You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! (The Back Story) by Author Jonah Winter
Though I do understand that what I’m being called on to do here is talk about my research process for You Never Heard of Willie Mays?!, I’m finding that task a bit difficult. I write 32-page picture book biographies with very little text per page. I’m not a scholar, and I don’t approach my subjects in a scholarly way. Exhaustive research doesn’t interest me. Though I am not Sherlock Holmes, not by a long shot, I do identify with his general approach of never cluttering his head with more information than is absolutely necessary for solving the problem at hand. I hate clutter! People tell me I have OCD. I also hate psychological diagnoses and labels! And when it comes to writing, I hate… unnecessary details.
In a picture-book-writing workshop I was teaching not long ago, I came up with this motto: “God may be in the details. But God is NOT in the excruciatingly excessive and irrelevant details.” I believe this is true of all writing, but it is especially true of picture book writing. So, when I’m approaching a non-fiction topic to write about, such as Willie Mays, I begin this research process already having a general sense of why this subject is important and what sorts of details I would include. Before I did any research on Willie Mays, I had a sense of what he meant to me as a human being, an American, and a baseball fan. The topic of Willie Mays is public domain – available to everybody with two eyes, a more or less functional brain, and a hearty love of baseball. You don’t have to be a scholar to have an understanding of Willie Mays and what he means to you. If you’re not a baseball fan of a certain age, there’s a good chance he means very little to you (something I hope to change with this book!). But for me, whose baseball fandom peeked during the late 60s and early 70s, when I was in grade school, Willie Mays… was a GIANT. (Pun intended!) (Sorry.) He was otherworldly. He was so huge I could hardly imagine that he actually existed. And even now, when I look at his baseball card that I was lucky enough to get in a package with some gum that I bought at the dime store one hot summer day in Texas (uh oh – the “Borderline Excruciatingly Excessive and Irrelevant Details Alarm” is sounding: Wa-OO-ga! Wa-OO-ga!), I still can’t believe that I am lucky enough to be holding this precious card. In my baseball card collection, it is like unto a gold coin… amongst pennies. I value it to the same degree I value the ancient Roman tile given to me by a vicar in Box, England. That card is an archeological relic. And THAT is where my research started.
The Willie Mays story is something practically any baseball fan of my generation (or earlier) could tell you – and it’s not terribly linear. It’s like an abstract expressionist painting, a Jackson Pollock – packed with action. It’s more about a style of play than a narrative. It’s about where geometry and movement coincide. By the time I got my Mays card, it was 1970 – and the Say Hey Kid was past his prime, past the era of his dazzling plays that turned him into a living legend. But even then, in 1970, when you thought of Willie Mays, even if you were just an 8-year-old toe-head Texan lad, you thought of “The Catch” – arguably one of the most famous moments in baseball history: that impossible-looking over-the-shoulder catch Mays made in the 1954 World Series. The series of photos that tracks the progress of this lightning-fast play are among the most famous images in baseball history. And it is this moment, known to all true baseball fans, that is both the inspiration and the center of the story I wanted to tell.
Even so, the following question dogged me from the outset of my attempts to write a picture book about Willie Mays: How do you tell a story about someone who was consistently good at what he did – and consistently upbeat? Where’s the “beginning, middle, and end” that every plotline is supposed to have? Perhaps this didn’t need to be that kind of tale. And yet, there is more, far more, than “The Catch” to the Willie Mays story. It has been frustrating for Mays to be reduced to this one play, when he knows, as do people who actually saw him play, that he made plays like that all the time! When I picture him, I picture someone constantly in motion – unstoppable (except when he ran into walls or simply collapsed from exhaustion). That is the sense I wanted to get across in my book. In the beginning, I had some difficulty convincing my editor, Anne Schwartz, that this was the essence of Willie Mays, and that to be true to this essence basically involved getting across a sense of non-stop action – breathlessness. He was always an optimist, always looking forward – and perhaps Major League Baseball’s greatest poster child for Satchel Paige’s most famous rule for living: “Don’t look back – something might be gaining on you.” (This was certainly a rule he put to use while making “The Catch”!) Given my understanding of the essence of Willie Mays’s story, I was hesitant to superimpose any political themes on top of this story, though of course this was absolutely expected of me. Don’t get me wrong – I care about politics, passionately. But even more than that, as a picture book biographer, I care about getting the essence of someone’s story right. I care about telling the essential truth, and not simply using someone’s life story as a means to get across my own political agenda (or a political agenda expected of me). And, I must confess that I simply get tired of always centering all my books around the “person who overcame enormous challenges to do great things” trope. I mean, seriously, aren’t there any other plotlines in the world that could be inspiring to a child?!?
