Talking with veteran Bay Area sports writer John Shea, who co-authored a fresh take on the wisdom and life lessons of the San Francisco Giants legend.
Even if you’re not a sports fanatic, odds are that earlier this year you watched some, if not all of the extremely engrossing ESPN documentary The Last Dance, which took a very deep dive on the greatness that is Michael Jordan. In the process of chronicling his epic drive to win, his expansive ego and his savage competitiveness (i.e., the part about him punching Steve Kerr in the face during practice) a theme shook out that the rougher edges of Jordan’s personality were essential to him winning as much as he did, and therefore very justified.
Now, a new book offers a starkly different take on greatness. 24: Life Stories and Lessons From the Say Hey Kid reads like the inverse of The Last Dance. Sure, it’s filled with an equal amount of breathtaking sports moments, in this case, from Willie Mays’ epic career—The Catch in ’54, the four-home-run game in ’61, the extra innings classic walk off against Warren Spahn at Candlestick—but in contrast to what we witnessed with Jordan, Mays accomplishes all of it (on the field and off) with an uncanny abundance of class, humility and grace. In this regard, it’s a contrast worth considering.
Longtime San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer John Shea approached Willie to compile the new memoir as a way to look at his iconic career through the lens of lessons to live by. And the book is structured in a special way, as well. Rather than your typical Wikipedia-esque biography format, the memoir is composed as 24 chapters (to reflect Mays’ iconic uniform number—hence the title), each of which explores a particular story or anecdote that conveys the philosophy of a man who many (convincingly) argue is the greatest all-around player to ever take the field.
In the midst of a national emergency (and also—let’s not forget—on the heels of an extensive cheating scandal in Major League Baseball), 24 arrives at an opportune moment for a reconsideration of not just the game of baseball, but how we carry ourselves, interact with others and persevere through adversity. Best of all, Willie’s main caveat for participating in the project was that it would be aimed at a younger generation, so it’s a book for the kids as much as it is for the old timers who saw him in his heyday in the Polo Grounds back in the 1950s.
We caught up with Shea over the phone recently (ahead of his upcoming virtual event with Book Passage) to discuss the magnitude of co-authoring with an American icon, the evolution of the perfect baseball physique and why the Say Hey Kid could have easily won…11 MVP awards??
Take a look…
So what was your initial inspiration for this project and how did you go about getting Willie Mays on board for it?
Well, the initial inspiration was following him as child while growing up here in the Bay Area and going out to Candlestick Park to watch him do things that know one else on the ball field could do.
Later in life, after getting a journalism degree and covering baseball in the late 80s, Willie Mays by then was back with the Giants as an ambassador (he returned to the team in ’86). My relationship with him began in ’88 and then it really kicked in years later when I became national baseball writer at the Chronicle and I could kind of step back and write these stories that were about something other than the grind of the season.
I spent a lot of time with Willie and writing about Willie, and it built up this trust factor which led to me asking if he would like to do a book project. He was positive about the idea and said, “I would like to gear this to a younger audience and have this in schools.” He loves kids and the book is filled with stories about his affection for kids. His nickname says it all — The Say Hey Kid. And he is still that today: a kid at heart who loves life, he loves the game, he loves children. His Say Hey foundation is dedicated to helping under-privileged kids, which he once was.
So even though his emphasis was targeting a younger audience, it’s kind of generational. I’ve heard back from so many people who saw him play at the Polo Grounds [during the 1950s] as well as mothers and fathers who’ve had their kids read it and come away amazed with the life lessons and stories.
With that in mind, the book is structured in a really unique way, it’s not at all a straightforward biography. So I was wondering how the two of you settled on that approach?
Well, it’s just a good one, because it’s 24, his iconic number … so the 24 chapter idea was a no brainer after we came up with the title. And the format is so unique … I let Willie do his thing and then I filled in the blanks on my behalf. It’s like sitting at a bar with Willie and just shooting it. I defer to him when he’s speaking and then just lead into the next subject and then just defer to him when he weighs in again. Basically I put the ball on the tee for him and let him swing away.
Willie and I spent more than 100 hours together. I interviewed more than 200 people for the book: Negro League teammates, 30-plus Hall of Famers, commissioners, managers, teammates, opponents and everybody in and out of baseball…a couple of presidents…artists, musicians. Everyone seems to have a Willie Mays story.
There really are so many interesting stories and great anecdotes that are captured in the book, is there one in particular that resonated with you the most?
Chapter 17 is all about race. The feeling by too many people was that Willie didn’t do enough for the African American community. And Jackie Robinson himself wrote that in a book in 1964, called Baseball Has Done It, which was an oral history of the game and the history of integration in the game. Robinson had a whole bunch of players from that time — both black and white — weigh in about their experiences. But Willie didn’t want to do it. So Jackie ripped him in the book and the words hurt Willie. And it never diminished his respect for Jackie, he adored the guy and thought he was a perfect guy.
