Someone is very, very wrong about the relationship between the two all-time baseball greats Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, either Mays biographer James Hirsch (Willie Mays — the Life, the Legend) or Aaron’s new biographer, Howard Bryant (The Last Hero — a Life of Henry Aaron, due out from Pantheon next week).
Hirsch’s book scarcely hints at any animosity between Henry and Willie, citing only one mild criticism Aaron made in an interview after his retirement: “If any part of me was not satisfied with Willie, it’s that he didn’t speak out enough [on the issue of civil rights]. I couldn’t understand that part of it. I never spoke to him about it. I just let it be.”
But on the subject of Henry Aaron, Willie Mays has never, over the years, just let it be.
In the early 1970s, writes Bryant, Mays finally had to concede “what was once the unthinkable: Henry Aaron, and not Willie Mays, would likely pass Babe Ruth and break the all-time home-run record, sometime in either 1973 or 1974. Over the previous two seasons, the hard truth permeated the soil that Mays had become a legend in cultivating, and others would recognize it faster than Willie. He was the one who was bigger than life, the product of his transcendent ability and the New York superhero machine. And yet during the winter after the 1971 season, for the first time in a career consistently overshadowed by star players with more charisma, playing with better media, Henry was more famous than even Willie Mays.”
Mays, Bryant makes clear, did not respond to Aaron’s overtaking him in the race for Ruth’s record, nor in his passing him as the highest paid player in the game: “Willie would never surrender the stage easily to the man who had always played in his shadow… They were not friends, and if Henry’d had his way, they wouldn’t have been rivals either because Henry truly seemed to admire Willie… there was always something about Willie that wouldn’t allow a real friendship with Henry. Willie wouldn’t, or couldn’t, ever give Henry his due as a great player, and that inability on Willie’s part to acknowledge Henry as an equal was what really burned Henry.”
In interviews, “Henry did not miss an opportunity to say Willie was the best player going, and in later years he would acknowledge Mays’s contribution in easing the way for black players… (but) Willie returned the favor by giving Henry back nothing. When Henry began to soar up the home-run chart, Willie was loathe to give even a partial nod to Henry’s ability, choosing instead to blame his own performance on his home turf, Candlestick Park, saying it was a lousy park in which to hit homers and this was the reason for Henry’s onrush.”
As Mays put it in an interview: “Hank might just catch Ruth… He’s playing in the right park.”
Bryant argues that “so much of the relationship between Mays and Aaron was perceived, often rightly, as tense if not acrimonious, stemmed from their personalities — the self-centered Mays and the diplomatic Aaron.”
There’s no doubt, says Bryant, that “Mays exemplified the rare combination of physical, athletic genius, and a showman’s gift for timing. What went less reported and, as the years passed, became an uncomfortable, common lament was just how cruel and self-absorbed Mays could be.”
Bryant cites a first-hand account from 1957, a United Press/Movietone News reporter named Reese Schoenfeld, that Mays ragged on Aaron from the sidelines while Henry was being interviewed in front of a TV camera: “How much they paying you, Hank? They ain’t payin’ you at all, Hank? Don’t you know we all get paid for this? You ruin it for the rest of us, Hank! You just fall off the turnip truck?”
While Aaron became more and more agitated, Mays laid it on thick: “You showin’ ’em how you swing? We get paid three to four hundred dollars for this. You one dumb nigger!”
According to Bryant, “Henry’s reaction for the next fifty years — to diffuse, while not forgetting, the original offense — would be consistent with the shrewd but stern way Henry Aaron dealt with uncomfortable issues. The world did not need to know Henry’s feelings towards Mays, but Henry was not fooled by his adversary. Mays committed one of the great offenses against a person as proud as Henry: he insulted him, embarrassed him in front of other people, and did not treat him with respect.”
The dark side of Willie Mays’s personality is one that the mainstream press has all but ignored over the years, though it was flashed in front of their faces in 1973 when Willie clashed with Yogi Berra when Berra was managing the Mets. Mays’s disdain for Aaron has likewise been disregarded by the New York media, though it was known and often commented on by writers in Atlanta for many years.
Aaron himself has refused to make an issue of it. Two years ago, Willie and Henry appeared as special guests on a Bob Costas HBO special, and Aaron sat and smiled while Mays went on and on about their longtime friendship — a friendship which never existed.
One wonders how New York baseball writers are going to respond to the unpleasant truth of Bryant’s revelations.