Jonah Winter is the award-winning author of 25 nonfiction picture books, including the NEW YORK TIMES best illustrated books DIEGO and HERE COMES THE GARBAGE BARGE!, and the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller, BARACK. He has written books on Sandy Koufax, Gertrude Stein, Muhammad Ali, Hildegard von Bingen, Josephine Baker, and Gilbert & Sullivan. Of his many books on baseball, his most recent is YOU NEVER HEARD OF WILLIE MAYS?! He currently teaches llama repair at George Mason University. Baseball season starts Sunday. What would you say are the primary differences between baseball as depicted in YOU NEVER HEARD OF WILLIE MAYS?! and the culture of the sport today?
Well, first of all, baseball was definitely still the “national pastime” back in the 1950s, which is the era on which my book focuses. In New York, especially, baseball had never been more popular, what with the three World-Series-winning teams: the Giants, the Yankees, and the Dodgers.
But throughout America, there was an innocence to baseball. Fans were not jaded. Unless a player was traded, he played for the same team throughout his career. Pennant races were not the long drawn-out affairs they are today in this era of three-division leagues and “expansion teams.” This made for more good old-fashioned drama towards the end of each season. Of course, it also meant that for most of the country, the season was over once the powerful New York teams won the pennant, which they often did.
Now, as we know, baseball has sunk to the third most popular sport in America. Many fans these days, in this free agent era, complain of the “billionaires” squabbling over salaries, and the lack of loyalty shown by players to their teams and fans. They complain of the steroids players used, and how that has muddied the all-time stats. They complain that games last too long, and that not enough happens. As concerns this last complaint, I would say: We live in the Era of Distraction, wherein unless an experience can happen in “tweet”-sized time and space, and unless there’s action/action/action, people get impatient.
The whole point of baseball, at least for this lifelong fan, is a more leisurely, “pastoral” pace. The drama is in the contrast between the moments of stasis and moments of excitement. But I’m old-fashioned in this way, and I like that kind of pace.
I also like the fact that baseball is obviously far more integrated now than it was in the 1950s. We have made progress in this way, which is undeniably a good thing. The Latin-American presence in Major League baseball is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this modern era.
As concerns the steroid controversy: Give me a break! How can we take any of the pre-Jackie-Robinson statistics seriously? Babe Ruth did not have to hit against Satchel Paige. Of course, if I were Willie Mays, never having used steroids to amass my impressive statistics, I’m not so sure what I would think of the impressive statistics amassed by my godson, Barry Bonds. But: I’m not Willie Mays! This book is a follow-up of sorts to YOU NEVER HEARD OF SANDY KOUFAX?! Both men were discriminated against because of their heritages. What enabled them to overcome prejudice and achieve baseball immortality?
First of all, neither Koufax nor Mays have ever spent much time complaining about prejudice they’ve experienced as a Jewish or African American. We all know, as citizens of America, that racism and anti-Semitism do exist here.
But to say that Koufax, for instance, was “discriminated against” is not quite correct. Signed by the Dodgers at a young age, he had a brilliant (if quirky and short-lived) career, and by the end of it he was a cultural icon, a fact cemented by his famous decision to sit out that World Series game on Yom Kippur—which, at that point, was the most public declaration of Jewish American pride that had ever been made. The fact that he has undoubtedly experienced prejudice makes him no different from any other Jewish American. The fact that he had one of the world’s most terrifying fastballs is why we still talk about him. And that’s why it mattered that he sat out that game.
Willie Mays is a different story, for obvious reasons. But he doesn’t quite fit the template of the poor black child who experiences prejudice and overcomes it to do great things. Yes, he grew up in Alabama during the Jim Crow era. But he also grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of mixed ethnicity. He grew up playing baseball with white and black kids. He was popular. He was happy. His family was supportive, harmonious, and stable in its own way.
The fact that he was not invited to play in the Major Leagues initially— in part because of his skin color (he was also very young)—is unfortunate and reminds us of the stupidity and tragedy of baseball’s “color barrier.” Certainly, he endured all sorts of racist garbage during his brief time playing in the Negro Leagues. But this is not a topic Mays himself has discussed very much.
What defines Willie Mays is his positive, action-oriented, bursting-with-positive-energy, take-no-prisoners approach to baseball and life. He was not interested then, nor is he now, in looking backwards or in being perceived as a recipient of discrimination. He did not take part in the protests of the Civil Rights movement—a fact which has earned him a certain degree of criticism.
I would argue, though, that just as Malcolm X and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. both served important functions in the Civil Rights era, Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays also served two different but equally important functions in baseball’s unique and groundbreaking move towards integration and societal progress. Willie Mays’ career spanned a volatile moment in professional baseball, as the major leagues were integrated racially. How did you approach this important moment so that young readers could grasp its importance?
