When I was maybe 11 years old, my parents took me to a giant supermarket expo down at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, where none other than Willie Mays was putting in a personal appearance and signing autographs, one of several athletes to be making appearances at the show.
Though too young to have seen him play, I'd already read books about Mays, and heard stories about his legend from my father and grandfather. By then I knew that he'd hit 660 home runs in his career, less than only Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth, pretty good company, that he'd made the most famous catch in baseball history, and that he was known as the Say Hey Kid. I took the one Mays card I owned at the time, a 1973 Topps* showing an aged Mays near the end of his career wearing the foreign, pinstriped uniform of the Mets. The card was handed down from my cousin Allan, who bestowed upon me a couple thousand such cards in the 1966-1975 range, including some very valuable ones.
*Though autographed, this is not a scan of card from my collection, merely an image found on Google.
I stood in line for what seemed like an eternity to ask Mr. Mays for his autograph. When I did, he obliged disinterestedly, not even making eye contact or breaking his conversation with whichever adult it was he was talking to, barely nodding an acknowledgment when I thanked him. Honestly, I wasn't terribly bothered, though. It was WILLIE MAYS! Though none of my card-collecting peers believed the autograph was legit – "You probably just got your baby brother to scribble on your card!" — I knew that it was, and I still have that card. It's in a plastic sheet on the front page of a light blue three-ring binder in the closet of my childhood bedroom in Salt Lake City, right next to a few Hank Aarons and a Jim Bouton. The best of my best.
Mays is back in the news, making the rounds thanks to an authorized biography that just came out, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James S. Hirsch, published by Scribner. The 628-page book is something of a coup, marking the first time the 78-year-old legend has ever cooperated with a biographer*. The early reviews haven't been glowing, suggesting the book gets a bit bogged down in the details, but for a player as monumental and enigmatic as Mays, a closer look is merited. Breaking into the majors in 1951, the man battled racism and brought an inimitable style to the majors, becoming arguably the best all-around player the game has ever seen. I received my review copy in the mail last week, and I'm dying to sink my teeth into it. I'll report back when I do.
*update: Allen Barra begs to differ on that score, though Hirsch defends the distinction, and Bruce Weber, who repeated the claim in long piece for the New York Times, backing him up.
In the meantime, on Wednesday night Mays made an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Check out Stewart and the Say Hey Kid talking about his days playing in Trenton (where he started his pro career, hitting .353 in 81 games in 1950), how many homers he might have hit if he hadn't missed two years due to military service, and how he had to room with the son of manager Leo Durocher as a rookie: