When I was in grade school, a neighbor kid named Mark Turner generously gave hundreds of baseball and football cards to my brother and me. We spent the night sorting through them for treasure, and I quickly found it: 10 cards of Mickey Mantle, seven of Willie Mays.
This was 1968, when neither Mantle nor Mays was capable any longer of the feats that had marked their careers. But they were living legends, and I spent long hours scrutinizing the stats on the back of those cards and mulling over which one was better — the Commerce Comet or the Say Hey Kid?
That’s the bottom-line question that Allen Barra poses and tries to answer in his engaging book “Mickey and Willie” (Crown Archetype, 479 pages, $27), placing the pair on chronological tracks so you can watch them develop side-by-side, all the way from their growing-up days through their storied careers and on into their bumpy retirements after baseball.
By now, much of this story is well-known. Both Mantle and Mays have been the subjects of recent acclaimed biographies, Jane Leavy’s “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood” and James Hirsch’s “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend,” as well as countless other books and articles over the years.
What sets Barra’s book apart is the chance to compare these two prodigiously gifted ballplayers, at once so different — one white, one black; one happily self-destructive, the other grimly disciplined; one a two-fisted drunk, the other a teetotaler — and yet so much alike: both born in the South in 1931, both coached by their fathers, both rookies on New York clubs in 1951, both slugging centerfielders, both achieving a fame that transcended baseball and made them cultural icons.
Barra serves up a number of fun (and, to me, previously unknown) nuggets along the way. Yankees scout Tom Greenwade didn’t discover Mantle, as the myth has it — and as Mantle himself insisted — but only signed him, and to a pitiful contract at that. The Yankees also had their eye on Mays, sending a scout to Alabama in 1949 to take a look at the youngster. The bigoted scout reported back that Willie couldn’t hit a curveball.
Minnesota fans will enjoy reading about Mays’ short but glorious stint with the Minneapolis Millers, where he usually found “more black people in the home team dugout than the stands.” One day it snowed and Willie went back to bed, assuming the game was canceled, only to learn that the Millers had brought in a helicopter to clear the field.
Mays was happy in Minneapolis and initially begged off when told to join the Giants; he couldn’t hit big league pitching, he said (even though he was hitting .477 in the minors), and he had a girlfriend in town. The Giants took out an ad in the Minneapolis Tribune to apologize to disappointed Millers fans for calling up Mays.
Mantle and Mays met for the first time at the 1951 World Series, horsing around for photographers. While they were never the best of friends, they were always friendly, perhaps appreciating more than anything else the fact that they shared the same lofty pedestal.
“I’d go long periods without seeing him,” Mays said of Mantle after he died, “but I couldn’t go for two days without hearing about him. It was like we were never far apart.”
The book closes with Barra comparing statistics and achievements to determine who was best. Experts often say that Mays was a better all-around ballplayer, and careerwise he comes out on top because he played at a higher level longer than Mantle. But according to Barra, Mantle wins in a comparison of their 12 best seasons to see who was best in their prime.
Mantle said later in life that he thought Willie was better. But he cherished an autographed ball on which his old teammate Roger Maris had written: “To Mickey, the greatest of them all.” Let the debate continue.
Kevin Duchschere is a Star Tribune reporter.