Mays vs. Aaron on the Bookshelf

In this book cover image released by Scribner, "Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend" by James S. Hirsch is shown. AP Photo/Scribner

Once again, it's Willie Mays vs. Hank Aaron.

This time, in the book world.

Long, and long-awaited, biographies of the two iconic baseball sluggers come out this year, within three months of each other: James S. Hirsch's 600-plus page "Willie Mays," just released, and Howard Bryant's 600-plus page book on Aaron, "The Last Hero," scheduled for May.

Mays, who spent much of his career with the New York/San Francisco Giants and Aaron, a longtime star for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, are still endlessly compared, with Mays celebrated as the more dynamic on-field presence and Aaron honored for overtaking Babe Ruth as baseball's home run king.

Both books are sympathetic accounts that cover not just Mays and Aaron but the era in which they played, especially how they responded -- or didn't -- to the civil rights movement. Mays and Aaron, each of whom have published autobiographies, agreed to be interviewed by their respective biographers, although the relationships differed.

Mays was involved from the start and will share in the revenues from the Scribner release, billed as "authorized." Aaron had not yet agreed to speak to Bryant when the author signed with Pantheon, in 2006. Aaron is not being paid and, Bryant said, didn't even see the book before it was finished.

"Luckily, it turned out all right," said Bryant, a senior writer for ESPN.com who has written books on steroids and the Boston Red Sox. "Had he not cooperated, it would have been a very different book."

Biographies of living people generally are either authorized -- written with the subject's involvement and to the subject's taste -- or "Unauthorized," written without the subject's permission and often against the subject's wishes. The most famous unauthorized biographies are Kitty Kelley's best sellers about such celebrities as Jackie Kennedy, Frank Sinatra and Nancy Reagan. A Kelley book on Oprah Winfrey is due in April.

But in between stands a category you could call "cooperative," in which the subject is available, but otherwise disengaged. "Cooperative" biographies in recent years have included Gerald Martin's "Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life" and Peter Biskind's "Star," about Warren Beatty. The Mays book fits partly because Hirsch says he was granted full editorial freedom and "The Last Hero" does entirely because Aaron's participation was limited to talking to Bryant.

Bryant said he had been anxious for years to write about Aaron, whom he says he first met in 1997 at a tribute for the late Jackie Robinson, major league baseball's first black player. Bryant initially was unable to contact Aaron for the book, learning later that the Hall of Famer feared the interview would center on Barry Bonds' pursuit of Aaron's career home run title.

Meanwhile, Bryant spoke to friends and acquaintances of Aaron's, including former Presidents Carter and Clinton, baseball Hall of Famers Joe Morgan and Reggie Jackson, and such former Braves teammates as Joe Torre and Dusty Baker.

"Before I got to Aaron, the best advice I got was from David Halberstam, who wrote a book on Michael Jordan without getting Jordan and a book about Bill Clinton without getting Clinton," Bryant said of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist.

"He said to me, 'The strategy was very simple -- for every day they didn't talk to me, make three phone calls to other people.' You have to work around obstacles. It was the best piece of advice anyone's given me."

After Bonds overtook Aaron, in 2007, Aaron opened up to Bryant.

"When Henry and I finally spoke, he was tremendous, he was unbelievably gracious," Bryant said. "He was even somewhat embarrassed someone was taking an interest. He didn't ask for any money. He didn't ask for any review copy of the book. He could have made the one phone call that every author dreads -- which is to call all of his people and say, 'Hey, this guy is writing a book about me. Don't talk to him."'

Like Bryant, Gerald Martin began working on his Garcia Marquez book before receiving any assurance that his subject would talk to him. When they first discussed the project, Garcia Marquez was reluctant, asking Martin, "Why do you want to write a biography? Biographies mean death."

But Garcia Marquez relented and set just one condition: "Don't make me do your work," Martin recalled in the book's foreword. When asked if his book was authorized, Martin likes to respond, "No, it is not an authorized biography. It's a tolerated biography."

As Bryant, Biskind and others have learned, the cooperative book can be the most rewarding and most stressful way of working. It is ideal, because the biographer has freedom and access, and stressful because there is no obligation -- contractual or otherwise -- to keep the subject from changing his or her mind.

Biskind, known for the Hollywood history "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair who had interviewed Beatty several times and says he first suggested a biography around 1989-90. Beatty, known for being noncommittal, initially had no answer, then implied he was writing his own book, then called Biskind a couple of years ago and told him to do it. Biskind was pleased, but suspicious.

"He's a movie star and they do what they want. He did this kind of turnaround which I learned later is characteristic of him: He pitched an idea and sort of hooked me, and then he turned around and acted like I had to sell the idea to him," Biskind says. "So we had a series of lunches and phone calls and I became convinced he would do it."

Deirdre Bair's "Samuel Beckett," winner in 1981 of a National Book Award, is considered a model for the cooperative biography, with the Irish playwright promising that he would "neither help nor hinder," Bair explained recently. In 1971, she had finished a dissertation on Beckett and thought a book worth pursuing. She wrote to him in Paris, his longtime residence.

"He replied, 'My life is dull and without interest. The professors know more about it than I do. It is best left unchampioned,"' Bair said. "Then he scrawled across the page, 'Any biographical information I possess is at your disposal."'

She remembered her relationship as productive and businesslike, with Bair calling him "Mr. Beckett," and Beckett addressing her as "Miss Bair." A more personal, and difficult bond was formed with a new subject, Simone de Beauvoir, who called her biographer "Deirdre" and had very different ideas about how to "cooperate."

"When we started, she said, "I'll talk. I'll tell you things and then you write them down.' And I sort of put my head in my hands in despair," Bair recalled. "And she said, 'What's wrong?' And I said, 'That's not how I worked with Beckett.' And she said, 'Well, I can't let him get ahead of me. All right, that's how I'll work you, too."'
By Hillel Italie
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