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The Historical, cultural, and political biography of Willie's time

  • Mar 7, 2013
I was a boy turning toward teenhood and puberty, and deeply committed to the Pittsburgh Pirates when Willie Mays retired, and I vaguely remember him as too old, feeble, bordering pathetic in his absurd New York Mets uniform.  Einstein tells a different and fascinating story of Mays through the spectrum of the Presidents and the country they lead during the 23-year span of Mays's career.  At times, with Einstein's meandering, parenthetical style (sometimes inserting two anecdotal paragraph-length stories in the middle of a shorter sentence) it is easy to lose sight of the subject.

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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March 08, 2013
Thanks for sharing.
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #1
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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“Einstein uses history and Willie Mays interchangeably, and it works. . . . He cares, has a rich memory, and can write up a storm.”New York Times Book Review

“[O]ne of the best nostalgia books in years.”Boston Globe

Willie’s Time is the story of an era—a beautifully written memoir of a tempestuous, complicated, devastating, and exhilarating period in America—twenty-three years that paralleled the baseball career of the most gifted and exciting player in history.”—Gene Shalit, the Today Show


“One can only recall lovingly the man and his joyous vitality—and this Einstein does brilliantly. He masterfully superimposes Mays’s career onto the political and social events that framed it.”—Library Journal


“Absorbing reading.”Publishers Weekly


“Entertaining, enjoyable, and, yes, even educational . . . Charles Einstein’s memoir of the life and times of Willie Mays is a superb blend of sports lore and American history.”Christian Science Monitor


“Baseball fans of whatever vintage, as well as anyone interested in recapturing a slice of the past, should greatly enjoy this knowledgeable and affectionate biography.”New York Post


“A private, guarded man, Willie Mays isn’t easy to know. Einstein seems to know him well. He writes boldly, with love, and from direct experience. The result is a ...

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