Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sunday Funnies and Arts

As always, click to enlarge...













Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, by James Hirsch (authorized by Willie Mays). The Holy Grail of every baseball scout is the five-tool player -- the one who can hit, hit with power, run, field, and throw. Willie Mays was not only a five-tool player, he was the five-tool player with skills in all caps bold-faced italics: Willie Mays could HIT, HIT WITH POWER, RUN, FIELD, and THROW. And as James Hirsch demonstrates in this fascinating but sometimes troubling biography of the great New York and San Francisco Giant, Mays played baseball with a relentless intelligence that always sought an edge, no matter how microscopic. On a baseball field, Willie Mays paired the invincibility of Achilles with the genius of Einstein.

Once, Mays told a sportswriter that his best play in that day's game had been on a routine fly ball. The reporter was puzzled: Mays could catch that ball in his sleep. But the play had come late in the game, and Mays noticed that the breaking ball of the tiring starting pitcher had lost a tad of its bite. Mays studied hitters closely, and decided that one of them would be able to pull a curve in a way that he couldn't have earlier in the game. So, Mays moved ten steps in the appropriate direction, turning a possible extra base hit into a routine out.

In the 1954 World Series, Mays made one of baseball's iconic plays on Vic Wertz's drive to the deepest reaches of the Polo Grounds:



But Mays believed that the true difficulty of this play went unappreciated. He pointed out the judgment and timing required, and that the further a fielder went from home plate, the harder a back-to-the plate catch became. (You can see Mays change his route at the last second.) Moreover, he had to turn and make an accurate throw immediately after catch.

Mays' exploits at the plate and in the field made him an hero in New York, but the adjustment to San Francisco after the Giants moved there in 1958. He had trouble buying a house: Racism was so pervasive that white homeowners didn't want one of the most famous athletes in the world in their neighborhood. Moreover, fans looked for a new hero for their new team, and for years considered Mays overpaid. (He peaked at slightly over a $100,000 a year; the minimum salary in 2009 was $400,000.)

But, like Achilles, Mays had a flaw, and his on-field heroics tell only part of the story. With the exception of his second wife, Mays had trouble maintaining adult relationships, typically discarding a friend or relative after they lost their usefulness. Although raised by a remarkable man who became a parent at 19, Mays appears to have had little contact with his father once reaching the major leagues; his Hall of Fame induction speech omitted any mention Cat Mays.

Though one of the country's most prominent black Americans, Willie Mays eschewed even surface participation in the Civil Rights movement, the most transformational development of mid-century America. When a Ku Klux Klan bomb killed four girls in a Birmingham church, Mays declined to visit his home town, sullenly asking "What could I do about it?" Raise spirits and show solidarity, for two. Hirsch labors -- at times mightily and at times half-heartedly -- to apologize for Mays' seeming apathy, casting him in the lead-by-example light, but after a while this rings false.

Shortly after the police riot at Selma Bridge, a nationally televised documentary depicted Mays living the high life in a mansion filled with custom furnishings. Hirsch depicts this as an example to black youth of what they could achieve, but all it really showed was what anyone with Willie Mays' ability could have. And there was a Potemkin-village aspect to the documentary: Mays had chronic financial difficulties and couldn't actually afford his lifestyle.

Nonetheless, like many star players of his day, Mays was close to his team's owner and was deeply ambivalent about the early successes of the Player's Union. (To be fair, many stars opposed the union outright and predicted baseball Armageddon were the union allow to attain such un-American goals as a player being able to determine where he worked.) But had a strong union existed when Mays was at his peak, he wouldn't have had financial difficulties and wouldn't have had to retire as a casino greeter.

Even so, this was one hell of a ballplayer. Sportswriters who saw Mays at his peak claim that he was the best. A lack of pitching and ineffective ownership kept him from playing for more than three pennant winners, but that hardly diminishes his accomplishments and impact on the game. He's not the first figure whose public feats masked personal flaws, nor will he be the last. On the field, at least, Willie Mays was one of the greats, and James Hirsch leaves no doubt in anyone's mind about this...

With 660 lifetime home runs, Mays is one of six players to pass the 600 mark for a career. Alex Rodriguez will join the club this year, and Manny Ramirez -- if it's important to him -- will make it next year or the year thereafter. Jim Thome has a shot, but he's fading and may come up short. Growing up, I knew the names of every one of the eight or nine players with 500 HRs; now there are 25 of them (including Rafael Palmeiro, for crying out loud)...

The Army is suddenly concerned about the quality of its top generals. What's the surprise? Bureaucracies prize bureaucratic skills and elevate bureaucrats to the top. It's an almost evolution strategy of self-preservation...

Tango et futbol...

With the first season over, Back of Town reflects on Treme and finds that nothing is wasted...

Foxessa researches a book and contemplates a trip to Haiti...

A Cajun blast on the swamp. This girl has a better time than anyone on the entire blogosphere...

