Major League Baseball 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 game that their books and the very judgment undergirding those books become compromised.
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 repeatedly has demonstrated clearheadedness and clear writing. His dual biography of outfielder Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees and Willie Mays of the New York (and later San Francisco) Giants is his most accomplished baseball writing yet.
Dual biographies are tricky to construct. Biographers often make artificial comparisons and otherwise tinker with real life. Barra 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 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 teams. Both patrolled 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 Mantles 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.