A lot of writers have asked Willie Mays over the years if he would cooperate with them on a book, and almost every time, the baseball legend has refused their advances. About two weeks ago, however, at the age of 76, the Say Hey Kid appeared to have had a change of heart, as news surfaced that he’d signed a contract with Scribner for an “authorized” biography, to be written by best-selling race historian James Hirsch.
In exchange for his cooperation, Mr. Mays will receive an undisclosed portion of the proceeds from the book, which, after a heated bidding war, sold for $1.35 million, according to a source close to the negotiations*. Mr. Mays’ lawyer Jeff Bleich, told The Observer that the former Giants centerfielder plans to donate his cut of the money to his charity, the Say Hey Foundation, which helps send underprivileged kids to college.
That’s a move that many say is out of character for the notoriously Scrooge-like Mr. Mays. “He’s a guy who always felt like people were trying to milk off of him throughout his career,” said Jeff Pearlman, who recently wrote a biography of Mr. Mays’ god-son, Barry Bonds. “He thought a lot of guys were making a lot of money off him—namely the Giants and Major League Baseball—and that he wasn’t getting what he deserved. So I imagine when these guys are writing these books, Mays feels like, ‘This is another guy trying to get paid off of my name.’”
According to the veteran baseball writer Peter Golenbock, Mr. Mays has appeared bitter during the past fifteen years, “perhaps over the fact that these days ballplayers are making over $15 million a year and Willie was making $100,000, if that.”
That bitterness has apparently been an obstacle for those looking to write about him. “For years, I’ve tried to land Willie Mays’ autobiography,” said David Hirshey, a vice president and executive editor at HarperCollins, and a devout sports fan, “and every time I was told they were looking for several million dollars, so I chose not to swing at that pitch. But to hear from people that they’ve sold it for only a million and that Mays’ portion is going to charity shows that even a legend like Willie Mays can finally come down to earth.”
Indeed, getting Mr. Mays on board for the book would appear to be a major achievement for Mr. Hirsch. Still, there is evidence to suggest that other writers have had the same opportunity and have turned it down because they weren’t comfortable with Mr. Mays’ financial demands.
According to baseball and publishing insiders, a slew of distinguished writers has tried in recent years to convince Mr. Mays to sit for a biography—among them Roger Kahn, often called the dean of American sports writing; Craig Wolff, a journalism professor at N.Y.U.; New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden; and Washington Post columnist George S. Will. Mr. Mays, they say, has refused to cooperate unless he was compensated. (Mays did work with one biographer, Charles Einstein, for his 1979 book Willie’s Time. According to Lee Mendelson, who collaborated with Einstein on a series of TV documentaries about Mr. Mays, the ex-player considered Mr. Einstein a friend and never asked him for money. In addition, Mr. Mays, with the writer Lou Sahadi, produced a 1988 autobiography, Say Hey.)
Both Mr. Wolff and Mr. Kahn confirmed that they approached Mr. Mays but ultimately rejected his terms. “We had the opportunity over a long stretch of time to give Willie money,” Mr. Wolff said. “I was actually told by someone very close to Willie, a family member, that I should come bearing gifts. That was an exact quote. It almost sounded like if I came there with the king’s jewels he would be placated.”
In the end, Mr. Wolff said he did not want to feel beholden to anyone while working, and undertook an elaborate write-around instead, interviewing something like 2,000 people over the course of the past three years. His book—originally set to be published by William Morrow—was shelved early this summer when executives at HarperCollins decided it was taking too long. Mr. Wolff is now close to signing a contract with a different publishing house, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.
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.