Willie Mays, thought by many baseball writers to be the greatest player who ever wore spikes, was passed up by three major league clubs due to outright racial prejudice or to quota systems that limited them to just one Negro star. Perhaps there is no better example anywhere of how affirmative action paid off for the New York Giants, the club that grabbed Mays, because manager Leo Durocher cared only about getting the best talent, irrespective of skin color. By contrast, Tom Yawkey, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, passed on Mays because he would not hire a Negro, period. And the Boston Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates passed on Mays because of their racial quota systems. (Imagine: the Braves might have an outfield with Henry Aaron and Willie Mays playing side by side for two decades! Imagine: the Pirates might have had an outfield starring Roberto Clemente and Mays!) Mays was batting a sensational .477 playing for the Triple-A minor league franchise Minneapolis Millers in 1951 when Durocher phoned him and said he wanted him immediately.
Mays modestly told Durocher he didn’t think he was ready for the majors but the profane Durocher wasn’t going to take no for an answer, and so replied, “Do you think you can hit two blankety-blank seven in the major leagues?” The 20-year-old Mays was on the plane that night to appear in a game next day against the Philadelphia Phillies. In his rookie year for the Giants Mays batted .274, socked 20 homers and drove in 68 runs in 121 games. Even before starting for the Minneapolis franchise, Mays played briefly for the Chattanooga Choo-Choos and for the Birmingham Black Barons, where he demonstrated he could hit the toughest of pitchers. At age 18 he faced the great Satchel Paige of the Kansas City Monarchs and smacked a double his first time at the plate. Paige was so enraged the next time Mays came to bat he walked up to him and said, “Boy, I’m going to throw three fast balls and you’re going to sit back down”—which is exactly what happened. Shortly thereafter, Paige was signed by the Cleveland Indians and three years later Mays was signed by the Giants, so, in that era before inter-league play, the two never faced each other again.
The story of how Mays broke into the majors is just one of the intriguing yarns in the well-researched “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend,” by sportswriter James Hirsch and published by Simon & Schuster. Hirsch, who has reported for The New York Times and The Wall street Journal, was interviewed by professor Holly Vietzke of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover(MSL) on the MSL show “Books of Our Time,” (broadcast nationally via Comcast SportsNet at 11 A.M. Sunday, November 14th.) Even though Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the National League in 1947 and was quickly followed by black stars Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Larry Doby with the Cleveland Indians, “most major league teams were still unwilling to sign black players, not because they doubted their skill but because there was still the belief that black players were bad for business,” Hirsch said. They thought, “If you had a black player on the field, that would keep away your white fans.” He went on to say the owners “didn’t understand that, first of all, all fans cared about was whether your team won, and second of all, the black players were not just great players, but they were exciting because they would lead the league in stolen bases, they could do things on the field importing some of the style of the Negro Leagues that the white teams were not doing.”
Far from hurting attendance, Mays whirled turnstiles in every city he played, drawing white fans as well as black to see the star who may or may not have been the greatest player of all time but who Hirsch says “was surely the most exciting player of all time.” Over his 24 years in professional baseball (1951-1973 in the majors) Mays now and again experienced racial bias but for the most part his teammates recognized Willie was “the best player on the team, the best player in the league, and maybe the best player ever,” Hirsch points out. “And so they were very devoted to Willie because they recognized he helped them win, he helped them win championships, and he put money in their pockets.” Willie was also a leader both on and off the field yet now and then one of his teammates made racist comments toward him so that his overall experience was not wholly sunshine and roses.
Manager Durocher’s belief in, and support of, Mays, and who Hirsch says gave “this very young, insecure kid” unconditional love, made Durocher literally a father to Mays. Thus, when Durocher was fired by the Giants at the end of the 1955 season, Mays described that day as his saddest day in baseball. Mays got off to such a terrible start in his rookie year (making out in his first 12 at bats before socking a home run off Braves pitcher Warren Spahn) that a less understanding and less forgiving manager might have sent him back to the minors. Durocher recognized that Mays was a born leader who took care of his body, who got his rest, who didn’t smoke or drink or prowl the nightclubs and avoided scandal. Hirsch writes that Mays was proud of his baseball record, his conduct, and the way he lived his life. “The longevity is what Willie is most proud of. He always said he didn’t play for the records,” Hirsch says. And he told of the Mays quip: “If I had known how important records were I would have gone for them.”
The fact that Mays did reach a point in his career where he was older than most of the ballparks was important to him because “he played and showed up,” Hirsch says. One of his records that stands to this day is the one for the most consecutive seasons in which he played at least 150 games. Measures of his superlative play include his .302 lifetime batting average and his never equaled record of 7,095 outfield put outs. He racked up 3,283 hits and 1,903 runs batted in in a career stretching from 1951 to October, 1973. Mays is one of the handful of National League players to have eight consecutive 100-RBI years—a group rounded out by Mel Ott, Sammy Sosa, Chipper Jones, and Albert Pujols. Not surprisingly, Mays was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Willie Mays grew up in the town of Fairfield, Ala., outside of Birmingham, a planned community that had fewer racial tensions than the big city. (In October, 1963, the city refused to carry an NBC network documentary on Mays describing his superlative career and attesting to his sterling character.) Blacks and whites worked together in the steel mills and Willie’s childhood athletic ability was so pronounced that whether the sport was football, baseball or basketball white kids wanted Willie on their side. Sports, says Hirsch, was “a great incubator” for kids getting along, as well as the adults in Willie’s life. After Willie’s mother, Annie, left his father to start a new family nearby, leaving Willie behind to be raised by aunts, the message they drummed into him was to stay out of trouble, to “keep your head down and try to get along with the whites,” Hirsch writes. “So Willie made an effort to always stay clear of trouble and because of that he did feel insulated from those racial tensions.” He suffered, though, from feelings of being rejected by his mother, imbuing him with a determination to prove himself at whatever he did.
