Life as a ghostwriter

Hanging out with famous athletes isn't always fun and games

Willie Mays’ agent was on the phone. I was ghostwriting Willie’s autobiography, even though we had never met.

“Willie likes the book,” his agent told me. “But he thinks there ought to be a chapter in there about how he learned how to become a mensch when his playing days were over.”

A “mensch”—Yiddish for a person of substance, a person who does the right thing. Why yes, I thought, that would be neat. And so I set out to add a chapter on Willie the Mensch.

I had been around athletes for many years as a reporter for The New York Times. Because the paper for much of that time thought of sports as the toy department, there wasn’t a lot of pressure on us to outdo the tabloids, or to get some inside scoop on a player’s peccadilloes. And that worked out very nicely for us—athletes and management usually were receptive to our questions and our phone calls, and rarely worried about “gotcha!” headlines or stories.

Among the 16 books I wrote, I was a ghost for four—Willie’s, and another baseball Hall-of-Famer, Carl Yastrzemski. Then I also collaborated with hockey great Phil Esposito and hockey bad-boy Derek Sanderson. I also wrote about a pair of deceased baseball legends—manager Leo Durocher and the crazily entrepreneurial Bill Veeck.

Of all my ghostly companions, Willie Mays had the most legendary status. He was a true American icon, famed as much for his exuberance as his spectacular play—he could run, hit, field. The images of him were pure Americana baseball: cap flying off as he rounded second base (no matter that he confided to me he wore a cap one size too large for just that reason); chasing a fly ball; playing stickball in the streets of Harlem with neighborhood kids when he was a rookie.

He also was known as the “Say Hey Kid.” The reason for the nickname was quite simple: He couldn’t remember people’s names, so when he wanted someone’s attention he’d call out, “Say hey!”

I had an unusual writing arrangement with him—for Willie already had a ghost writer. The writer and Mays were longtime friends, and the two had agreed to do the book. But the publisher, Simon and Schuster, wanted a writer with whom they were more familiar. Would I be willing to write the book from Willie’s friend’s manuscript—but not be listed as an author?

“Deep Ghost,” I thought. Sounded intriguing. While I would have liked to see my name attached to Willie Mays’, the money was significant enough to stroke my ego.

Early on as a sportswriter, I learned to differentiate the playing-field persona from the public persona of athletes. There is also another persona that people who are on the “outside” do not see—the locker-room one. This is the relationship with sportwriters, even teammates. Some of the players like us. Some of them hate us; some distrust us. Some are media hogs. And the truth is—we, the writers, quote the ones who love us. Often, we go for the easy interview. Thus, you may be reading your newspaper about your favorite team and wondering why a marginal player is quoted so often. The answer, usually, is that he or she is there, and available, and doesn’t start off a conversation with, “What the heck do you want?”

Willie Mays had one of the best fan-friendly images in sports history. Repeatedly, he ranked near the top of TV-viewer-credibility when advertisers took polls to find a spokesperson for their product. There was good reason for Willie’s likeability quotient. He played with a joyous exuberance. He had a winning smile. And he was good at his craft.

I dove into the writing project, hopeful of producing a big book, an important book. Certainly, there was enough meat—his career had started in the Negro Leagues. At his retirement, he and Hank Aaron were the last remaining players from those leagues. Mays had hit more home runs than any player before him except Babe Ruth. He had made legendary catches, throws, runs.

The first pages of the manuscript came to me with solid background information, but not much glitter or opinion. Willie was getting $125,000 to do the book. I asked his collaborator to get me Willie’s voice on many aspects of his life.

“I’ve only been able to see him twice,” was the reply. “He’s hard to get to.”

Luckily, I knew where to go for information—the big library on 42nd Street, which had microfilms of the seven newspapers that blanketed the city during the 1950s, when Willie played in New York. And then it also had microfilm of many of America’s other great papers, such as the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

I finished Willie Mays’ autobiography, about 70,000 words, without ever speaking to Willie.

After mailing the final chapter to his agent, I left for San Diego and the Super Bowl. That’s where I got a call at my hotel from Willie’s agent, suggesting the “mensch” chapter—“to show how he’s grown as a person, how he’s learned to accept a different kind of responsibility now that he’s no longer an athlete.”

