Mon September 3, 2007
Willie Mays: Art In The Outfield
As Willie Mays's seventy-fifth birthday approached on May 6, 2006, friends thought they wanted to do something more, something different for him than just birthday cake and testimonials.
By Don Noble
As Willie Mays's seventy-fifth birthday approached on May 6, 2006, friends thought they wanted to do something more, something different for him than just birthday cake and testimonials. So they decided an art show, with images of Willie Mays, was the answer, and the "24 at 75" exhibition (Mays's number was 24) was the result. Although this book is not coffee table-sized, it contains forty images of Willie Mays, in many many styles and media.
Some are fine art oil paintings, portraits of Mays. Some are black-and-white pencil drawings. There are photographs, caricatures, and even a couple of works by outsider or folk artists. The paintings and drawings run from the most sophisticated, accomplished, and slick to a style Alabamians would associate with Mose T. There is even a Jackson Pollock-like painting titled "Willie Splatters One."
The pun is intentional.
Most of the images are Willie on the field, batting, sliding, or making one of his supernatural catches. Most are celebratory, although a couple have additional messages to deliver. There are reminders of the segregated Negro Leagues, in which Mays played, and one painting, "175 Miraloma Drive," shows Mays outside the house he had a lot of trouble buying in presumably liberal San Francisco. It is also the house he sold and left eighteen months later, in 1959, when a bottle containing a racist hate letter came through the front window. Willie's wife said bitterly at the time: "Down in Alabama where we come from you know your place, and that's something, at least. But up here it's all camouflage. They grin in your face, and then deceive you."
Mays was sometimes accused of not being active enough in the Civil Rights Movement. A private man, Mays felt that he could make his contribution by excellence on the field and leading a dignified life off the field.
The genesis of this book, then, is the forty pictures of Mays, but there are also sixty-eight pages of text which constitute the catalogue to the pictures, a mini-biography of Mays, and an argument, entirely convincing, proposing Mays as the best baseball player who ever played the game. Of course, this kind of talk is futile, but fun.
Mays, born May 6, 1931, in a suburb of Fairfield, Alabama, always insisted, "I believe I had a happy childhood." He and his friends would play all sports after school with black kids and white. They thought nothing of it, although Mays does say, "It was the grown-ups who got upset." Birmingham at the time was also, fortunately, a baseball town. There were amateur organizations, industrial leagues, and semi-pro teams, as well as the minor-league Birmingham Barons, and the Negro League Birmingham Black Barons. Mays played for the Fairfield Gray Sox, the Chattanooga ChooChoos, the Black Barons, and the Minneapolis Millers before moving on to the New York Giants. After a major league debut in which he went hitless in his first thirteen at bats, Leo Durocher sat Mays down and assured him that he would play center field even if he never got a hit. Soon, Mays began hitting and never stopped.
And his fielding was indescribably magnificent. All fans know of The Catch that robbed Vic Wertz. There were dozens of them, hundreds of them. There has never been a fielder better than Mays, although Andruw Jones of the Braves reminds one of Mays. When the Golden Glove Award was instituted in 1957, Mays won it twelve straight times.
Mays also hit for power, 660 home runs, for average, .302 with 3,283 hits, and could steal bases, 338. Mays was a better player than DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle or Duke Snyder, or even Babe Ruth. Mays was the best, surely, and he not only did it without steroids, in his era weight lifting was considered bad for you, making people muscle-bound, less flexible and less quick. As baseball people know, Barry Bonds is Mays's god-son, Bobby Bonds having been Mays's buddy. Loyally, Mays never has a bad word for Barry, but I was startled at author Mike Shannon's candor. Bonds and some others, he writes, are guilty of a "cynical devaluation of the integrity of the game," engaged in "illegal and unethical use of performance-enhancing steroids," and Bonds, at best, deserves to be considered the "best player of Baseball's Drug-Scandal Era."
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.