It would have been easy to just choose a Willie Mays card as a bookmark. I have several, and since this is all theoretical as I was listening to the audiobook, I wouldn’t even need to worry about damaging any of them. But this book is not like all the other Willie Mays biographies, and I think this card acknowledges what makes this particular look at The Say Hey Kid unique.
What makes this book better than the other books I’ve read about Mays is Willie’s direct involvement and the prominence of his voice throughout. It’s one thing to read accounts of The Catch. And over the years we’ve heard from many people who were there talk about The Catch. We all know that Willie said, “I don’t compare ’em. I just catch ’em.” But it’s completely different to hear Mays himself not only talk about The Catch but actually compare it to other catches, and to learn directly from the man that he thought his catch in April, 1952 on a ball hit by Bobby Morgan was the best he ever made. John Shea does a wonderful job of letting us know that Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Vin Scully agree.
The ’94 score card represents one of the more interesting subjects touched upon by Mays: how he approached Candlestick Park. The book is broken up into life lessons, and many of them revolve around adapting to situations, accepting circumstances and developing an effective game plan to work around limitations. So when the Giants moved to Candlestick and had to adapt to colder, windier weather, Mays studied the park, found that there was a jet stream out to right-center and began trying to drive the ball in that direction to take advantage. He determined that hitting the ball as high as he would in other parks to hit home runs wouldn’t work at home, so he focused on hitting hard, lower line drives. Twenty-seven years after Candlestick opened, and long after Mays retired, the Giants acquired Kevin Mitchell from the Padres. He says he never considered himself a power hitter, but Willie Mays shared his wisdom about the park and suggested Mitchell could also benefit from the jet stream out to right-center. Mitchell says in the book that Willie sharing his knowledge helped him tap into his power to lead the National League in both home runs and RBI’s in 1989, winning the National League MVP award and leading the Giants to the World Series.
It was suggested by someone that if Willie hadn’t played so many years at Candlestick he would have had far more home runs than his eventual 660, possibly as many as 800. But Mays hit eight more home runs at home than on the road during his Candlestick years, and while most players’ home/away splits would likely show a greater disparity, it’s hard to argue the park hurt Mays too much if he wasn’t hitting so many more when on the road.
Willie Mays is a beloved legend, adored by former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. He inspired younger players and fans alike. But, the truth is, he hasn’t always been liked as much as he has been respected. He can be abrasive at times, with reports coming from the clubhouse that sometimes he rubs players the wrong way. (Although, as my friend Jordan said, “Let’s be honest, any black athlete with an ‘attitude’ is going to be wrongfully understood.”) This book allows a look into the mind of Willie Mays that hasn’t always been available. I found myself understanding him and appreciating his mindset and approach much more than I had from reading about him elsewhere. And of course it’s worth hearing what a legend with 89 years of success and life experience has to offer.