[Pictured, the real Willie Mays still dwarfed by his mythic image.]
It goes to show you how deeply steroids = baseball itself to some people, when Pete Hamill, reviewing the new Willie Mays bio in The New York Times, writes:
A long time ago in America, there was a beautiful game called baseball. This was before 30 major-league teams were scattered in a blurry variety of divisions; before 162-game seasons and extended playoffs and fans who watched World Series games in thick down jackets; before the D.H. came to the American League; before AstroTurf on baseball fields and aluminum bats on sandlots; before complete games by pitchers were a rarity; before ballparks were named for corporations instead of individuals; and long, long before the innocence of the game was permanently stained by the filthy deception of steroids.
In that vanished time, there was a ballplayer named Willie Mays.
And how. For the record, ‘Ol Man Hamill appears to approve of desegregated baseball, night games, and (maybe) West Coast baseball. And as a blogger without a copyeditor, I appreciate his use of sentence fragments throughout his piece. Still, his dreamy memories and tired nostalgia in reviewing the new James Hirsch Willie Mays biography make your teeth grind all over again re the steroids era. I’m guessing this is the first thing Hamill ever read about Willie Mays, since his impression of WM derives almost entirely from when Hamill was 12.
I mentioned Mays last week when Ernie Banks went off on steroids and Sammy Sosa. Do the amphetamine driven ballplayers of Mays’s era deserve the same asterisks and loathing? Hamill says that San Francisco’s windy Candlestick Park probably robbed Mays of over 100 HRs in his career. He glosses over how many extra games, hits, HRs, whatever that Mays’ drug use may have brought him. Mainly, I guess because Hirsch’s book does the same. Mays nor anyone else from back then needs an asterisk, nor do Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig for never facing a black ballplayer (well, ok, yes, that last era does). Mays also gained lots of HRs in his lifetime as new ballparks were built as hitters parks … However, only the adolescent perfection of Hamill’s pre-teen Brooklyn seems to matter as a yardstick here. To him, steroids are apparently the only thing in baseball history that has “permanently stained” the innocence of the game. Not segregation (90 years of it?), not pre-steroid era drugs, bans on free agency, the Black Sox, not the pre-union days of discarded and broken players without health care, not the totally arbitrary “golden age” of NY Babe Ruth baseball v reality in determining records and Hall of Fame ballots or standards of achievement … nope, just steroids. And Astro-turf. Guys like Hamill wring their hands over the day they realized baseball is a big business. For him, it was when the Dodgers moved to LA. For a lot of us non-NewYorkers, that’s the day NYC finally ceased to be the center of baseball.
Ok, it’s just a game. For many of us, it’s history, reflecting life in America. That’s the real value of Hirsch’s book, and why reexamining Mays’ career again is worth while. It’s not that Mays needs a takedown. His career makes him worthy of serious treatment. Not for this Paul Bunyon hooey of Hamill’s: “The result: Hirsch has given us a book as valuable for the young as it is for the old. The young should know that there was once a time when Willie Mays lived among the people who came to the ballpark. That on Harlem summer days he would join the kids playing stickball on St. Nicholas Place in Sugar Hill and hold a broom-handle bat in his large hands, wait for the pink rubber spaldeen to be pitched, and routinely hit it four sewers. The book explains what that sentence means. Above all, the story of Willie Mays reminds us of a time when the only performance-enhancing drug was joy.”
If memory serves, that four sewer moment of Mays playing ball on Sugar Hill was staged for Life magazine. It’s why people recall it so vividly. The press was there to cover it for a national magazine, as PR, to inform kids like Hamill of a myth that they still hold dear and insist on selling us today.