Reading Willie Mays, Reflecting on San Francisco and Willie McCovey

James Hirsch’s new biography of Willie Mays is a long overdue comprehensive biography of one of the game’s greatest players. The book explores Mays’ youth and dedicates a few pages at the end to his life after retiring from the game, but the work is primarily about Willie Mays the ballplayer, filled with descriptions of individual games, catches and hits. The book should be of great interest to anybody who wants to know more about Willie Mays, segregation and racism in professional baseball, or the history of baseball in the third quarter of the last century.

Mays, of course, spent almost his entire career with the Giants, and almost three quarters of his time with the Giants after they moved to San Francisco. Those Giants team of the 1960s were filled with exciting and great players who, after coming within one run of winning it all in 1962, never got back to the post-season until 1971 when the superb core of Mays, Juan Marichal and Willie McCovey enjoyed one last hurrah. The sections on Mays’ years in San Francisco are insightful because the book offers a different perspective into both that Giants team and San Francisco during those years.

It is almost impossible to read about San Francisco in the 1960s without reading about the music, Summer of Love, the Haight Ashbury, hippies and the politics of the time. Mays, at least according to Hirsch, lived in a different San Francisco. Mays arrived to a San Francisco where the civic leaders welcomed him, but racism was still strong enough that he had trouble buying a home and had the home he did finally by vandalized in what today would be called a hate crime.

During his time in San Francisco, Mays rapidly became integrated into that city’s civic leadership becoming a fixture at fundraising events and in the media while becoming close with San Francisco’s political, financial and cultural elite. The San Francisco in which Hirsch describes Mays as living is one about which little is written. It was a San Francisco beginning to undergo substantial change, but one that was still, after a fashion, a prosperous post-war middle class American city. Hirsch’s descriptions of that world should be interesting to San Franciscans who do not even like baseball.

Hirsch also spends a fair amount of time describing Mays’ teammates and managers. He provides new insights and stories about layers like Monte Irvin and Orlando Cepeda as well as all of Mays’ managers, but most notably Leo Durocher. Even opponents or occasional barnstorming teammates like Jackie Robinson or Henry Aaron are more than peripheral players in the story of Willie Mays as Hirsch tells it.

Interestingly, the teammate who played the longest with Mays and who combined to form one of the greatest home run hitting duos in the history of the game, is somewhat overlooked in the book. Willie McCovey played alongside Mays from 1959 until Mays was traded early in the 1972 season. During those years they combined for more than 2,000 RBIs and almost 800 home runs. Interestingly, because McCovey played far more than Mays in San Francisco, among Giants fans, McCovey is almost as beloved, if not more, than Mays.

McCovey, who is only seven years younger than Mays and also grew up in Alabama, remains a minor figure in this book. Hirsch alludes to McCovey from time to time because he and Mays both confronted similar racism in the 1960s, as well as to McCovey’s line drive smash which landed in Bobby Richardson’s glove ending the 1962 World Series, but otherwise McCovey remains somewhat unstudied in the book, so readers do not learn much about McCovey or his relationship with Mays.

This is not so much a criticism of Hirsch who, after all, wrote a book about Willie Mays not Willie McCovey, but it somehow captures something about McCovey. McCovey was one of the greatest players ever, but was almost always overshadowed by his teammates. McCovey was a Hall of Fame first baseman who for the first part of his career was not the best first baseman on his team and for most of his career was not even the best player named Willie on his team. Today younger fans probably think of McCovey as a cove not a ballplayer, but he was a great player about whom Hirsch might have told us more.