Mickey, Willie, and Everyone Else: A Conversation with Allen Barra

Allen Barra's new book is about Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, and their relationship with each other, and everyone else.
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In "Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age" (Crown Archetype), the veteran author-journalist Allen Barra examines the mythic stature of two of the greatest center-fielders to play the game. The book is also a personal exodus of sorts, as Barra attempts to untangle the complex emotions he has about two childhood heroes.

"Mickey and Willie – they were given boys' names that they never grew out of," he writes. "The private lives of both men revealed that they were ill equipped for life after baseball, a fact that those of us who loved them found almost impossible to understand. How, though, could we have understood?"

I emailed questions to Barra about writing and "Mickey and Willie," and he replied from his home in New Jersey.

You helped Marvin Miller write his memoirs, entitled "A Whole Different Ball Game." What was it like to work with Marvin Miller?

It was an education. I thought I knew enough to write a book on the business of baseball and the ongoing strife between the owners and the baseball union. I was amazed at how much I didn’t know. In the course of doing the book, I think I came to think a little like Marvin. That’s a gift I’ll always be grateful for.

Do you think that Marvin Miller will ever be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame?

No, I don’t. If the players had stood up and demanded it, which they should have done, it would have happened. It is, after all, their Hall of Fame. But they didn’t. Anyway, Marvin was adamant he didn’t want in and stated so in several public letters. One of the last things he said to me was to please make that clear to anyone still calling for him to be elected.  So now the HOF can’t induct him without embarrassing themselves.

It's been said that "all biography is at last autobiography." As the author of biographies about Paul "Bear" Bryant, Yogi Berra and now Mantle and Mays, do you find that statement to be true? How do you, as a writer, approach biography?

Well, if all biography is autobiography, then I coached Alabama to six national championships and won ten World Series rings with the Yankees. Nope on that.

I approach biography – and in this category I'll put Wyatt Earp, Bear Bryant and Yogi Berra – as men about whom much had been written but about whom I had never read what I wanted to read about them. There were too many unanswered questions, and that’s why I wrote those books. 

I don’t regard "Mickey and Willie" as biography. As the subtitle says, it’s a “parallel lives.” I was fascinated by the many things about them that were both similar and different. They were the same age, both children of the Depression, both southerners, both raised by baseball fathers and nurtured by the industrial league culture that thrived until a couple of years after World War II. They came to the Major Leagues in the same city and played against each other in the World Series in their rookie year, 1951. They ended up playing the same position, center field, and both were great all-around players.

They both had actual names that others thought were nicknames, boys’ names. They were both booed by fans for not being Joe DiMaggio. Both loved going to the movies, especially westerns.

As for the opposites – well, of course, one was white and one was black, so they lived most of their lives on different sides of American culture.

There have been quite a few books about Mantle and Mays, including most recently James Hirsch's exhaustive biography of Mays and Jane Leavy's personal reportage about Mantle. Why did you feel there was room for another book about Mantle and Mays? What did you feel had not been discussed in previous works?

All previous books, whether about them or ghosted by them, left out pretty much one element: each other. The similarities I mentioned above were seldom discussed except in passing. I never read anything, for instance, about Mickey and Willie barnstorming together, or about the many commercials and endorsements they did. (Thank you, George Lois.) Or, that Mickey was envious of Willie’s salary while Willie was envious of Mickey’s endorsements. In the end, each liked and respected the other enormously.

They were compared endlessly. When I was growing up, “Who's better, Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays?” was practically the only baseball question that mattered. I think that’s largely forgotten today.

You've written that "Mickey and Willie" is, at heart, about the concept of hero worship. What did you discover about that in researching and writing this book? Knowing what we know now, are Mantle and Mays still deserving of hero status?

What I learned was that in their private lives they were at least as flawed as I am. That makes me feel both better and worse. I suppose the thing I learned that impressed me most is that being someone’s hero imposes an enormous burden of dreams on someone.

But, finally, were they worthy of being called heroes? Yes, I think they were. I’ll give them that. Being my hero was a tough job, but in the end they did okay.

You write that, after all these years, Willie Mays remains a cipher. Why? What happened to him?

I don’t know that anything “happened” to him except everything he went through his whole life. After reading everything that has ever been written about Willie Mays, I can’t say I know him any better than I did before I started, at least in the sense of “What is the inner man really like? What were his dreams outside baseball, his aspirations?” 

What made me feel that more than anything else was that the two men who knew him best from the time he hit the major leagues, [authors] Arnold Hano and the late Charlie Einstein, were also baffled by him.

You're a general manager in the spring of 1950. You have the choice of taking one ballplayer for your team: Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays. Who do you take and why?

Well, I take Mickey for two simple reasons. In 1950 I don’t know what his history of injury is going to be, but I do know he’s white. It’s that simple. What I’m saying is that if I were a general manager in 1950, I don’t know that I would have thought differently than GMs did back then.

From the perspective of ability, I don’t know that there was anything to make me choose one over the other.

What's the subject of your next book?

I’m not sure yet. I would love to write a dual biography of Ed and his late son Steve Sabol – how they built NFL Films and changed the way we look at sports. I also have been researching for years a book on how an Italian, a Jew, and an Irishman – Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Owney Madden – created the modern mob.

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