Enter, stage left: Willie Mays.
I would have thought that being arguably the greatest all-around player in baseball history would have been a worthy enough premise to warrant a be-zillion other biographies for adults and children. I would have thought that a story showing what kind of brilliance can come from having one’s innate talent nurtured by ongoing support… would have been a perfect story for children. But in reality, there are relatively few books out there on Willie Mays. Luckily, for me, the definitive authorized adult biography by James S. Hirsch – Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend – just came out a few years ago, right around the time I started writing my manuscript. What came through in this very readable and thorough adult book is Willie Mays’ optimism, toughness, and profound competitiveness. What also came across was his mental prowess as a baseball player. It is often assumed that athletes are simply instinctual, physical beings, operating on some kind of non-intellectual level – an assumption which is particularly offensive when applied to black athletes. When one reads Willie Mays’s own words deconstructing his most magnificent plays, and in particular “The Catch,” one’s awe for Mays expands – geometrically. It was no accident that the person we often call the greatest all-around player in baseball history made that catch. Not only was he performing correct geometric calculations in his head while running top-speed – by itself, a feat worthy of the history books! He was also performing a complex analysis of what was probably happening behind him on the bases… and exactly what he would need to do the INSTANT he caught the ball. As Mays has always said, what many people don’t realize is that the truly amazing part of that play was not “the catch,” but what he was able to do immediately after the catch to prevent any runs from scoring. He was in deep center field. Not only would he have to make a Herculean throw – he would have to make it to the right guy… at the right moment. And he would have to know precisely what was happening… before he even looked at it. So. Let’s sum it up: First he makes the most amazing catch ever recorded on film – with his back to the ball. Then he figures out exactly what was happening in the infield and what he would need to do – with his back to the infield. That is what you call “mental involvement.” I won’t name any names, but we all know what can happen when otherwise decent players are not mentally involved in a game. Willie Mays presents us, for the duration of his career, with the polar opposite of daydreaming.
I always have regrets with every book I write, and the Willie Mays book is no exception – things that I should have included, things that I should have excluded. One of my main regrets for this book is that I couldn’t figure out a way to work in Mays’s cerebral abilities. But, in my own defense, I will say that I had to stay true to the character of my narrator, who was narrating the story of Willie Mays as he had experienced it as a fan growing up in New York in the 1950s. Watching a spectacular athlete play, a fan is not focused on the athlete’s cerebral activity. The cerebral activity is not the point. Winning the game is the point. Making mind-bogglingly good plays is the point. Athletes are entertainers. When we watch Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront,” we’re immersed in the emotion he conveys – and not in the intellectual nitty-gritty of the Stanislavski Method which he so aptly demonstrates. And when we watch film clips of Willie Mays, we the fans are excited to our cores by seeing a human being do what he did – and not by the knowledge of his ability to intellectualize what he did.
Ultimately, I chose to make this book as much about the fans’ experience of Willie Mays as it was about Mays himself. In other words, what mattered to me was the effect Willie Mays had on his fans. He was more than just a great ballplayer. He had the ability to electrify a ballpark. It was pure physics: His raw energy generated an ecstatic level of excitement. And so I thought to myself: How better to get across the essence of Willie Mays than to show the effect he had on one fan. When another person makes you truly feel something, that person has the ability to change how you look at things. When another person makes millions of people feel something, that person has the ability to change the world. And in 1950s segregated America, Willie Mays did just that. There are many stories one could tell about this man. This was the story I chose to tell. And I didn’t need a PhD to do it.
You don’t have to be in Who’s Who to know what’s what.
A peek inside You Never Heard of Willie Mays?!:
Many thanks to Random House for sponsoring this giveaway. One lucky commenter will win a copy of You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! by Jonah Winter and Terry Widener. To enter for a chance to win a copy please leave a comment on this post about Jonah’s behind the scenes information about his book, teaching biography writing, or about the great American pastime. All comments left on or before Thursday, April 18th 2013 at 11:59 p.m. EDT will be entered into a random drawing using a random number generator on Friday, April 19th. I will announce the winners’ names at the bottom of this post no later than Sunday, April 21st. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Random House will ship the book out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you only leave it in the e-mail field.)
Comments are now closed. Thank you to everyone who left a comment on this post. Congratulations to Mary Helen whose commenter number was selected using the random number generator. Here’s the comment she left:
I love know the behind the scenes research for the book. I collect baseball books and have read another book by this author about Sandy Koufax. I love that Jonah Winter wanted to get a sense of non-stop action. I didn’t think of Mays having to be thinking ahead in the game to make the right throw. I would absolutely love this book!