Thursday, September 17, 2009

Thinking about Willie Mays.

Recently The New York Times reported that the Yankees were urged to sign Willie Mays (at 18, already the best ballplayer in the Negro Leagues) not once, but a good number of times between 1949 and 1950.

The Yankees didn't even look at Mays, not because they had Mickey Mantle coming up, but because Mays didn't suit their view of what a Yankee should look like.

It occurs to me most agencies, in fact most businesses work in exactly this way. Years ago I read a book by engineer/scientist Ben Rich, called "Skunk Works." Rich was the lead of the top-secret Lockheed lab that developed many of the most-advanced air-craft the world has ever seen, including the stealth fighter and the blackbird. Once he developed a stealth ship for the navy, a ship that couldn't be seen by radar or sonar. The navy turned down his plans because Rich's ship didn't look like a ship. In other words, he created a Willie Mays and what they wanted was a Mickey Mantle.

Advertising agencies, of course, follow exactly the same practices. Just try to sell a cereal commercial without milk dripping off a spoon or a grin shot. Or a cosmetics commercial that doesn't follow the conceits of all other beauty commercials. And despite all the fulminations and breathing through the mouth by C-level people (most of whom have never written an ad) TV still comes first--because it always has.

I suppose we could call this Willie Mays syndrome.


To my San Francisco friends, I happened to see Willie Mays play in one of his last games. He joined the NY Mets and returned to New York in 1972 and finished his career in 1973. I saw him creaky and lonely one fall day when my friends and I cut out of school and headed to Shea. We had terrible seats, and Willie could hardly move, but none of that mattered.

1 comment:

Zee said...

Ever read "Moneyball"? One big premise of traditional MLB scouting was that some players just "looked" like big-leaguers...irrespective of their real abilities or competitiveness. As a player, Billy Beane had been one of those "good-looking" guys, but as a GM he realized you should judge players on their proficiency for delivering wins, not how studly they looked to a scout. Naturally, scouts were outraged at this...but Beane ended up making the A's winners on the cheap for many years by assessing players more critically.