry’s feelings towards Mays, but Henry was not fooled by his adversary. Mays committed one of the great offenses against a person as proud as Henry: he insulted him, embarrassed him in front of other people, and did not treat him with respect.”

Say Hey: fight, fight!

One last thing about the Aaron book that’s interesting to me is that it was written by a black man. So many sports biographies of black and Latin players, from David Maraniss and Larry Tye, to James Hirsch and Brad Snyder, are written by white guys. That’s not a knock just a fact. And it’s not to say that race is enough to judge the merit of the final product. Reporting and writing is what makes a great book no matter if the author is white or black, man or woman. Bryant wasn’t magically granted access to Aaron’s inner circle because he’s black, he did so because he’s an ace reporter who has paid his dues.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what kind of sensitivity and empathy he brings to the subject that a white writer might not. For instance, when I was writing about Curt Flood, I had to imagine what it was like to be a black kid playing ball in the deep south in the mid-1950s. I was earnest, no doubt, but it was largely an intellectual excercise, one where, through reporting and research, I attempted to intuite something beyond my experience. That’s a distance Bryant doesn’t have to cover. It doesn’t necessarily mean his writing will be better, but it’s sure to be palpably different.

Moreover, I think great biographies often tell the story of the subject and in some way, even if it is largely subconscious, the story of the author as well. My Flood book was no great biography, it was a first book, but when I look back on it, I see that I was drawn to it for several personal reasons too. The first was to learn more about Flood (and to learn how to write a book) and share his story with a YA audience.  But I think my attraction to him had everything to do with my relationship with my father. Flood was talented and troubled, alcoholic. My need to find out more about him, to appreciate his accomplishments, and forgive his failings, was directly related to how I felt about my Old Man.

[The Tortoise and the Hare picture by Esoule]

Card Corner: Willie Mays, A Yankee?

Mays

A few days ago, the New York Times ran an article that claimed the Yankees bypassed several golden opportunities to sign a young Willie Mays in the months before he officially became a member of the New York Giants’ organization. Like the Red Sox and numerous other franchises that populated the Jim Crow landscape in 1950, the Yankees gave Mays less than lukewarm attention because they felt little motivation to fully integrate their organization. On their way to a 98-win season and a World Series sweep over the Phillies, the Yankees were content to leave Mays in the Negro Leagues—or let him sign with some other major league team, one that was needier and perhaps even a bit desperate.

So let’s speculate a bit how much Yankee history would have changed if they had taken a more aggressive approach with regard to the young Mays. Even without Mays, the Yankees did their fair share of winning throughout the 1950s and the early years of the 1960s. But could they have won more? Though never particularly outstanding in postseason play, Mays could have made a difference in the outcomes of the 1955, ’57, ’60, and ’64 World Series, when the Yankees fell short to the Brooklyn Dodgers, Milwaukee Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates, and St. Louis Cardinals, respectively. The Yankees lost all four of those Series in the maximum seven games; perhaps Mays’ presence would have been sufficient to turn World Series defeat into the alternate reality of a world championship. Who knows?

Putting aside the harsh realities of the bottom line of world championships, I am certain that Mays would have made a huge difference in terms of baseball aesthetics. With Mays on board patrolling the monuments at the original Yankee Stadium, the Bombers, at least by 1960, would have been capable of boasting the greatest outfield in the history of the game. Let’s imagine the wonders of an outfield featuring Mays in center, flanked by the phenomenal Mickey Mantle in left field and the meteoric Roger Maris in right field, with all three men in the prime of their mid-to-late twenties. I mean, what more could you have wanted from three major league outfielders? High on base percentages, check. Gold Glove defensive ability, double check. Speed, check. And upper deck power, triple check.

The addition of Mays to the Yankee stable would have provided another lasting benefit to fans of the franchise, especially those who regularly attended games at the old Stadium. For fans of baseball in the 1960s, in particular, one of the most lasting images involved the sight of Mays rounding the bases. We can make all sorts of arguments about Mays being the greatest all-around player of all-time—I’m tempted to make that call, but know it will be met with rounds of debate and skepticism—but there should be little doubt that Mays was the most memorable baserunner of the television era. (And he just might have been the greatest baserunner of any era, with apologies to Ty Cobb.)

By the time this author began following baseball in the early 1970s, Mays was no longer in his overall prime, but remained a vibrant and dangerous baserunner. When Topps decided to include a series of “action” cards in its massive 1972 set, the company wisely chose to include a card depicting Mays in the act of completing one of his memorably dynamic and frantic runs around the bases. Specifically, his 1972 Topps card shows the “Say Hey Kid” sliding into home plate, his right arm extended, piling a cloud of dust onto the helpless catcher with his unseen but nonetheless powerful legs. And then there’s the Mays trademark on the basepaths—the cap. By the early 1970s, most major league baserunners wore helmets on the bases, but not Mays. He had always run the bases while wearing only his cap on his head, and he saw no reason to change in an era when player safety became more prevalent. There was just something right about Mays wearing that cap, which often flew out from underneath him because of the sheer force and torque with which he ran the basepaths. By the time that Mays reached home, his lonely cap was often sitting between third and home, or resting between second and third, waiting to be retrieved by a diligent coach or a batboy. I can see that picture on my old black-and-white Sony as if it were the day before yesterday.

As much as baseball statistics shed light on the quality of its players, they do little to convey the aesthetic landscape of the game, including the simple beauty of a runner making his way from first base to home plate. Thankfully, with its 1972 action card, Topps captured a small sample of what it was like to watch the artistic and comforting image of Willie Mays running the bases. And for those who love the visual dynamics of the game, there was nothing quite like it.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver