Day 24 of (at least) 30 baseball book reviews for spring/summer 2020: We’ve got more than 24 reasons to slot “24” here in our annual list …

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John Shea interviews Willie Mays in the Giants clubhouse on Feb. 3, 2020, at Oracle Park in San Francisco. (Photo by Brad Mangin/ via a book review in the Chicago Tribune in April, 2020.

“24: Life Stories and Lessons from The Say Hey Kid”

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The authors:

Willie Mays
and John Shea

The publishing info:
St. Martin’s Press/MacMillan
$28.99
384 pages
To be released May 12

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com
(The Barnes and Noble edition promises to have an exclusive issue of the book with additional materials)
At Powells.com
At IndieBound.org
At Shea’s website
At Mays’ website

The review in 90 feet or less

When Vin Scully is selling you on why he believes Willie Howard Mays was the best player he ever saw, you buy it.

Just as when a list is created to celebrate the 100 greatest MLB players in history, compiled by a very well-regarded scribe, and Mays comes up at No. 1, you pay attention.

If any Giant can become the center of attention at a Dodgers’ home game, it’s also Mays.

There’s a memory we have of going to Dodger Stadium in 1971 for a Giants-Dodger game on my dad’s birthday, May 25. Surely, I was far more insistent on him taking me than with this being his birthday wish, but it remains a father-son moment. And we couldn’t understand why the Dodgers – of all teams – would wheel a bunch of cakes out to home plate for Mays, who had just turned 40 a few weeks earlier on May 6.

This was to actually a way to acknowledge Mays’ 20th year in major league baseball.

11 71 mays dodger honor

(We asked Dodgers team historian Mark Langill if he had any evidence of this occurrence, and he, of course, quickly produced a program from that year that included the photo of Mays and explained more about the cake. I was too busy trying to piece together how the Dodgers lost that game — I have a vision seared in my head of Juan Marichal hitting a three-run home run off Bill Singer in the sixth inning that landed in the Dodgers’ bullpen and secured the win. Mays started that game. I remember that as well. …. Hey, is that “Dodger Way to Play Baseball” still available for a buck-fifty? And they consider it worthy  of selling at “any of the novelty stands”?)

So who are we kidding? Mays may no longer be a kid, but we can keep him that way as long as we wish, knowing that it’s been more than 40 years after his Hall of Fame induction.

Yet when a book that brings so much joy and positive energy in a time like this,  constructed in a way to rightfully discuss the merits of two dozen ways to improve your outlook on life as you know it, it’s more than just a giant achievement.

Sharing all this with Shea, a longtime San Francisco sportswriter and author, gives is structure and a path to success.

It’s the right book, at the right time, in this moment, that again puts a smile on the face of any baseball fan, or a fan of human beings.

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The Say Hey Kid is more than a comic book super hero, or bigger than a “Life” magazine  cover.

Life-Magazine-1958-04-28Here’s a book about Mays sporting a New York cap — maybe also a subtle message about where this is all originating. You have experiences – which for Mays starts as a Major League Baseball player in the early 1950s, not long after Jackie Robinson’s debut. But there’s far more about growing up, playing catch with your dad, learning about racial relations first hand, continuing the integration process whether you enjoy it or not.

Maybe you don’t always get a chance to reflect on lessons learned until time allows it – in this case, at the age of 88 (with 89 coming up right near the book’s publication date).

But to have it captured on this and other platforms is a case study in why we need to continue to honor the experience of those who came before us.

Amidst themes such as how to set a proper example in public, know your life history, honor your mentors and peers, have fun and respect everyone like a teammate – many of which are linked to milestone events in his career like “The Catch” in the 1954 World Series, a four-homer day, the limitations of playing in the Polo Grounds and Candlestick Park – we can focus on a couple that pertain to the Giants-Dodgers rivalry.

-duke-snider-rival-fence-busters-hof-1958-topps-baseball-cards-star-graded-ex-_ss2_p-11172410+u-jfd5nwl187t3cvs12wto+v-edd71950ffae435fab9685ca46f4041fAn entire chapter 14 is devoted to it: “Your Foe Can Be Your Friend: The Story of A Heated Rivalry,”  starting with how Mays talks about when a Dodgers’ scout, Wid Matthews, failed to endorse Mays and filed a report that the teenager with the Negro League’s Birmingham Black Barons couldn’t hit a curveball.

“Shoot, I thought that was my best pitch,” Mays says. “I could hit a breaking ball at 17. … I don’t know what the hell the Dodgers’ scout was talking about. He must’ve gotten out of there in a hurry. I hit a lot of home runs off breaking balls, a lot of them.”

Too bad, Dodgers.

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One of those homers came off Tommy Lasorda during a 1954 Winter Ball season in Puerto Rico.

“I hung him a curveball,” said Lasorda. “As he was trotting around the bases, he said, ‘You can get guys out in the minor leagues, but you can’t get ‘em out in the big leagues’.” True enough.

What if the Dodgers had signed Mays? “That would be the greatest thing to happen for us, having a guy like that play for the Dodgers,” said Lasorda. “The whole world was in front of him and he conquered it.”

The Marichal-Johnny Roseboro incident in 1965 personified how Mays was bigger than picking sides, a peacemaker who escorted Roseboro off the field to prevent a melee from taking place.

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From Lelands.com

Says Mays:

I got Johnny to the bench, and blood was all the way down his jersey. I got a wet rag and started wiping. He wanted to get back on the field and fight. I told him, ‘Johnny, your eye is out, man.’ Then he stopped. I knew I had him. But after a little while, he cussed me out and said, ‘You SOB, nothing wrong with me, let me go.’ I said, ‘No, no, no, you don’t want to go there there … Johnny please, you don’t want to go out there all over again, somebody’s going to get hurt. … C’mon, Chico, let’s go.’ That stopped everything.

The chapter also reveals how Dodgers captain Maury Wills had a soft spot for Giants captain Mays. Wills called him Buck. Mays called him Pee Wee.

Mays goes on in the chapter to talk about his relationships with Roy Campanella, Junior Gilliam … and this crazy idea that Jackie Robinson once got traded to the Giants.

“Jackie wasn’t coming to the Giants,” said Mays. “If he meant that much to the Dodgers, why would they trade him? It didn’t makes sense to me. I’d want Jackie on my payroll.”

We still get chills watching video of Vin Scully’s final broadcast in 2016, in San Francisco, the Dodgers playing the team he rooted for as a kid growing up in New York. As the Giants honored Scully with a plaque in the press box, Mays was with him. Noting Mays has already lost much of his sight, Scully takes Mays’ hand and traces over the plaque’s engraving letters so he can experience it.

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A five-pannel depiction of Willie Mays’ catch from the 1954 World Series once made its way around the country. But never became permanent. A story in SI.com from 2009.

Further, in Chapter 7, Scully says the ball Mays famously chased down in the 1954 Series off Vic Wertz “wasn’t his greatest catch.”

The greatest I saw was at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers were trailing by a run and Bobby Morgan, a young third baseman from Oklahoma, came up and hit a ball in the gap in left-center. In those days, the Ebbets Field warning track was gravel and the wall concrete. It was a sinking liner, and in my mind, it would score two runs. But Willie runs as fast as he could and dives for it with his body parallel to the ground, fully stretched out. He catches the ball and literally bounces off the gravel and into the base of the wall, rolling over on his back with both hands on his chest. I’ll never forget Henry Thompson, the left-fielder for the Giants, walking over, bending down, taking the ball out of Willie’s glove and showing everyone he made the catch. It was incredible.

Willie-Mays-the-catch-reverse-angle-011014
A different angle of “The Catch.

That was April 18, 1952, just 11 months after Mays’ debut and a few weeks before he entered the military. Scully had only been doing Dodgers games for two seasons before that.

One more poignant footnotes to that story about the Mays’ Catch in the World Series: In the summer of 1955, Mays was on a Giants team flight to St. Louis sitting next to pitcher Ruben Gomez. Behind them was pitcher Don Liddle and his 6-year-old son, Craig, who was talking about playing Little League the next year but needing a glove. The next day at the Sportsman’s Park clubhouse, Mays gave Craig Liddle one of his gloves – the same one he used to catch Wertz’ ball. Mays had already broken in a new glove. Mays thought it was more important to give it to a kid who needed one.

Liddle, by the way, was the Giants pitcher who threw the pitch to Wertz in that World Series game.

Our author Q&A

From the Bay Area, Shea responded to some questions emailed — we didn’t catch up until after the review was posted, so here goes:

A QQQQWhat has your relationship with Willie Mays been over the years? Any memorable profiles you’ve done with him?

AAAAI grew up in the Bay Area and saw him play. The great Mays. There was no one better. I was honored years later to have an opportunity to establish a relationship with someone I adored in my youth and always respected. I interviewed Willie many times, and over the years, a trust was built. For him to share insight on his career and life as he did over many years – and have such great passion throughout the book-writing process — has been an absolute pleasure and experience of a lifetime.

Among some of the stories Shea has done on on the subject of Mays:

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Vin Scully with  a photo of his boyhood idol, New York Giants Hall of Famer Mel Ott, at the AT&T Park press box in San Francisco in 2016 (Brant Ward, Staff Photographer / The Chronicle)

From 2006: “Mays at 75: The Say Hey Kid has lots of fond memories, few regrets
From 2016: “Catching up with the Say Hey Kid, Willie Mays, at 85
From 2014: “Once a Giants fan, Scully has made Dodgers his passion” with some beautiful photos of Scully in the AT&T Park press box.

A QQQQWas it easy to sell Mays on this book idea? How did it germinate?

AAAAI don’t believe it was a matter of selling Willie Mays on the book idea because I think we were on the same page from the beginning. When we first talked about it, he told me he’d like to see this book in classrooms, and because Willie was always such an inspirational figure, it was the natural course: the book would include inspirational themes throughout. Thus, the lessons in every chapter tied into the storytelling. I think it’s the right touch and perfect compilation.

A QQQQHow did you come to decide the 24 chapters? Were they things in your talks over the years that came up and you could visualize a format like this?

AAAA

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Willie Mays receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2015.

We threw around different formats, and this clearly was the one. I was lucky that Kurt Aguilar was my editorial consultant. He’s a baseball and Mays historian and was a long-time San Francisco Chronicle copy editor, and he suggested the title 24, Willie’s iconic number. It was brilliant, a perfect fit. Naturally, with 24 chapters. I’ve never seen a format quite like this in any book. The way the chapters are formatted, the lessons, the boldfaced presentation of Willie Mays’ voice. His storytelling is complemented by the storytelling coming from the more than 200 interviews I conducted. Plus, the book has the biggest collection of Mays photos in any publication, nearly 100. For that, I thank our photographic researcher Brad Mangin, who gathered the rare collection of photos, many that never were previously published.

A QQQQWho would you have liked to interview but couldn’t? Living or not …

AAAAI like this story. Pretty much everyone I tried to interview, I interviewed. You drop Willie Mays’ name, everyone’s all in. There was one exception. Sandy Koufax. I’m at the cashier at Staples buying two packs of printer paper for the book, and I get a call. “Hi John, this is Sandy.” I was pumped. I had a pen and all the paper I needed. But he was calling back to tell me he’d rather not be interviewed for the book. He was gracious and kind, and I was so impressed that he took the time to explain himself that I probably felt just as good getting that call as if I had interviewed him. He didn’t have to do that. That’s Sandy, though. So widely respected but so very private. Which is perfectly fine. It was a pleasure just to hear from him. From the Dodgers’ family, I was thrilled to catch up with so many legends, from Wills to Scully to Lasorda to Newcombe to Erskine and many others.

A QQQQWhat do you envision people coming away with after reading this, even if they thought they’ve read everything there is to know about Willie? In this time of a pandemic lock-down, does this resonate maybe even more about how to focus on positive energy instead of worry about things not in your control (like the dimensions of the Polo Grounds or wind blowing a fly ball out of your reach at Candlestick?)

AAAAI would certainly say yes. It’s nice to know, especially in these times, that our heroes, our cultural icons can be positive role models, live exemplary lives and continue to inspire folks of all ages and backgrounds. Willie never did sweat the small stuff. Or the big stuff, for that matter. He didn’t complain about the conditions and always tried to make the best of any situation. There are many examples of this in the book. The thing about 24, it’s all new material on Willie’s career and life. No bibliography. Willie and I did the math, and we spent more than 100 hours together for the project. So everything’s firsthand, not borrowed from previous Willie books or other periodicals. That makes it genuine and true.


How it goes in the scorebook

A basket catch by the center fielder, back to home plate. No doubts.

And yet, if there’s a “F8” notation in the book, that really doesn’t do it justice, does it?

If there is a sixth tool that a five-tool player can strive for, Mays seems to realize it’s not just being present, but passing his knowledge onto others. And thus, we have this valuable keepsake, that will last him 24 centuries after we’re all gone.

The mother of invention: The PBBClub.com

More cultural context

Lelands Willie Mays
Painting by Arthur Miller. At ComicArtFans.com

Keep reading

51jfOFHGw4LJust looking at the cover art done on some of the Mays’ books, it’s revealing that it’s not often the photographs of him that have captured his style and grace, but what he’s inspired artists to create in his likeness – that could be something unto itself. You just have to look at the book covers of books he’s reported to have done – many of them, for young readers – and the art of the times reflected in what imagine he brings to those in the arts.

== “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend,” by James S. Hirsch (authorized by Willie Mays), Feb, 2010

== “1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever,” by Bill Madden, May, 2014

41hk3a5dUiL== “Chasing Willie Mays: A Memoir: Chronicles of a Fan Left Behind,” by Paul Kocak, Oct., 2016

== “Willie Mays: My Life in and out of Baseball,” by Willie Mays, released 1966

== “Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays,” by Willie Mays with Lou Sahadi, released in May, 1988

== “Willie’s Time: A Memoir,” by Charles Einstein, released 1979

== “Willie’s Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, the Last Negro League World Series and the Making of a Baseball Legend,” by John Kilma, released August, 2009

== “Willie Mays: ‘Mr. Baseball’ Himself … The Whole Story!” by Arnold Hano, a massmarket paperback from 1971

My Secrets of Playing,” by Willie Mays with Howard Liss, published in 1967

61PpprvfGgL== “Willie Mays: Art in the Outfield,” by Mike Shannon, released March 2007

== “Born To Play Ball,” by Willie Mays, released 1955 by Putnam, 168 pages

More Mays in artistic impression

Deepest thanks to our friend Tim Grobaty of the Long Beach Post for shedding light onto this remarkable Joe Henry song, “Our Song,” which starts out with … Just give it a listen (and follow along with the lyrics):

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