‘Mickey and Willie’ finds parallels between two baseball greats

Books about Major League Baseball abound. It is a sport that seems to inspire more professional writers than other sports do. But those writers too often have become so wrapped up in their love affairs with the leisurely paced game requiring remarkable skills that the prose of their books — and the very judgment undergirding those books — become compromised.

Occasional AJC book critic Allan Barra is not one of those compromised writers. In his biography of New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra and in his writings about baseball for periodicals, Barra has demonstrated clearheadedness and clear writing over and over. His dual biography of outfielder Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees and Willie Mays of the New York (later San Francisco) Giants is his most accomplished baseball writing yet.

Dual biographies are tricky to construct well, and thus are relatively rare. By trying to tell two lives in a parallel fashion, biographers frequently make artificial comparisons and otherwise tinker with real life. Barra, to his credit, never falls into such a trap. He has chosen his subject wisely — the parallels between Mantle and Mays are deep and meaningful, despite the difference of their skin color during a racist era. Both men were born in 1931 to families with limited means. Both played their first full seasons in the major leagues during 1954. Both signed with New York City teams. Both patrolled the position of center field. Both were what baseball insiders call “five-tool players” — they excelled at catching the ball, throwing the ball, hitting for a high average, hitting with power and running speedily. Both had to learn how to handle celebrity of a type unimaginable to 99.999999 percent of the human race. Both had to deal with adversity — in Mays’ case, much of it from the outside because of racism, in Mantle’s case much of it from the inside because of lifelong alcoholism.

Inevitably, while relating the two lives, Barra feels compelled to comment on which of the superstars shone the brightest. Each reader will have to decide if Barra made the correct choice.

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