Allen Barra remembers the exact moment that eventually spurred him to write “Mickey and Willie,” when he was a young boy in New Jersey. “I got a Topps package of baseball cards which had both Mantle and Mays in it,” he said, in a telephone conversation. “I thought it was a natural pairing, and I still do.”
Indeed, there are some natural comparisons. They were born the same year and started their major-league careers the same year, Mickey Mantle at the start of the 1951 season and Willie Mays in May of that year, which he had started by hitting .477 for the Giants’ farm club in Minneapolis. They were both center fielders, probably the most notable defensive position, and both hit for average and power, though Mantle’s numbers declined because of injuries late in his career. Both started in New York, though Mays played most of his career in San Francisco. Both had their personal demons. Mantle, who came from a family of coal mine workers who died young, thought he would, too. Mays had wild mood swings in private, though he was usually able to keep those from public view.
And for most of their careers, they were the best players in their leagues. Many baseball people consider Mays the best of all time, and a healthy Mantle matched him step for step. That, ultimately, is what convinced Barra to write this book.
“There have been excellent books written on each of them,” he said, “but when I read them, I felt something was missing because the other one wasn’t in it.”
Barra, author of best-selling biographies of Bear Bryant and Yogi Berra, also remembered being at a 1961 exhibition game between the Yankees and Giants at Yankee Stadium, which was billed as Mays’ return to New York.
“When Mays was introduced, there was thunderous applause that went on and on,” he said. “When Mantle was introduced, he was booed.”
Mays was revered because he had started his career in New York and been a part of two remarkable teams, the 1951 Giants who came from 13½ games back to force a playoff won by Bobby Thomson’s home run and the 1954 Giants who swept the World Series against a Cleveland team that had won a then-record 111 games in the regular season.
In that Series, Mays made a heralded catch of a Vic Wertz drive, then whirled to throw to second base. Mays has always said that catch wasn’t his best but Barra disagrees.
“It was on TV and you can see the 420-foot sign looming. Unless he had eyes in the back of his head, Mays couldn’t see the ball but he reached out and caught it,” Barra said. “I hate to disagree with Willie, but that was his best.”
Contrarily, Barra feels that Mantle was underappreciated by New Yorkers, though he played through injuries — and his own destructive drinking — to dominate the American League.
Now, he’s talked to many who have known Mays and Mantle, used new statistics to show that they were both probably even better than thought at the time, and written a compelling book about two great players.