I’ve never asked myself the question of why I write, for fear that I wouldn’t be able to answer it. I find it much easier to address the question “Why did you write this particular book?” For Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age, that was easy to answer. I wanted to examine the concept of hero worship and see if it still held an important place in my life. I was surprised and somewhat pleased to discover that it does.
When I was a boy, I worshipped Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays before I really understood who they were and what they did. Then I went through a period of wondering why I had ever worshipped people who played games for a living and whose private lives revealed them as something less than ideal role models. I replaced them with rock stars, poets and rebellious actors who seemed more relevant to my time. When I got older, I realized that these new icons were no better than Mickey or Willie had been. All of which led me to a reconsideration about what makes heroes in the first place.
I finally came to the conclusion that being a hero isn’t something that one can ever be conditioned for. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were both groomed by their fathers to be professional baseball players at a time in our history when that was the top rung on the ladder of fame. (Remember that Babe Ruth justified being paid more money than the President because, said Babe, “I had a better year than he did.”)
What their fathers couldn’t prepare them for was the crushing burden of the expectations of millions of fans, many of them like me. There was no way they could have lived up to their public images in their real lives. Mickey, by his own admission, was a bad father and bad husband, and as the years went on he descended into chronic alcoholism. Willie, always beset by demons he couldn’t understand, was plagued by anxiety attacks. Both, as they grew older, found they couldn’t go home again—Mickey’s home town of Commerce, Okla., and Willie’s neighborhood in the Birmingham suburb of Fairfield, Ala., disappeared behind them—or at least no longer existed the way Mickey and Willie knew them when they were growing up.
As the years went by and I was beset by many of the same problems they had faced, particularly with coming to terms with the faded dreams of my own youth, I saw Mickey and Willie from a new perspective and began to understand that they hadn’t done such a bad job after all—that, in the end, no one could have been expected to carry the burden of my dreams.
In writing Mickey and Willie, I finally came to understand something else: that in a society as fragmented and divided as ours has become, America will probably never have heroes like Mantle and Mays again.