Three Baseball Biographies You Don't Want to Miss
Babe Ruth retired from the major leagues in 1935 and died of cancer in 1948 at age 53. Ty Cobb was long gone from his version of diamond warfare before the start of the second half of the 20th century.
Joe DiMaggio’s abbreviated but great major league career was ending in 1951 while Ted Williams and Stan Musial had a few good years left.
Those were unquestionably the best five outfielder/hitters during the first half of that century, during most of which Major League Baseball was segregated and there were only 16 teams.
When Jackie Robinson, with the help of Branch Rickey, became the first African-American MLB player in 1947, the slow process of integrating all of MLB began.
Within less than a decade, as more and more black athletes reached MLB teams, the three greatest outfielder/hitters of the second half of the 20th century were whacking home runs, chasing fly balls and stealing bases as well or better than some or all of those five previous stars of the game.
Two of these three great players were Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, Alabama-born African-Americans who faced the horrors and tribulations of racism and even death threats before and during their glorious careers. The third was Mickey Mantle, an Oklahoma white boy who suffered from crippling leg injuries throughout his career and alcoholism all of his life, which ended in 1995 at age 63.
Mantle and Mays came up to the New York Yankees and New York Giants, respectively, in 1951. Aaron made it to the Milwaukee Braves in 1954.
This was not only a period of important change in MLB as teams began signing more and more black players. It was the age of expansion as MLB became a truly national enterprise from coast to coast.
During these turbulent times for our nation and for MLB, those three great outfielders slammed a total of 1,951 home runs, scored 5,912 runs, drove in 5,709 runs and collected 9,469 hits. This was more than enough to get Aaron, Mays and Mantle into the National Baseball Hall of Fame alongside Ruth, Cobb, DiMaggio, Williams and Musial.
Mantle and Mays were center fielders and Aaron a right fielder. Each one of them prevented runs with his speed and fielding skills that included a better than average throwing arm to cut down runners.
Of course there was “The Catch” by Willie Mays during the 1954 World Series in deep center field at the Polo Grounds on the ball hit by the Cleveland Indians’ Vic Wertz. There was the record of 18 World Series home runs by Mantle. Aaron was the man to break Babe Ruth’s career mark of 714 home runs and finish with 755 homers.
But such numbers and exploits do not really tell the story of these heroic figures, each of whom overcame considerable difficulties to stand among the very best in MLB history.
In a year of rare literary accomplishments for the world of sports, these great ballplayers are portrayed magnificently in three biographies that should be in any sports fan’s library. Anyone would do well to give these books as gifts for the sports fans on that long Christmas list.
First is “Willie Mays, The Life, The Legend,” by James S. Hirsch, published last February. Next is “The Last Hero, A Life of Henry Aaron,” by Howard Bryant, followed by “The Last Boy, Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood,” by Jane Leavy.
Thankfully, these are not books of statistics, pages of numbers or replays of everything we have known for years. These are lengthy biographies of troubled men who won over very skeptical fans and eventually even the population not normally interested in sports.
Many books have already been written about these three MLB outfielders. But, in my opinion, none are better than these biographies of the outfielders I consider to be the best at their trade between the years 1950 and 2000.
These were men who overcame their problems and did what they did without steroids or other performance enhancing drugs that tarnished the numbers posted by players including Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, etc.
Surely Mantle may have played under the influence at times. He was an alcoholic. But no one has been able to prove that alcohol, considered our No. 1 addictive drug, aids in the performance of athletics, driving, talking, walking, standing or any other activity known to man or woman. So, as far as I am concerned, Mantle was free of PEDs.
Jane Leavy enumerates many other serious problems in Mantle’s life, including the tortures of being sexually abused as a child by a family member as well as older children he knew. Then there was the constant trials he faced from his leg injuries and the daily hours of taping those legs before each game.
Mantle’s career lasted only 18 years, considerably shorter than the careers of Aaron and Mays.
Mays and Aaron reached the majors during the early years of the civil rights struggles. As African-Americans they had to withstand racial abuse long before making it to the major leagues. Once there, they still had to suffer the torments from racist fans, opposing players and even teammates while also being segregated from teammates in Southern hotels during spring training.
Aaron was born and raised in Mobile, Ala., where three other black MLB Hall of Famers were born — Willie McCovey, Satchel Paige and Ozzie Smith.
Aaron was 9 and McCovey was 5 when they lived through the terrible race riots of Mobile in 1943, caused primarily by working conditions in the wartime shipyards of that Southern port city. White workers strongly resented having to work alongside black men in those days.
While covering the Florida baseball camps in the spring of 1958, I was told to get a story on Hank Aaron, well established by then as the Milwaukee Braves’ best of a number of fine hitters. The team was in Miami for a couple of days to play the Dodgers in exhibition games. I went to the Braves’ primary hotel in downtown Miami only to learn that Aaron and his wife, along with a handful of other African-American ballplayers, were placed in another motel in the “black neighborhood” a couple of miles away. I took a cab over there and made a story of this segregation of a star.
That was life for an African-American fellow countryman even years after we fought and defeated the likes of Adolf Hitler. We just hadn’t beaten back the Bull Connors and KKK of America yet.
From these three fine biographies, we learn that Aaron and Mays were used to such horrors long before being yelled at by idiots sitting in baseball bleachers or box seats.
But do not ever think they were hardened by it to the point of letting it roll off like normal baseball taunting. This was ugly, hateful racism that has not completely disappeared from our American scene even today.
Still, Aaron, who was taught how to hit by his father, became a great singles and doubles hitter who turned into MLB’s greatest home run hitter of all time. I say that because Barry Bonds, with his 762 career home runs, has too much to prove about the authenticity of his round trippers.
Both Aaron and Mays got more than 3,000 hits while Mantle fell short as his pain-ravaged legs forced him out of action before he reached that highly regarded plateau.
But, just as Mays is best remembered for “The Catch,” Aaron is best remembered for breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974 with the Atlanta Braves. Howard Bryant tells very well in “The Last Hero” about those terrible threats to Aaron’s life as he got closer and closer to 714 home runs.
I covered all three of these fine athletes, who played against one another time and time again. I thought I knew considerable about them. I was delighted to learn much more from these three fine biographies, which I strongly recommend for anyone, sports fan or not.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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