Get Him To The Greek.
D: Nicholas Stoller. Jonah Hill, Russell Brand.
The narrative -- a schlub (in this case, Jonah Hill) escorts a hedonist (Russell Brand) from Place A to Place B, with multiple misadventures along the way forging a bond between them -- is as old as Greek mythology, never mind the Greek Theater. But this time, it benefits from a savvy sendup of the music biz and frat house humor that actually works (mostly).
As rock star Aldous Snow, Brand reprises his Forgetting Sarah Marshall role, playing Snow as a weird pastiche of Mick Jagger, Peter Gabriel, and Tom Jones. Rose Byrne, as Snow's ex, has the film's best line, while Sean Combs imitates Don Cheadle to good effect and Elisabeth Moss (West Wing, Mad Men) demonstrates the true nature of blackmail...

PHOTO GALLERY
Welcome home...

Chi Omega sorority, 1954...

Hay bales at the ZU Ranch...

Lakewood has its first sidewalk sale, and Mouse is there...

The Great Crested Flycatcher never met a bug it didn't like...

Hark, the heron angels!...

Never give up...

Pretty in pink...

Sweetening tea...

FROM THE JUKEBOX
Sweet soul music...

Los Cenzontles visit a children's hospital and change the world...

Dylan on Duane (Eddy)...

A Taste of Honey: The album cover to end all album covers and the most unintentionally surreal video you'll ever see...

I'll Do What I Want Dept: A great song and performance, but the pre-feminist sexism -- women are literally trophies, some willingly -- jars today's sensibilities and reminds us of how far we've come. Still, if a girl in the mid-60s was looking for a bad boy to scare the hell out of her parents, she couldn't do better than Eric Burdon. Mick Jagger is Dennis the Menace in comparison:



11 comments:

John Hayes said...

Great write up on the Mays' bio, & always fun to watch the catch off Wertz--in context, the quick throw is almost the most remarkable part of the play, tho anyone who's ever caught a baseball or a softball running with their back to the plate knows it's hard--given the Polo Field dimensions & Wertz' power--wow!

500 HR has become a pretty meaningless stat, it seems, tho of course, stats in baseball have never "meant" as much as they're purported to. But of the recent crop, how many would have gotten them in a different era? Bonds would have gone over 500--I saw him "pre-juice," & he was an unbelievable player; Alex Rodriguez; Griffey--who else? Not Palmeiro, for one!

K. said...

Manny, definitely -- he's hit home runs that negative juice wouldn't have kept in the park. Pumped up or not, 609 HRs is impressive; Sammy Sosa under any conditions would have hit 500. BTW, I saw him hit his first HR, off of Roger Clemens in Fenway Park.

It's hard to measure the impact of steroids. They came along at about the same time that baseball expanded by four teams, which greatly diluted pitching for years. Conditioning techniques also improved dramatically in the 90s, although of course the personal trainers often supplied steroids.

K. said...

BTW, John, of active players with under 500 HRs, I'd say Albert Pujols is the only one who will get to 500. Something is definitely happening here...

John Hayes said...

Manny & Sosa seem pretty much givens. & I agree that the steroids thing is hard to gauge; also, the fact that probably more pitchers than once thought were juiced would seem to be a leveling factor. Of course, there's also talk of the ball being juiced up following the 94 strike. I imagine it was a number of things. Still, the fact that Pujols might be the only current player to get 500 is saying something.

Roy said...

I agree on Pujols. Do you think it's the tougher enforcement on performance enhancing drugs that's so dramatically narrowed the field?

Great review of the Mays bio; I'll have to keep an eye out for it. And it's always great to watch the catch off Wertz and the throw home. For all his faults, the man could play the game the way it's supposed to be played!

Renegade Eye said...

Do you get the ideas for your Sunday Comics feature, from an actual analog newspaper?

K. said...

John: For all of the clutter surrounding Manny and the Manny-Being-Manny stuff, the guy is a tremendous hitter. Plus, he absolutely tortured the Yankees for the 6.5 years he was in Boston.

Roy: Enforcement plus the destruction of reputations. Plus, the leagues have finally absorbed the impact of expansion.

Ren: I wish I could say yes, but I get a daily email. I started it originally for Ben Sargent and color Doonesbury.

Ima Wizer said...

Great post, as usual, full of wonderful goodies! You are SO well informed! :-D

K. said...

Thanks, Ima!

I was remiss in not including Willie Mays' genuine love of children: He rarely turned down a request to visit a school or hospital, and in New York was often found playing stickball with neighborhood kids. In San Francisco, he once drove a pair of neighbor kids to and from a Giants game as part of a prank they played on some friends. Hirsch writes that Mays never really trusted adults, but had a special bond with young people.

RGG said...

Curt Schilling says amphetamine use in baseball had as much effect on performance as steroids.
Pete Rose, for example, admits to using "greenies".

Renegade Eye said...

Bigger, Stronger, Faster.