Fantasy Baseball Made Real in Willie Mays

After the harsh cold of the off-season, the trade transactions, the injury reports, the speculations borne of Spring Training, the front-page preseason previews, it’s finally here. Put your puffy coat back in storage and trade your ski cap for one with a brim and a team logo. Baseball season has arrived.

The Giants are the reigning champs, and the season is long, so there’s no better time to pick up a big baseball book about the greatest player to ever put on a Giants uniform: Willie Mays.

Willie Mays was a beloved ballplayer. Take a look at Pete Hamill’s review of James S. Hirsch’s biography of the Giants center fielder, Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend to get a taste of how people who were around at the time perceived Mays: “He 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.” Throughout the review, Hamill can hardly catch his breath. Willie Mays inspires awe.

As a regular Signature contributor, perhaps it’s worth noting that Say Hey by Mays was the first autobiography I ever read. I’d never seen the guy play, but it turned him into my favorite athlete of all time. It’s probably still worth picking up again, but for a definitive tome on Number Twenty-Four, the Hirsch book is the way to go. It’s the kind of book that sports fans give to non-sports fans and say “I know, I know, but you don’t have to love sports to love this book.”

For a prime example of why that might actually be true, look no further than Hirsch’s chapter on “The Catch,” Mays’ famous play in center field during the 1954 World Series. Giving the season, the series, the game, and the moment crisp context, Hirsch earns the right to indulge in deep analysis over one three-second play. Here we learn why Mays’ batting stance is relevant to the catch he made, and why this one maneuver (not even in a deciding game, or at the end of one, or even the third out of an inning) effectively decides the whole 1954 World Series, and becomes the most famous defensive play in all of sports. Even better, Hirsch explains why it’s so fitting that instead of a long-lasting record or dominant statistic, Mays’ greatest legacy is a blurry picture of his back — and also why the greatest thing about “The Catch” was actually the throw that came right after it.


The Catch by Willie Mays. Illustration by Nathan Gelgud, 2013.