So it was my job to go back and research exactly how people felt about him, what Willie did, and whether Jackie’s claim was accurate. And this was 1964. Jackie had been retired for several years and Willie was basically in his prime … But Willie hadn’t grown up like Jackie, and his dad (coming from the Deep South) tells him, “Hey, don’t say too much, just play the game. Play it right and respect everybody else.” Willie lived by those words and he didn’t pop off, didn’t preach, didn’t march, but he did a bunch for the Civil Rights movement according to so many people I interviewed, specifically, the next generation of African American players: Joe Morgan, Reggie Jackson, Frank Robinson…they all say that Willie did a lot.
Bill Clinton gave me this wonderful quote: “Willie Mays made it absurd to be a racist.” What Clinton meant by that was not the words he said but the indelible images that he provided through his actions. Willie changed some minds at a time that minds needed to be changed.
In addition to those more significant storylines, there are just some great little details that I never knew which really reshaped and increased my sense for his greatness…for instance, that Mays is only 5’10”. Or that he was more interested in football and basketball while growing up.
It’s funny because when I got to know Willie and started writing about him, he said to me one day, “John, that was a good story but you made a mistake. I’m not 5’10”, I’m 5’11”.”
And I said, “Ok Willie, I’ll write forevermore that you’re 5’11”.”
As a kid growing up here, we all wanted to be 5’10”, 180 pounds, because that was on the back of Willie’s baseball card. So to us, that was the perfect baseball build. We didn’t know until later that A-Rod, Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken…all these guys that were like 6’4″ would dominate the game. After all, Mickey Mantle wasn’t a big guy, or even Reggie Jackson. It’s amazing that you could be that size and hit 660 home runs, because the way they teach the game now about power, and the uppercut swings and the launch angle…man, you gotta be lifting weights. But Willie didn’t lift weights. That was all just natural stuff and that was the era.
And yeah, in high school, football was his number one sport, basketball was number two and baseball was number three. But, where can you go if you’re a black quarterback in those days? And he wasn’t tall enough to play basketball. So he said, “Ok, I’ll try baseball.” And they didn’t even have a baseball team at his high school.
In a general sense then, I was wondering how you would quickly explain Willie Mays — his importance, his legacy — to a younger generation that maybe doesn’t know him?
I guess if I was going to answer the question, “Who is Willie Mays?” for a younger audience, I would say that he is more than a sports or baseball hero, he is an American hero. He came up out of segregated Birmingham, and the Jim Crow south during the Great Depression, and he fought racism on his terms. He went from the Negro leagues right out of high school, and was signed by the Giants into an all-white league. So all along, Willie Mays had to fight the bigots and beat the bigots.
As a player, I’d say that there is nobody like him today. … He was good every year. There was a great quote by Bill James, the godfather of the analytic movement, and he said, “Willie Mays’ best season is every year. Just pick one. They’re all great.”
I spoke with a bunch of statisticians who relate to Bill James, and I asked them all about Willie’s career and I came away from those conversations thinking that Willie — instead of just the two MVPs that he won — could have won between 8 and 11 MVPs, because he was just that good every single year … He was productive and durable all the way through his career.
So that’s why younger folks today could look at this honorable and exemplary life and career that really set him apart. I speak about the five tools that he had, but he also had the sixth tool, which can’t be quantified — it’s the mental skills. He was an in-game psychologist before baseball knew what psychology was. Every team has a mental skills coach now? Well, Willie was the mental skills coach before every game and I spoke with teammates that always looked to him for advice. He was the first African American team captain in baseball history, appointed in the early 60s , and he didn’t take that lightly.
I know that you are very much the veteran sports writer at this point in your career, but I still had to wonder if you were intimidated at all while working with him and if you felt a weight of responsibility for the task at hand?
Absolutely. And I pinched myself many times through the whole process. You know, talking with Bill Clinton and George Bush and Hank Aaron.
So, the ability to have that access thanks to Willie, it’s like new history, because some of these people are telling these stories for the first time. And this book has 100% new material. Anything in quotes that was used previously was off limits to this book. So it’s got no bibliography, it’s all new quotes. And that was the point early on. There are so many Mays books and stuff was taken from a previous book, which was taken from a previous book. And I’d say, “Is this even true?” I’ve heard these same Willie Mays stories over and over. I don’t want his legacy to be those same recycled stories. I want his legacy to be how the man felt in his 80s about his whole life.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.)
24: Life Stories and Lessons From the Say Hey Kid, by Willie Mays and John Shea is available now via St. Martin’s Press
Book Passage will be hosting an online author event with John Shea on Saturday, August 15th. Click here for full details.
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