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Opening Day reading: Willie Mays and Ted Williams

With Opening Day here (Let's go O's/Mets/Bosox!) , it's a good time to pick up a baseball book. You can't go wrong with these two: "Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend" by James S. Hirsch and the 50th anniversary edition of the John Updike article on Ted Williams' last game at Fenway Park.

I just finished the Willie Mays bio, and enjoyed all 500+ pages. Mays grew up in an era when blacks and whites played separately, and was a pioneer in integrating the major leagues. Hirsch's book, written with Mays' cooperation, delves into that issue as well as other major trends that hit baseball during his career, including free agency, television and coast-to-coast travel. The book is wrenching as it describes the slights Mays felt during spring training in Florida -- and when he tried to buy a home in an all-white neighborhood in San Francisco. And it's touching as Hirsch details the family-like bonds between major leaguers: Mays and manager Leo Durocher, Mays and Mets pitcher Tom Seaver (who wore his uniform with the top button open, because he had once seen his hero do it).

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The book isn't flawless. There are minor mistakes such as calculating Carl Furillo's assist-per-game ratio (he would have had to play in a 336-game season), or suggesting that Mays would lose sight of the ball while making his trademark basket catch (only if he didn't move his head). But it's a thoroughly enjoyable read. Learning about Mays' reluctance to get involved in the politics of integration reminded me of Louis Armstrong's similar stance, as described in the bio "Pops." They were both great artists, and playing (cornet or centerfield) was enough for a fascinating, fulfilling life.

The reprint of "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" offers a look at another baseball icon: Williams. The article appeared in The New Yorker in 1960, and is worth rereading -- more than once. (My closest link to Williams came as a 12-year-old at his baseball camp on Cape Cod. We got a short visit from the legend while we were practicing in the sliding pit. I can't recall what he said, but I do remember that the counselors showed us how to spike infielders' gloves by kicking our top leg out.) Two of my favorite passages:

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-- Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man's Euclidean determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities.

-- Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted "We want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

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