I originally did not want to include any references to Mays’ two years in the Negro Leagues, as I felt that this wasted precious space (in my 32-page picture book!) that should have been devoted entirely to his brilliant career in the Major Leagues—a career I only begin to re-create in my book. I wanted, as did Willie Mays himself as a player, for him to be presented simply as a “baseball player,” and not as a “black baseball player.” I’ve always thought that that is kind of the point of Willie Mays’s story: Not to be judged for the color of his skin, but instead for the content of his baseball-playing abilities.
But, of course, what he accomplished as a player did not happen in a cultural vacuum. And aside from Mays’s athletic brilliance and indomitable spirit, what makes his story special is the effect his performance had on America, and specifically on 1950s white America, in all its segregated and racist infamy. Willie Mays opened eyes, opened hearts, opened minds.
And THAT is why I chose to tell the story from the point of view of a white fan from that era: a white person seeing, with his own eyes, for the first time, just how great a black person could be—on and off the field—and ultimately not seeing or even caring about this person’s skin color…but instead seeing only the dynamic verb of his being. This is about the “progress” that can happen inside a person’s heart and mind. Another seminal moment in Mays’ career was “The Catch.” How difficult was it to portray the tension and excitement of this incredible play by the “Say Hey Kid”?
I just had to close my eyes and put myself in that moment, as a fan, trying to narrate this crazy scene as it was happening. I definitely channeled the way baseball announcers narrate the play-by-play in a live game. And then there’s the actual baseball announcer quote that I use—can’t get much more verisimilitude than verbatim history.
Suffice it to say, though, that this scene got edited and re-edited multiple times. As a picture book author, you want to be accurate, but with a scene like this, you don’t want to include so many accurate details that it slows down the narrative and kills the moment. With a little help from my editor, Anne Schwartz, and my copyediting pal and baseball fan, Artie Bennett, I finally got this scene to be both accurate and fast-moving. But hey—what I did here is nothing compared to what Willie Mays did! Guess that’s why he’s more famous than I am! (Or one reason.) You’ve described your role as a picture book author as being “to take the basic story of someone's life, and then see how much information I can eliminate.” What’s your process for determining the information that made the cut when dealing with dynamic subjects like Koufax and Mays?
It is a fact universally acknowledged that you can’t tell the entire story of someone’s life in a 32-page picture book format (with only two or three sentences per page). It’s not possible. And why would you want to? Your intended audience consists of 7-year-olds. With a few exceptions, their attention spans and comprehension levels are simply not capable of taking in the entirety of a complex adult life.
So, as a picture book biographer, you always have to figure out what story from your subject’s life will be a) appropriate for a child; b) engaging on an emotional and intellectual level to a child; and c) the most essential story—that which helps explain your subject’s relevance.
To quote the poet, Robert Graves (whom my old buddy and baseball fan, John Hayes, used to quote a lot, at least this quote), “There is one story and one story only/ That will prove worth your telling.” With Willie Mays, that story, for my money, has to do with the purely emotional effect he had on so many people with his breathtaking style of play, and how that effect advanced perceptions of race in America.
The seminal moment in that story is “The Catch” in the 1954 World Series, which was viewed by millions of Americans on TV. With that in mind, I cut out as much of Mays’s story as I could that didn’t have to do with this one thing. Everything had to serve that very particular story (chosen out of so many stories from Mays’s life), and all else had to be cut. It started out a much longer story! (Thank you, Anne Schwartz!)
With Koufax, the challenge was telling a story about a guy who didn’t (and still doesn’t) want to have his story told…or even want to be “understood” at all. He was and is a very private man—the “J.D. Salinger of baseball.”
But, in a way, that aspect of Koufax is perfect for approaching the strange-but-true story of his odd path to glory. My goal was to eliminate everything that did not specifically relate to a) how inscrutable this crazy cat was; and b) how much pressure was on him from the very beginning, external and internal (I think), to live up to the sometimes oppressive expectations of him as athletic prodigy, the Dodgers’ “bonus baby,” and rare Jewish baseball player.
Pressure and expectations (for success or failure) are things any child can relate to. “Trying too hard,” which is what Koufax did for his first few years, is something any child can relate to. Not wanting or being able to express or explain yourself is something many children can relate to, especially boys. The trick in telling this story was to weave these specific concerns together into a compelling narrative. So, again, anything that did not serve this thread got cut—important things, too, such as Koufax’s “perfect game.”
I also didn’t say a thing about his curve ball, which was arguably just as important (or more so) than his fast ball. That’s because the story of how “Koufax became Koufax” has to do with how he stopped throwing wild pitches due to “overthrowing”… and simply let his body do what it was made to do, thereby throwing even faster.
There’s no room for a curve ball in that 32-page story.
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