That sounded like a fine idea. For the first time, I was given Willie’s phone number so that we could make arrangements to get together. The week after the Super Bowl he was playing in the Bing Crosby Pro-Am golf tournament up the Coast in Pebble Beach, an easy hop from San Diego. I called Willie, and he was enthusiastic about talking about his post-baseball career and how difficult it had been. I think I sounded sympathetic and he confided in me, to my surprise, since I had always heard how guarded he was in talking about his private life. But I had been around enough athletes to know how to stroke him and to be empathetic. So he told me how he failed to keep appointments, bemoaning the fact he had lost a $100,000-a-year job as an official greeter at a Las Vegas casino because of lateness; of how he no longer could rely on the club to give him a wake-up call to get somewhere or to make his travel plans. But he sounded to me as if he’d come to grips with those difficulties, and to my surprise he readily agreed tp pick me up around noon on Tuesday at the airport near Carmel, CA.

I arrived there ready to meet the new, responsible Willie. Ten, 15, 20 minutes after landing I looked around. No Willie. Half an hour later, I called him.

“Willie?” I said.

“Who’s this? he replied.

“Jerry. Jerry Eskenazi,” I said.


I explained I was the guy who was writing his book, and where was he? He got a bit agitated. He complained he had just gotten up, he had things to do, he had this and he had that. I told him there were no cabs around. I didn’t even know where he was staying. He agreed to pick me up.

Celebrities at these pro-am events are well-cared-for. Willie was given a house owned by a Pebble Beach member that overlooked the crashing waves below. He was given the family’s Lincoln to use. Willie picked me up in the big car and we headed to his guest house.

As we snaked around the spectacular ocean drive, we suddenly came to a toll gate. A guard wearing a Smokey the Bear outfit told Mays there was a toll.

“I’m Willie Mays,” said Willie. “Yeah, but you still have to pay,” said the guard. “But I’m Willie Mays.” This went back and forth—finally, exasperated, the Smokey told Willie to go through without paying the toll.

Hours later in the mansion, after we had a great interview, Willie said it was time for me to leave. “My wife is coming,” he said. I wondered why would I have to leave when there were four other bedrooms. Well, anyway, he kicked me out. I never spoke to Willie again, although I heard he liked the last chapter on his maturity.

Yastrzemski, on the other hand, was eager to talk and to meet. He often phoned after our conversations to add something he had forgotten. And then one day he invited me out to Fenway Park to see how he played The Wall, the legendary left-field wall he had been so close to for more than 20 Red Sox years.

A major theme of the book was his work ethic—how he had gotten up early working the family’s onion farm on Long Island as a kid; how he tried to beef up his smallish frame. When the book came out, we did a book-signing at the flagship Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue, and it was the biggest event in the store’s history. We did some radio and TV shows in New York as well. The contract called for him to do eight interviews.

After our whirlwind tour, I drove him to the LaGuardia shuttle to catch a flight to do Larry King’s radio show in Washington, his eighth interview. After that, I hoped, would be even more of Yaz’s lucrative book signings and appearances in Boston—sure to sell a ton of books.

“Tell me, Jerry,” said Yaz, who was pocketing more than $100,000 as an up-front advance. “How many books do we have to sell to start getting royalties?”

I told him, about 40,000.

“Fuck it,” was his literary reply. “We’ll never sell that many. I don’t think I’ll do any more appearances.”

So much for his work ethic.

So I wound up being disappointed, in the end, with these two iconic figures. In a sense, they wound up lying to me about what had been a central premise in their stories—that Willie had learned responsibility, that Yaz had devoted his life to hard work. They wound up doing what was best for them and didn’t seem to care how it might affect others. Yet, a part of me also wondered: How would I have reacted if life had made me a national hero? Would I come to believe this was my due? And what about all those other figures on the national stage, in sports, the arts, politics? Ultimately, does it come down to: How does it benefit me? I hope not. I’d like to think that fame does in fact release our better angels. Maybe I can collaborate next with Derek Jeter.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Gerald Eskenazi produced 8,000 bylines in more than 40 years with The New York Times , in addition to writing 16 books. He now lectures on sports and the news media.