#Hot Corner

H.C.B.C. - Mickey and Willie

Michael Nagle

The opening paragraphs of Allen Barra's new book Mickey and Willie, available today:

If a scientific research team were to conduct an exhaustive study of the ideal places, times, and conditions for breeding the perfect baseball player, they'd surely come up with something very close to Westfield, Alabama, in the heart of Birmingham's steel industry, or the mining district of Commerce, Oklahoma.

Thousands of southern blacks left their homes during the Depression and moved to industrial cities in the North, but in Westfield, Alabama, William Howard "Cat" Mays chose to stay home. Grueling as the work in the local steel mills was, Cat understood that the promise of a better life in towns like Gary, Indiana, Flint, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was remote. He stayed in Alabama. At the same time, countless families from Oklahoma and adjoining states made the decision to abandon everything and make the hazardous trek to California; their stories would be told in prose by John Steinbeck and in song by Woody Guthrie. No one spoke for Elvin Charles "Mutt" Mantle, who chose to keep his family in Oklahoma, taking jobs as a road grader, tenant farmer, and, finally, miner to put food on the table.

For both Cat Mays and Mutt Mantle, the main recreation-practically the only one-was baseball, specifically the industrial league baseball organized by their companies. They raised their boys in a baseball culture. No fathers ever guided their sons toward professional baseball with more single-mindedness than Cat and Mutt. Both men saw baseball as a way to get their sons out of those small towns, out of the mills and mines, although they guided them in very different ways. And once Mickey and Willie left, neither ever lived in his hometown again.

Allen's an outstanding writer, and this feels like the book he was born to write.

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