New Willie Mays Biography Comes With Strings Attached

Agreeing to Mr. Mays’ terms “would have speeded up the process of the book, but I think it also would have sacrificed a level of breadth and depth, and, most critically, credibility and integrity,” Mr. Wolff said. “It’s not like Jim Hirsch is Mr. Corrupt because he gave him the money. It’s just that I teach press ethics at N.Y.U., so maybe I carry this mantle a little too heavily.”

As for Mr. Kahn, he said he approached Mr. Mays—whom he considers a friend—about doing a biography in 1996, after writing a chapter on him for the book Memories of Summer. “I saw Willie, and I said, ‘You wanna do a book?’ And he said, ‘You bet I wanna do a book!’” Mr. Kahn said. The two of them met to talk about it, and although Mr. Mays greeted Mr. Kahn at his door with a bottle of scotch, the two “didn’t agree on various business aspects” and called it off. “Why ruin a good friendship with a lousy business relationship?” Mr. Kahn asked.

Mr. Will could not be reached for comment, but several sources said he, too, declined to play ball with Mr. Mays. Mr. Rhoden told The Observer Tuesday that he is still working on a “Willie Mays project,” and that money was never the issue, but he pointedly refused to say the project was a book or a biography.

For a long time, Mr. Hirsch counted himself among the spurned, according to his agent, Todd Shuster of Zachary Shuster Harmsworth, but he eventually succeeded in winning Mr. Mays’ trust and striking a deal.

“Willie likes Jim’s writing and his approach to writing, and he thought it’d be a real opportunity to raise money for his foundation,” Mr. Shuster said.

According to Mr. Hirsch’s former editor Eamon Dolan, now a top editor at the Penguin Press, Mr. Hirsch pursued Mr. Mays for about seven years before getting the green light. “I think he gradually and unobtrusively made his case clear, that this was a book that needed to be done, that Willie’s story should be told as Willie saw it.”

For his part, Mr. Hirsch assured The Observer that although Mr. Mays will be helping to promote the book when it comes out, the deal “does not compromise” his authorial freedom. “I have editorial control of the book,” he said. “I have final say.”

“Willie is a private individual,” he continued. “I don’t think I’m revealing any secrets by saying that. He doesn’t just open himself to anyone who comes along—it takes time to build up trust.”

“If you were to describe this as us buying Willie Mays,” he said in a separate conversation, “you would look extremely naïve. No one buys Willie Mays.”

 

*This sentence has been corrected from an earlier version.