Willie Mays a jewel on the diamond

For the aging fans following him in his prime, Willie Mays was a youthful phenomenon who in time became baseball’s happy warrior.

He dazzled with spectacular plays in the field and dramatic power at the plate. A prodigy of the Negro Leagues, he answered the racists of his era with his incredible skills, his steady devotion to his game, his preference to get along, not give angry statements.

James S. Hirsch compellingly recounts Mays’ career in a new biography, “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend,” giving even Mays’ iconic moments, such as “The Catch” in the 1954 World Series, a sense of tension as if they were unfolding anew.

He also looks closely at how Mays fielded the other challenge of his time — a black ballplayer moving from the segregated South in the 1950s to join a game long accustomed to all-white rosters and clubhouses.

Unlike Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier, Mays chose to avoid confrontation, and caught his share of grief from more activist blacks because of it. But Hirsch makes clear that Mays was hardly spared the racist spite that would set off tirades today.

Born in Westfield, Ala., an allblack village in the steel mill environs on Birmingham’s western border, Mays was snubbed by Birmingham’s bigoted power brokers: A parade on “Willie Mays Day” in 1954 was abruptly canceled; a 1963 documentary about the superstar, “A Man Named Mays,” was televised — except in Birmingham, where it was blacked out.

Even in San Francisco, where Mays played when the Giants moved from New York City in 1958, a bottle carrying a racist message was thrown through the front window of his home. Mays didn’t raise a public fit about it.

In Hirsch’s account, the shadow of Robinson followed Mays on and off the field just as the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle gave him chase in their Hall of Fame careers. For Hirsch, Mays is more than his numbers. No one quite compares.

“His brilliance was in how he played the game, and the Catch evokes the awe and wonder of those skills,” he writes.

The book is thick — 628 pages — and is chock-full of moment-bymoment, pitch-by-pitch renderings of pivotal games and plays, even some not so pivotal. Often it reads like too many extra innings.

It is billed as the only “authorized” biography ever granted by Mays, who turns 79 this year, and is no tell-all tale.

So there are no scandalous scenes here. Just great baseball reading, by an accomplished writer (Hirsch also wrote a biography of the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter) about a wondrous ballplayer and man with gifts beyond the diamond.