But then Einstein brings you back to Mays and you realize that in telling you the story of Willie's time, he is telling you more about Willie than a standard chronological biography might. The "Say Hey" Kid was such an icon on and off the field that knowing the world that shaped him means knowing more about the man who shaped it in turn. The baseball statistics paint the black and white lines around the portrait (with a stunning power and poignancy in this era before expansion-diluted pitching, tiny hitter-friendly parks, and steroid-fuelled video game freaks), but the stories color in the man inside the lines.
He grew up in the South, lived with racism but refused later to vocally and visibly support civil rights efforts while fiercely defending his privacy and rights. He was the first young African-American player (his signing and rapid rise to the majors signaled the death of the Negro leagues, says Einstein) and played with a youthful exuberance and unmistakable laughter, yet was universally respected by players of all races and granted (and accepted) the honor of the unspoken role of team leader. Later in his career, when his manager gave him a powerful role as a coach on the field, the manager was asked in an accusatory tone at a press conference why he would do that. "Because Willie Mays knows more about baseball than I do. Do you have any hard questions for me?"
For readers who lived through the time spanned by Willie's career (1950 through 1973) Einstein's mixmaster style blending presidential personalities, cultural clips, and stark stories of racism in the era spanning Jim Crow, Brown vs. Board of Education, Bull Conner, and civil rights rallies (and riots burning African-American inner cities), this is as much a memoir for the reader as a biography of the man. Younger readers may be lost in the many passing allusions, reading with Google at hand will help.
One final anecdote on how the older Mays ended up seemingly out of place in a Mets uniform to end his career. Giants owner Horace Stoneham was going bankrupt and couldn't afford to pay Mays what he asked for during a final contract negotiation, so he dealt Mays to the Mets for a minor leaguer, even at that point in Mays's career an imbalance so obvious that reports assumed that the Mets also paid cash for Mays to help keep Stoneham and the Giants afloat. Einstein reports that in fact Stoneham wanted to deal Mays to a team that could afford to give him a lucrative long term contract to take care of Mays after his playing days, and that the Mets, the National League New York franchise like the Giants when Mays started there 20 years before, were the only acceptable option.
Years later, Einstein asked Stoneham how much money he actually got from the Mets in the Mays deal.
"He said, 'There was no money.'
'None. Do you think I was going to give him up for money?'"
In Willie's time, some things were more valuable than money could buy.
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