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The amazing Mays

From the very first sentence -- "The canvas sack hung limp from its standard like the body of a Cornwellian highwayman from his roadside gibbet." -- we know that Willie's Time: Baseball's Golden Age, Charles Einstein's masterpiece, is no ordinary baseball book.

But then, Willie's Time is a "baseball book" only in the crudest sense of the term. The only biography of a baseball player to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, Willie's Time tells the story of Willie Mays' career against the backdrop of five Presidential administrations, Truman through Nixon, while elegantly weaving in strands of American history, politics, and sociology.

Charles Einstein, a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America for more than half a century, collaborated with Mays on two autobiographies -- Born to Play Ball (1955) and My Life In and Out of Baseball (1966) -- and edited the four Fireside Books of Baseball, all of them essential parts of any baseball library.

Willie's Time, first released in 1979, has just been republished by Southern Illinois University Press, and I recently conducted the following e-mail interview with Einstein.

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Neyer: Charlie, I first read Willie's Time about 15 years ago, and ever since then I've remembered the book as nothing short of brilliant. But it wasn't until re-reading it last week that I remembered why it's brilliant. Before I dive into what you actually wrote, I'd like to ask a bit about the process ... The book is so intricately constructed, and filled with so many details, that I have to think that you spent 1) many years thinking about it, and 2) more years writing it. You care to confirm or deny that?

Einstein: I had ghosted Willie's autobiography, My Life In and Out of Baseball, in 1966, with three more chapters added in 1973 when he was traded to the Mets. The last thing I then had in mind was competing with myself with another book. But I had the concept of the Mays career spanning five Presidents, which became the five-chapter construct of Willie's Time, and I had the title, which I loved. That title was all things -- brief, memorable, descriptive -- but most of all it was reader-friendly. Then or now, you can't say "Willie's Time" and go away mad.

If you stop and think about it, knowing in advance both the title and chapter breakdown pretty much gets you nearly there all by itself. At least it did for me. Willie's Time could do what his previous autobiographies couldn't do -- praise Willie, not just in my words but others'. And publication could be timed to his entry into the Hall of Fame.

Anyway, I did a very brief (maybe six pages) outline. Most of the outline, as I recall, was a recitation of trivia, like the time my sports editor phoned me from a bar with his column for the next day and wound up dictating it to Prof. Albert Einstein. Three publishers said no. A fourth, Lippincott, took it. I started to write it around early 1978 and completed it with an added segment on his January '79 election to the Hall of Fame.

Numbers of people have asked me how I knew just the right baseball or non-baseball anecdote at just the right moment. They're fascinated that the tale begins with a Santa Fe train and ends with the same train more than 25 years later. But the fact is, it was a convenient way for me to begin the narrative and a total accident to end it with the same train still in operation -- something I hadn't discovered till I was actually winding up the story months later.

So I just don't know. I do know I've tried similar book ideas with other publishers since, only to discover I can go three years researching, and then simply can't write it at all.

Neyer: When you think about the book now, 25 years later, what comes to mind first? Satisfaction with having written a book that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize? Or frustration that you haven't written something similar since?

Einstein: The Pulitzer is a fine prize if you win. I remember sending off the manuscript to the publisher with an accompanying note that said, "Here it is. You've got a good book." And the critical reception was one rave after another, which of course I just soaked up. The American Airlines in-flight magazine was the first one that came in, and it was just a beaut. The reviewer, William Bandler, said the book was written "with affection, a keen sensitivity, and a touch of rambunctiousness." And he ended it on a prophetic note: "Technically," he wrote, "Willie's time has passed; in truth, it will be with us for years." And here are you and I talking, 25 years later.

Do I feel frustration that I haven't topped it? In one sense, No. The final chapter in the book is titled "His Mama Didn't Have But One," and I suppose in a way that could apply to me as a sire of books as well as to Willie as a ballplayer. So no lasting frustration. Depression, though, is something else. Was I genuinely depressed that I only had but one? You bet.

Neyer: I have more questions about the book and Willie Mays, but right now I'd like to go back a few years and ask you what it was like to grow up 1) in New York during the 1940s, with all that great baseball, and 2) as the son of a very famous man. Can I assume that you didn't have any problem getting good seats at the Polo Grounds? And were the Giants your favorite team? (For the sake of the readers, I should mention that your father was Harry Einstein, whose stage name was Parkyakarkus and was one of America's most famous comedians.)

