There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away.
—BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, Thunder Road
It always seemed that there were ghosts in the eyes of Willie Mays. Here he was: the greatest living baseball player. The Say Hey Kid. Numbers could never capture Willie Mays's genius as a ballplayer, but, oh, he has numbers. He is the only player in baseball history with 500 doubles, 100 triples, 600 homers and 300 stolen bases. He was, surely, the best defensive centerfielder in major league history. He played with a brilliance and joy that defined baseball for a generation, from Ethel Barrymore* to Woody Allen‚Ä† to every American president for the last 30 years.
*"Isn't Willie Mays wonderful?" she said in an interview on her 75th birthday.
‚Ä†Woody Allen's reasons to live, from his film Manhattan: "I would say Groucho Marx, to name one thing. And Willie Mays. And the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony."
"Willie could beat you every way you could be beaten," my friend and Negro leagues icon Buck O'Neil used to say all the time, and this was true.
But Buck also said this: "Careful around Willie, now. He has a lot of sadness and pain in him." And that seemed true also. Mays rarely smiled when I saw him at events and autograph signings and appearances. He would snap at seemingly simple requests. His face would go blank when people—hundreds a day—tried in vain to explain to him how much The Great Willie Mays (and The Great became part of his name) meant to them.
I once wrote that being Willie Mays—or Mickey Mantle or Michael Jordan or Bruce Springsteen, for that matter—must be like living your wedding day again and again. Everyone wants your time, your attention and your presence next to him in a photo. Everyone wants to tell you how much he loves you. Mays always seemed worn down. Ghosts in the eyes.
Maybe a year ago, an author named Jim Hirsch e-mailed to say that there was much more to Willie Mays than I had seen. He had written a book about Mays that he hoped would show the man behind the ghosts. Hirsch had worked, on and off, for eight years to gain Mays's trust and to get him to open up.
"What people don't realize," he wrote, "is that the most appealing parts of Willie Mays have nothing to do with baseball."
Published this month, Willie Mays—The Life, The Legend certainly does a better job than any book before of getting at what it means to be Willie Mays. It begins in 1951, when a scared 20-year-old is called up to the New York Giants. "What if I don't make it?" he asks owner Horace Stoneham. As the book continues, you see Mays lose that fragility. You also see him lose his innocence.
"It always seemed to me that when the fans cheered, I did better," Mays says at one point.
"You go into a slump," Mays says at another point, "and that's the worst sadness I've ever come across."
Mays was the most prominent black athlete in America from the time in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus through the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. In 1963 a TV documentary called A Man Named Mays was broadcast just three weeks after the 16th Street Church in Birmingham was bombed. Because of racial tension, the documentary was blacked out in Birmingham—Willie Mays's hometown.
Mays was always uncomfortable being in the middle during the Civil Rights movement. He was so visible that he was a clear target for bigots. But he also did not have the soul of a crusader, and he was savaged by many civil rights activists, particularly Jackie Robinson, who thought he should have done more. It was unfair. Willie Mays could only be Willie Mays. He could only change hearts and minds by playing beautiful baseball.
"I changed the hatred to laughter," Mays says, and one of the more touching stories in the book is about a Little League game in Texas where the grandson of a Ku Klux Klan member catches a fly ball and is heard shouting, "Look at me! I'm Willie Mays!"
Hirsch does not deny Mays's crustiness and reclusiveness—"He will never be as happy as he was playing between the white lines," he says—but he does try to soften his moodiness. He says Mays is always surrounded by friends. Mays is proud of his life. He has ridden on Air Force One. The book also has brought Mays out in public again. I have never seen him look happier than he did on Feb. 10 on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The ghosts were gone from his eyes.
Stewart: "I want to run down some of your stats."
Mays: "They're too long!"
My favorite scene in the book has nothing to do with Mays's scoring from first base on a single or making his breathtaking catch in the 1954 World Series or playing stickball in the New York City streets.
It is, instead, a simple snapshot of an aging Willie Mays falling asleep in a chair as he watches a game show. Suddenly, there's a baseball question. Willie Mays jolts himself awake and shouts the answer: "Me!"
Now on SI.com
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"What people don't realize," author Hirsch wrote me, "is that THE MOST APPEALING parts of Willie Mays have nothing to do with baseball."
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW