A Willie Mays footnote

Gerald Eskenazi covered sports for the New York Times for almost 50 years. Along the way he wrote biographies of Bill Veeck and Leo Durocher as well as as-told-to autobiographies of Carl Yastrzemski and Phil Esposito, among others. From his perch at the Times Eskenazi covered just about every noteworthy sports story of the 50 years preceding his retirement from the Times.

Following his retirement Eskenazi wrote his very own (!) memoir, A Sportswriter’s Life: From the Desk of a New York Times Reporter, published by the University of Missouri Press in 2004 and still in print. The book tells the great, all-American story of a second generation American who lived out his wildest adolescent dreams of the profession.

Eskenazi covered the 1980 Olympics, where he met up with Herb Brooks. When the film Miracle was released in 2004, the Wall Street Journal published Eskenazi’s column on Brooks. “I met Herb for the first time a few months before the Olympics,” Eskenazi wrote, “and was immediately struck by his hatred of the Soviets and his evangelical belief in an American system that could topple them.” It’s a terrific profile of Brooks that I cannot find online, but Eskenazi’s 2020 retrospective Times column remains accessible.

In 2004 I finished reading Eskenazi’s memoir sick in bed as I simultaneously laughed, cried, and coughed. In the last chapter, Eskenazi discusses his work on Willie Mays’s as-told-to autobiography. Eskenazi was hired by Simon and Schuster to revise and rewrite the manuscript turned in by Lou Sahadi, Mays’s as-told-to co-author. Eskenazi’s name does not appear on the book — Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays. Eskenazi thus dubs himself “Deep Ghost” (the title of the chapter).

Eskenazi recounts how he finished his work on the Mays manuscript, “about 70,000 words, without ever speaking to Willie.” After Mays got around to reading Eskenazi’s draft, Eskenazi got a call from Mays’s agent reporting that Mays liked it, but that he wanted the last chapter to show that he’d grown as a person after his playing days. He’d matured.

Eskenazi met up with Mays at the Bing Crosby Pro-Am golf tournament in Pebble Beach to gather additional material on the issue. His meeting with Mays did not exactly prove the point of Mays’s maturation, but they agreed that the last chapter of the autobiography would detail his road to becoming a person of substance. “I never heard from Willie again,” Eskenazi writes, “although I heard he liked the last chapter.”

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