4 writing and reporting tips from Willie Mays’ obituary

Want to write a good profile? Read the obits.

Jim Ylisela, co-founder of RCG, was just a wee lad when he saw Willie Mays and the Giants pulverize the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. In his career, Mays hit .342 with 54 home runs at the Friendly Confines.

The best obituaries are works of art, capturing the life and times of a person through solid reporting, relevant storytelling, exquisite color and great quotes.

Early in my career, an editor told me that obits were the most closely read stories in the paper, at least by the family and friends of the deceased. No other stories generated as many calls for corrections and clarifications.

I’ve been an obit reader for years, but I was particularly captivated by a recent story: “Willie Mays, baseball’s electrifying ‘Say Hey Kid,’ dies at 93,” by Daniel Brown, staff editor and writer for The Athletic, the sports site of The New York Times.

Brown, who began covering Bay Area sports in 1995, does everything right in this piece, which is a model for anyone writing about a human, dead or alive.

Using Brown’s story as our guide, here are four elements of a great profile.

1. The Lede. A good anecdote must pull readers in, but it can’t just be any story. Look for an opener that is relevant to the overall theme of the profile, an episode that previews what you’re going to tell us—and show us—about your subject. In his story about Mays, Brown starts with a somewhat surprising tale of the young man who many consider to be the greatest baseball player of all time:

Willie Mays opened his big-league career with a confidence-rattling 0-for-12 stretch before finally blasting a home run off Warren Spahn early in 1951.

He follows that with a memorable quote from Spahn, himself a Hall of Famer:

I’ll never forgive myself,” Spahn later joked. “We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out.”

Reporting tip: The best opener might not come to you right away. No rule requires you to start writing a story from the beginning. Your anecdotal lead may come from your subject or any of the other interviews you do, or from a surprising statistic you may stumble across, as in the Mays story.

2. Which brings us to The Nut. An opener can be one sentence or several paragraphs, but what follows is something many communicators miss. The nut graph explains the relevance of your opening anecdote by giving readers the “big picture” of your subject and hints where your story intends to take them:

Instead, to the delight of everyone except opposing pitchers, Mays’ home run atop the left-field roof of the Polo Grounds served as a warning blast for one of the longest and most exhilarating careers in baseball history.

Mays, who died on Tuesday in Palo Alto, Calif., at age 93, still represents the gold standard for an all-around ballplayer and might do so forever. He could hit, run, field and throw with equal aplomb. “If he could cook, I’d marry him,” manager Leo Durocher once said.

Writing tip: Crafting a good nut requires a leap of faith. In a few short sentences, your mission is to: 1. Capture the “essence” of a person in your view. 2. Tell us why we should care. 3. Entice us to want more. No small task.

3. Color. Color is detail that enhances the story instead of slowing it down. For example, recounting the many steps in a new procedure at work is mind-numbing detail; how one of those changes will change your life on the job is color.

The Say Hey Kid performed with a showman’s flair, making basket catches in center field. … Mays even wore a cap one size too small to ensure it would fly off cinematically whenever he darted across the field.

With his incandescent style, Mays made the game look fun, whether it was dazzling in a Giants uniform or playing stickball with the kids on St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street in his Harlem neighborhood—sometimes on the same day.

Reporting tip: You don’t need to recite your subject’s resume and academic career. Instead, look for something noteworthy that happened along the way. No good detail is beyond your scrutiny.

4. The Quotes. That quote from Durocher is one of many gems in Brown’s story, and it underscores the need to bring colorful voices into your profile. Too many corporate profiles have brain-numbing quotes about how your subject is thrilled to be part of an enterprise where people are its greatest asset.

Quotes are meant to provide the spice in your story, keen observations and insights from your profile subjects and their colleagues, family members and friends. And they keep the story moving.

“I’m not sure what charisma is,” former Reds slugger Ted Kluszewski once said, “but I get the feeling it’s Willie Mays.”

And this, from an interview with actress and Giants fan Tallulah Bankhead:

“There have only been two authentic geniuses in the world, Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare. But darling, I think you’d better put Shakespeare first.”

Interviewing tip: You need to dig up the best quotes, as most of them are buried beneath the surface. Get past the topsoil of “He’s a fantastic guy and always goes the extra mile” nonsense. What makes him so fantastic? Is there a story there? What does going the extra mile look like? You may have to push a bit, but it will be worth it.

In Brown’s piece, he quotes Joe Posnanski, author of “The Baseball 100,” which ranks Willie Mays as the best there ever was.

“To look at his glorious statistics, to hear what people say about him is to be reminded why we love this old and ancient game in the first place,” Posnanski wrote. “Yes, Willie Mays has always made kids feel like grown-ups and grown-ups feel like kids. In the end, isn’t that the whole point of baseball?”

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