Einstein: I was 15 in the summer of 1941, which might have been the greatest baseball season of all time. Bob Creamer did a whole book, a marvelous book, just on that season alone. The Yankees won in the American League, with (Joe) DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. (Ted) Williams hit .406 for the BoSox. The Dodgers beat out the Cardinals in a wonderful NL race. And Creamer points out that we were at war only for the last three weeks of the year, two months after the World Series, but thanks to defense spending and military build-up, the Depression was over. It was a great time to be a 15-year-old in a New York summer.

My father was living in California at that time -- I grew up in Manhattan with my mother and stepfather (he died last year at the age of 99) -- but I had been going to the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium by myself ever since I was 10 or 11, and not only those. Once I saw a game from the condemned roof of a garage across Bedford Avenue from right field at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. The NYC price scale was 55 cents for the bleachers, $1.10 for "general admissions," $1.65 for reserved-seat grandstand, and $2.20 for box seats. For World Series, the scale was doubled. Can you imagine a $5 bill buying you a box seat for the World Series today, with enough left over for round-trip subway fare, four hot dogs and a Coke?

Ballplayers in those days didn't have the money to spend the offseason lifting weights and sniffing substances. I was 11 years old and left-handed. My mother and I made a Christmas visit to Boston, where her sister worked in the advertising department at the Gilchrist department store. Elbie Fletcher, a left-handed first baseman with the Boston Bees (as the Braves were known for a few seasons) was selling ties in the men's dept., and my aunt arranged a lunch at the Parker House for us. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Opening Day, the Bees were at the Polo Grounds, so I skipped school to be there and caught up with Fletcher on the field after the final out. He pretended he remembered me. I invited him for dinner that night. "Sorry," he said. "I've got to be with my cousin." I said, "What about tomorrow night?" He said, "I've got another cousin." Some histories say he was the best-fielding first baseman of all time. I agree. I'd been a Giant fan, but needless to say I became a Boston fan, and then when Fletcher was traded to Pittsburgh, a Pirate fan. But I think I was at least 12 before I realized the Giants were not a privileged class just because they wore white and everybody else wore gray.

Neyer: Funny that you'd mention Creamer's Summer of '41, because when I read it, my reaction was, "Wow, somebody finally figured out a way to do, sort of, what Einstein did in Willie's Time." There are a lot of things to love about your book, but I think one of the things that sets it apart is the agility with which you place Willie Mays in his time. I've read -- or at least started -- any number of baseball books that try to do something similar, but nearly all of them do it so heavy-handedly that there doesn't seem to be any real connection between the baseball and everything else that's happening in the world. But you weave in a great deal of American history (and non-Mays baseball history, too), and somehow it works.

I guess that's not really a question, but a long comment. Here's a question, then ... I'm curious about your take on baseball's latest scandal, and I wonder if we'll ever see another player like Willie Mays, who stood 5-feet-10, weighed 170-180 pounds, and hit 660 home runs. Reading about him, we're led to the conclusion that he was immensely strong, his relatively small stature notwithstanding. Why are all (or most) of today's power hitters behemoths?

Einstein: Mays had the strongest back of any player I know of. His back? Yup. The sculptor who did the statue of him outside Pac Bell had to deal with that combination of large power and small size, 'cause he wasn't then (and isn't now) a large man. But I did a magazine piece once on Bill Lear, the inventor of the Lear Jet and the 8-track stereo and Lord knows what else, and asked him if a single short sentence could be used to describe his work. He said, "Make it smaller." And I often thought of Willie in those terms.

Obviously, people want to see home runs. If it takes steroids or pills to increase their size, the hitters will still swing and miss just as often -- maybe more so, since the pitchers are bigger too -- but the fly ball will go farther. (And if it doesn't go far enough, they can always look for outside help. Like some six or seven years ago, when somebody -- was it Jose Canseco? -- was playing center field and a fly ball hit him on the head and bounced over the fence for a home run. In Willie's time -- my time too, when I would rotate into the role of official scorer -- that mother would have been scored as a four-base error. I mean, a home run that came down on top of the fielder's head? Come on.)

