“People ask who’s the greatest player of all time. I contend that Babe Ruth was the most dominant baseball player of all time,” said author and Willie Mays biographer James S. Hirsch. ”But Willie was its greatest master. He could do more things on the field than any other player.”

The Observer spoke with Hirsch at his Needham home last week, a few days after Mays’ death at the age of 93. Hirsch grew up a huge Cardinals fan in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton, Missouri. He worked at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, based in Pittsburgh and Houston, before being transferred to Boston in 1995. He and his wife, Sheryl, have lived in Needham for 24 years.

Hirsch did primarily business reporting at the Times and the Journal. “But I never really saw myself as a specialist in one area,” he said. “I was more of a storyteller, and tried to find good stories across the continuum.”

In the late ‘90s, Hirsch set out on his own, writing “Hurricane,” a book about boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, imprisoned for nearly two decades for murders he did not commit. Since then, he has written or collaborated on about a dozen books and written numerous articles, essays and book reviews. So why the interest in Willie Mays?

“What interested me about Willie was the intersection of race and sports to advance America,” Hirsch said. But it took seven years to get Mays to agree to the project. The result was the comprehensive and critically acclaimed “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend,” published in 2010.

“I came to learn this about him,” Hirsch said. “He trusted three groups: He trusted ball players, he trusted children, and he trusted pets. That was it. If you didn’t fall into those three groups, it was difficult to win his trust.

“The sign to me that I was ultimately able to be a trusted member of his inner circle was that when his wife, Mae, died in 2013, only three eulogies were given, and Willie asked me to give one of them. He knew that I understood his life in a way that really no one understands it because I was the one who went to Alabama and spoke to his friends and family members whom no one had ever spoken to.”

Mays’ career with the New York/San Francisco Giants and New York Mets ran from 1951-1973 — roughly paralleling the modern civil rights era in the United States, noted Hirsch. But he was not outspoken about civil rights, and was harshly criticized by Jackie Robinson, who broke the major league color barrier in 1947.

“Willie never got credit for playing any kind of role in the civil rights era, even though he knew in his mind he did play a role, and Jackie’s criticism of him hurt him,” Hirsch said. “I went out of my way to document his role.”

Needham author James Hirsch/ Credit: Needham Observer

Hirsch told of speaking with former President Bill Clinton about growing up in Arkansas during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Clinton said folks would fight tooth and nail during the week to preserve Jim Crow, and then on Saturdays they’d watch the baseball Game of The Week on TV and cheer for Willie.

“Clinton said even on the subconscious level, Willie began to change the attitudes,” Hirsch said. Or as Mays said in the book, “I knew what I did. I turned the hatred to laughter.”

Mays was beloved by his teammates, “particularly good with the young black players,” Hirsch said. “He commanded tremendous respect.

“And he had a soft spot for children.” Mays performed many charitable acts for children, which he never did to draw attention to himself, Hirsch said. “Willie had that sensitivity, that intuition of making kids in particular feel good.”

And what a ballplayer he was — for an extraordinarily long period of time. “He played the game with a kind of joy, flair and tenacity that made him such a wonderfully appealing player, a transcendent player,” he said.

“I asked him once, ‘What is your proudest achievement in baseball?’ And he gave an me answer that no one would ever have anticipated. He said, ‘I came into the league with a 32-inch waist, and I left the league with a 32-inch waist.’ Willie lived the right way. He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t carouse. He never got involved in scandals. He ate the right way and he kept his body weight.”

Sadly, many who did not see Willie Mays in his prime remember him falling in the outfield while playing for the Mets in the 1973 World Series. He was 42, and it was his final season.

“I think it really hurt Willie that he became the poster child for not knowing when to really retire,” said Hirsch. “His legacy should have been his extraordinary durability by playing so many games, so many consecutive years, rarely getting a day off. And Willie himself was extremely proud of that.”

Mays died just two days before Major League Baseball honored the Negro Leagues with a game last week at Birmingham, Alabama’s Rickwood Field, where he began his career with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948 at the age of 17. Nowadays he is being celebrated as more than just a great ballplayer. 

“I contend that Willie had a profound impact on a whole generation of Americans,” said Hirsch. “I see Willie as an important and underappreciated participant in the civil rights era, in ensuring that white Americans were able to see a black superstar, not just how he played the game on the field, but how he comported himself off the field.”

Hirsch is currently working on a book with Brig. Gen. Bentzi Gruber, a reservist in the Israeli Army and a successful investor and entrepreneur. Gruber lectures on leadership and military ethics in Israel and at Harvard, Stanford and West Point.

“He and I are writing a leadership book, based on his ideas,” Hirsch said. “The manuscript was completed last summer and I was just waiting to get feedback from him, and then Oct. 7 occurred.”

Now, with 20,000 reservists reporting to him, Gruber has other things to worry about. Hirsch, who recently returned from a trip to Israel, said he and Gruber plan to add material to their book based on what’s happened in the last eight months. They hope to get it out next year.

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