There was a delightful review, by Pete Hamill, in last week’s NYT Book Review, of James Hirsch’s “Willie Mays: The Life and Legend.” Can’t speak for the book, but Hamill’s little love letter to baseball in New York in the Fifties is wonderful. There never was, and never will be, anything like baseball in New York in the Fifties – NY teams completely dominated the post-season highlight reels (8 championships in 9 years, the Dodgers’ great win in ’55, “The Catch” in ’54, The ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World’ in ’51, Larsen’s perfect game, . . . ) and the rivalry between the Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees was life-and-death stuff to pretty much everybody in town. [The clearest evidence ever (though there’s lots and lots more, mostly from the world of soccer) of how incredibly stupid the owners of US sports franchises are with their desperate “exclusive geographic area” strategies].
Hamill captures many things about the era, but what I liked best was his observation (that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen made before) that
“He [Mays] could hit, he could run, he could catch, he could throw. And he brought to the playing of baseball a mysterious, almost magical quality that has disappeared from the professional game. Willie Mays brought us joy. All of us.
Even those of us who from birth were fanatical acolytes of the secular church of the Brooklyn Dodgers. . . . Above all, I remembered Mays getting a thunderous round of applause when he first came to bat in games at Ebbets Field (the only other visiting player to hear such cheers was Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals). Even the most fanatical Dodger fans wanted Mays to go 3 for 4, steal two bases and make one astounding catch in center field, as long as the Dodgers won, 6-4.”
It’s so true – at least, I remember the same thing. I, too, like Hamill, had the “Dodgers in my DNA”, being a Brooklyn boy [Hamill, of course, is legendary in Dodger folklore – it was Jimmy Breslin and Hamill who were, the story has it, sitting in a bar one day, and talk turned to the question “who were the three most evil men in history?” Each pulled out a pen and paper and wrote down their nominees, and when they turned their lists face up, they were identical: Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O’Malley] , but the first game I remember going to was up at the Polo Grounds, ’56 or ’57; my uncle Mack was, for some inexplicable reason, a Giants fan, and he took me up there one afternoon to see the Giants play (I think) the Phillies. We sat on the third-base line, and I remember — the only thing I remember — is Mays. He got a triple at one point, and there he was, flying around second base and running right towards us! Willie Mays! . . . I can conjure it up in my mind to this day. There really was something about him that made everybody adore him . . . Thankfully, he never ended up playing for the hated Yankees, which would really have been too hard to take …