It's Opening Day! Not only of the baseball season, but also the baseball book season. No sport draws so much of its emotional energy from its history, whether legend or fact, and reading can be the best way to catch up on the sport's past. (And a book can be handy to pass the time during the inevitable slow spots of baseball's seven-month-long season.) So let's start the 2010 season by talking about Willie Mays, the subject of this season's big baseball book, James S. Hirsch's "authorized" biography.
And why not? After all, has any ball player ever received a tribute to match what Murray Kempton once wrote? "All of a sudden you remembered all the promises the rich have made to the poor...and the only one that was kept was the one about Willie Mays. They told us then that he would be the greatest baseball player we would ever see, and he was."
Mays will be 79 years old next month. I don't know how that makes Willie feel, but it sure can make the baseball fans who remember his playing days feel old. To have even the slimmest of memories of his rookie season (1951) you would now be collecting Social Security; to have actually witnessed his great catch ("the Catch") in the 1954 World Series you would have to be over 60. True, a mere stripling of 50 something could have followed his Most Valuable Player Award season in 1965, and yes, a raw youth of 45 could recall the pain of watching his stumbling outfielding in the 1973 World Series as he played out his career as a New York Met. I could go on, but you get the point.
This all makes Hirsch's book something of a work in baseball archaeology. Mays's career unfolded in what reads like a now vanished world, one in which Mays was drafted into the army following his rookie of the year season as a matter of course; in which prejudice stood in the way of the efforts of the sport's greatest player to buy the house of his choice in San Francisco; in which Mays never earned more than $165,000 (a figure cited by owners as evidence of their open-handed payment practices); in which Mays had to finance his retirement by hiring on (at a $100,000 salary) as a "greeter" at a gambling casino; and in which a fan wanting to watch the first game of the 1954 World Series could just walk up to the gate on the day of the game and have no trouble buying a ticket for $2.10.
And Hirsch's book itself is a reminder of how far away it all was in public taste as well. The book weighs in with the heft of a presidential biography. When Mays was marking the vast center field of the Polo Grounds as his turf, how many people would have been ready to read a baseball book with over 550 pages of text and 30 pages of acknowledgments and source notes? It's a trick question - no one would have read such a book because, even if someone had thought of writing it, no one would have published it. That only became possible with the publication of the first baseball book that succeeded in reaching out to a broad adult audience, Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer, the first sports book ever to be number one the New York Times bestseller list. Kahn's book hit that milestone in May 1972. Coincidentally, it was the same month that Mays was traded to the Mets from the Giants. One career was ending, one genre was being launched.
But Kahn's act of remembrance for the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s was bad news for Willie Mays and his team, the New York Giants. In Kahn's wake, there flowed an unending stream of books celebrating the Brooklyn Dodgers. Even the machinations behind the team's move to Los Angeles after the 1957 season has spawned an ongoing outpouring of debate (to which I have contributed). The Giants's move to San Francisco at the same time has gone largely unrecorded, although arguably it was a key component of the Dodgers's bid to extend the baseball map to the then distant reaches of the Pacific coast. (One book that does make the Giants an integral part of that story is Robert E. Murphy, After Many a Summer)
The result has been that the New York Giants are the missing chapter in the history of New York baseball. Eclipsed by the Yankees as the city's top team in the 1920's, the Giants were overtaken by the once lowly, indeed scorned, Bums from Brooklyn after World War II. By now, the legacy of the New York Giants has proven so evanescent that for many the "New York Giants" name is the exclusive province of a football team with no connection with baseball at all—and certainly no recollection of the time when "New York Giants" meant baseball and that other team was known as the New York football Giants."
Hirsch's book is welcome for helping restore a team that deserves to be remembered to baseball's collective memory. The Giants of the 1950s were Willie's team but were much more besides. They were the also team of manager Leo Durocher, of Monte Irvin, Alvin Dark, Eddie Stanky, Sal Maglie, Bobby Thomson and Don Mueller. They were, of course, the team that bested the "Boys of Summer" themselves in the 1951 pennant play-off on Bobby Thomson's home run "shot heard round the world." They were the team that even had the New York Yankees on the run in that year's World Series, leading two games to one when a fortuitous rain-out provided the perennial world champions with a chance to regroup. They were the team that, on the strength of journeyman outfielder Dusty Rhodes's two-game winning pinch hit home runs and Mays's immortal catch in deepest center field on a towering drive by Indian slugger Vic Wertz, swept the 1954 World Series against a Cleveland Indian team that had just set an American League record for regular season wins. And they were the team of Roger Angell, Delmore Schwartz, Paul Auster, and Murray Kempton—not a bad literary lineup—and of Tallulah Bankhead besides.
There was more. The Brooklyn Dodgers may have muscled the New York Giants out of the nostalgia-tinted celebration of the warm embrace among team and city and fan in what is now celebrated as the "capital of baseball" in the decade after World War II. But unfairly so. Mays's Dodger center field rival Duke Snider (full disclosure—the hero of my childhood) groused that Brooklyn fans were "the worst in the league" and "don't deserve a pennant," and insisted that "I Play Baseball for Money—Not Fun." It was Mays who captured the joy of the time by saying that 'I'd play for free" and it was Mays who contributed the enduring iconic image of an era when baseball was in and of the city —playing stickball in the streets of Harlem.
But nostalgia isn't what it used to be. There is a shadow falling over Mays's baseball life, one not readily integrated into a biography, although it was the most important thing that happened to baseball in the course of those years—that baseball lost its place as the nation's preeminent sport, that the "national pastime" no longer lived up to that billing.
Over the two decades following Mays's first appearance at the Polo Grounds in 1951, major league baseball became more accessible to a wider public, with more night games, expansion to the west coast, and national television exposure. Yet the "reward" for all this was that the sport's once unchallenged hold on the popular imagination slipped away.
Even getting fans to come out to landmark events was hard. Another new baseball biography of a legend from that era reminds us of the problem. The final stages of Maris's 1961 quest to break the sport's most celebrated record of all - Babe Ruth's 60 home run single season mark—played out before "crowds" of 21,485 and 19,061 and 23,381 in a Yankee Stadium that could seat close to 70,000. And the year before, Ted Williams played his last game at Fenway Park with fewer than 10,000 fans on hand.
Mays's career exactly coincides with baseball's fall. When Mays joined the Giants, baseball was far and away America's favorite sport, the pick of more than twice as many fans than football ( 39 percent for baseball, 17 percent for football). By the time Mays retired, football had taken a lead (32 percent to 24 percent) that it has never relinquished. Today four times as many fans favor football over the still self-proclaimed "national pastime" (41 percent to 10 percent).
Not only are the ranks of those for whom "time begins on opening day" dwindling—they are graying. Only six percent of adults under the age of 29 pick baseball as their favorite sport, compared to 46 percent for football and 16 percent for basketball. The preference for baseball increases every step up the longevity scale (11 percent among 30 to 49; 14 percent among 50 to 64; 17 percent for 65 and over) although outpaced by football among sports fans of all ages. It is the kind of ever graying audience distribution that has classical music impresarios tearing at their long hairs. But it is probably the target audience for selling books.
Final thought. There is plainly an audience for a big book about Willie Mays over half a century since his rookie season and almost 40 years after his retirement. Will anyone be reading about Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter 40 years from now? The poll numbers above raise doubts, but let's table that question for the time being. For now, play ball.
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