Trouble now is that baseball is a wondrous adventure in comparisons, one player, one team, against some other player, some other team. Yet, In the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, half the Germans were dressed in GI uniforms. So you'd challenge them: "Who's third base for the St. Louis Browns?" And if they didn't say Mark Christman, they were dead meat. Today, it'd be Mark WHO? How many folks can use the latest third baseman as proof positive of identity today?

Neyer: Have you been to Pac Bell? And if so, what do you think of it? I've got a great deal of nostalgia for the old ballparks, from Wrigley and Fenway (which of course I've seen) to the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field (which I haven't). But walking around Pac Bell and looking down at the Giants' cream-colored uniforms in the midst of all that green grass, and surrounded by the bricks of the ballpark and the Bay beyond the right-field wall ... well, I don't know that it gets a lot better than that.

Einstein: No, I haven't been inside Pac Bell, but my son drove me around it when I was visiting there in February '03, and it is a true classic. How can you tell? Well, for one thing it's a ballpark that draws quite heavily on public transportation. Only one of the National League parks Mays played in, in his rookie year of 1951, was still in use when he ended his career in 1973. That was Wrigley Field, which was also the last place to do the national anthem before the games. My personal favorite was the run-down crackerbox at Central and Mohave where the Giants trained and their Phoenix farm club played, but that ended more than 40 years ago. But we are in a new era of stadium building, from the Sandcastle at Atlantic City to Les Murakami Stadium on the Honolulu campus of the University of Hawaii.

And last year minor-league attendance was the highest in 55 years (and its second highest ever). As Manny Trillo said, the best thing about the game is that you can always do something about yesterday tomorrow.

Neyer: Just a few more ... Actually, here's a two-part question. Among the many things I learned in the book is that Willie Mays apparently had a significant impact on attendance in the Giants' road games, throughout his career. Do you think we'll ever see another player with that sort of impact? Also, to what extent do you follow the game today?

Einstein: Will we ever see Willie's likes again? His likes, maybe. People are always saying "X looked like Mays on that play" or "Y may be the next Willie Mays." But he's been retired over 30 years by now, and interestingly it's only catches in the outfield that trigger comparison. In running, throwing, hitting for distance, hitting for average, people just concede his greatness. But for Willie alone people would drive 100, 150 miles to a ball park just to watch him field his position.

A teammate of his on the old Birmingham Black Barons summed it up: "His mama didn't have but one."

But yes, I remain a fan of this game and had the joy in my lifetime of seeing Ozzie Smith play shortstop and Elbie Fletcher play first base and a man named Mays in center field. That means I've already died and gone to heaven.

I also used to have a fantasy team in a league whose games were played with a pair of dice on a card table. John Thorn and Pete Palmer confirmed statistically that home teams win 54 percent of the time, and we can wonder what element contributes most to that unbalanced result. Some say home field, some say home fans, some say home cooking.

President Bush, a former baseball exec, says none of the above. "Look," he says, "once you've played eight innings, the game tilts. From that point on one team has to protect a lead and the other team doesn't. It's as simple as that."

Bud Selig will tell you I've been after him since 1997 to modify the rule book so any time a postponed game has to be re-scheduled in the other team's park (or any other park), the originally-scheduled home team will still get to bat last. I have a small mountain of correspondence in which he totally agrees. But weightier matters keep intruding, and I don't think they've made the change yet. Maybe they never will. When you have a game where the scoring is done by the team that doesn't have the ball, almost anything can happen. And quite regularly does.

Neyer: Again, after reading the book I could ask you a hundred other questions, but it's getting late so instead let me just say thanks for doing this, and here's one last question ... I know the new version of "Willie's Time" has an updated section up front, but there still had to be some other underlying reason for publishing it again, yes?

Einstein: Well, in 1979 there was only one audience for a book about Willie: the generation that got to see him play, at least on TV, in the "golden age," and of life in general in the '50s and '60s. Now a second generation has come along, one that never saw him play at all. So you've doubled your audience -- the generation of nostalgia plus the generation of discovery -- and one can turn out to be just as exciting as the other. The passage of time? Baseball's the game with no clock ...

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Willie's Time has just been published by Southern Illinois University Press in a 25th-anniversary addition, and can be ordered from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.