I always enjoyed playing ball, and it didn’t matter to me whether I played with white kids or black. I never understood why an issue was made of who I played with, and I never felt comfortable, when I grew up, telling other people how to act. Over the years, a lot of organizations have asked me to be their spokesman, or have wanted me to make speeches about my experiences as a black athlete, or to talk to Congressmen about racial issues in sports. But see, I never recall trouble. I believe I had a happy childhood. Besides playing school sports, we’d play football against the white kids. And we thought nothing of it, neither the blacks nor the whites. It was the grownups who got upset … I never got into a fight that was caused by racism.
It isn’t hard to be good from time to time in sports. What is tough is being good every day.
I think I was the best baseball player I ever saw.
In order to excel, you must be completely dedicated to your chosen sport. You must also be prepared to work hard and be willing to accept constructive criticism. Without one-hundred percent dedication, you won’t be able to do this.
On January 17, 1970, Willie Mays was named Player of the Decade for the 1960s by the Sporting News. During the ten-year span, Mays batted .300 and averaged 100 RBIs and 35 home runs per season with the Giants.
I like how this piece captures the imagination surrounding baseball in children. And I love the detail — I can just visualize a boy with a bat, tossing up clothespins to swing at, the occasional clothespin bursting apart in midair. This piece was originally published in Brass Knuckles in 1979.
I once hit clothespins
for the Chicago Cubs.
I’d go out after supper
when the wash was in
and collect clothespins
from under four stories
was a strike-out;
the garage roof, Willie Mays,
pounding his mitt
under a pop fly.
Bushes, a double,
off the fence, triple,
and over, home run.
The bleachers roared.
I was all they ever needed for the flag.
New records every game—
once, 10 homers in a row!
But sometimes I’d tag them
so hard they’d explode,
legs flying apart in midair,
pieces spinning crazily
in all directions.
Foul Ball! What else
could I call it?
The bat was real.
For the last few weeks, I spent my commutes to and from work, as well as my time in the car running errands and driving back and forth to Kansas City, listening to an audiobook: Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age by Allen Barra. For some reason, it never occurred to me to consider the two men simultaneously. I suppose that it didn’t fully click that they played Major League Baseball at the same time (funny how clueless I can be about something that I usually feel I know so well!). But I am glad to have come across this biographical study of how the lives and careers of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays paralleled each other in so many ways.
In spite of the fact that their backgrounds differed so greatly, Mantle and Mays were virtually the same age, practically the same size (though Mantle was slightly bigger), and they both arrived in New York at the same time. Both played center field and both had close relationships with their dominant fathers as they grew up in the South.
They even paralleled one another in the ways that they differed. Mantle was white, Mays was black. Mickey drank heavily, while Willie couldn’t stand alcohol. Mickey stayed married to one woman, but was a notorious womanizer. Meanwhile, Willie Mays married twice, but if there were any extramarital affairs, he kept them private.
The biggest thing these men shared in common was their celebrity and the expectations that came with that fame. Both players experienced the fickleness of celebrity, being cheered one moment and booed in the next. Each had a song written about him (“Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)” and “I Love Mickey”). When Mantle was rejected for military service, fans turned on him for being a draft dodger. When the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco, Willie Mays was booed for not being Joe DiMaggio and, likely, for being black.
The question of who was the better player comes up frequently in the book. The answer Barra seems to hint at appears to indicate that it was Willie Mays, though Mickey Mantle would’ve had the title if only he would have taken better care of himself. Mantle himself publicly conceded that Mays was the better player. Mays, evidently the more prideful of the two, hated the idea of anyone being considered better than himself.
Barra puts his own personal touch into the book as well. He discusses his own idolization of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. He even admits that, the older he became and the more he learned about the two ballplayers, the more disillusioned he became. Even in spite of this, he continued to admire them, accepting the fact that, in spite of their greatness on the diamond, Mantle and Mays were only men, after all.
All in all, I found this book a worthwhile read (or, in my case, a worthwhile listen). The reader gets biographies of two players simultaneously, and it is done in a fashion that presents a perspective not usually found in biographies.