Because of his athletic prowess, the young Mays didn’t have to do quite as much as his peers in getting an after-school job while he was in high school. “Everyone knew that Willie’s ticket out of Alabama—out of a life that had very few opportunities for blacks apart from menial jobs or the steel mills—was sports,” Hirsch notes, and because of that, life might not have been as hard for Mays as others in that period. Willie saw his mother (a high school track and basketball player) on a regular basis and she did what she could for him but “there was always this specter of abandonment,” Hirsch says, because “he was always on the outside of this other family with all of his half-siblings and because of this he was highly motivated to prove that he was worthy of his mother and the other adults around him.”
Willie’s father, who played with a Negro ball club for a local factory, played a key role in protecting his son’s health and steering him into a sports career in which he would earn good money. He lectured his son at an early age about the hazards of smoking and drinking and when he caught the child smoking with a friend on a street corner he brought him home, lit up a White Owl cigar and said, “Smoke it, boy.” According to Hirsch, Willie smoked it and almost gagged. His father then handed him some moonshine and said, “Drink it, boy,” and Willie did and threw up—after which he never smoked or drank. Mays attributes his longevity as a baseball player to his durability “and to this day one of the things that Willie is most proud of is that he did steer clear of those kinds of vices,” Hirsch reports. Mays told Hirsch that he was probably better at football and basketball than at baseball—his third best sport. But Willie ended up swinging a bat because baseball offered the most economic opportunities. Basketball was out because Mays would have had to attend college before he could get into the National Basketball Assn., and he wanted to start earning money immediately. Football was out as Mays played quarterback and the pro leagues in those days did not allow blacks to quarterback. As for his choice of positions, Willie was discouraged from pitching by his father who pointed out that if he hurt his arm it could cut short his career. So Willie was sent to center field, where he became the best in the business.
Mays entered the majors four years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and he recognized his debt to Robinson. When Robinson phoned Mays to ask him to speak out for civil rights, Mays explained that that was not his style. Robinson turned bitter and chastised Mays for only caring about himself, calling him a “do-nothing Negro” and an “Uncle Tom,” Hirsch said. This attitude was less than fair, however. Hirsch reminds us that in the Deep South in the Thirties and Forties, “if you were black and you caused trouble, you could be arrested, you could be put in jail, you could be put in a prison camp, you could be shot at, you could be lynched, or your home could be dynamited.” So the young Mays was programmed to keep his mouth shut, not to retort to racial slurs, and as an adult he lived with the concern that if he generated controversy all of the good will he had built up, along with his celebrity, could vanish in a flash.
Since Mays idolized Robinson, the Dodgers star’s criticism cut deep. Finally, Mays held a press conference to say he had contributed to racial progress by playing the game the way that fit his personality and in the process paving the road for other black players. He noted that often he was the first of his race to go into hotels and restaurants and that others followed him and so in that way he made a contribution. Biographer Hirsch notes that at no time in the press conference did Mays put down Robinson because Mays “would never criticize another ballplayer.” One of Willie’s “firsts” was buying a home in the Forest Hills section of San Francisco after the Giants moved to that city from New York. No black family had ever moved there before and the realtor refused initially to sell Mays the home, mistakenly fearing that property values would plunge. The story made the papers and was a huge embarrassment to San Francisco, besmirching the city’s image for tolerance and sophistication. Ultimately, the realtor backed down and sold the house to Mays. Not only did property values not go down but the home was put on the route of tour bus operators who cashed in on Willie’s celebrity.
The move to San Francisco also caused Mays some discomfort on the playing field. The Polo Grounds where the Giants had played in upper Manhattan was unique in that it had a center field that was more than 500 feet from home plate as compared, say, to Chicago’s Wrigley Field, where the center field wall typically was 400 feet away. “What made Willie such a great player was that he was not just extremely fast but incredibly fast with the ball in the air,” Hirsch said. Buck O’Neil, the Negro League legend said that Mays may not have been the fastest player of all time but he was the fastest of all time “when the ball was in the air.” So Willie had the landscape he needed in the Polo Grounds to display his dazzling speed as well as his rifle-like throwing arm. Mays would play a shallow center field where he made putouts of fly balls that lesser fielders would have allowed to drop in for hits. Hirsch says it was exciting to watch Mays charge the ball because if it got past him “it would roll forever and the hitter would have an inside-the-park home run.”
Mays won 12 consecutive Golden Glove awards for his fielding. When the Giants moved to San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1957, it confined Mays to a shortened center field just 400 feet from home plate. Worse, the park was subject to cross-winds that blew from left field to right field. They made it tough on Mays, a right-handed pull hitter, to slug the ball into the wind and over the left field fence, so Mays had to adjust his swing and try to hit hone runs to right. Hirsch said, “I think there was a lot of reason to believe that Candlestick cost Willie quite a few home runs.” Even so, over his major league career Mays pounded 660 home runs, ranking him fourth on the list of all major league sluggers after only Barry Bonds, 762; Hank Aaron, 755; and Babe Ruth, 714. In one game, Mays blasted four home runs, again putting him in an illustrious group that includes Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees, Chuck Klein and Mike Schmidt of the Philadelphia Phillies, and Gil Hodges of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Willie’s batting average got an unusual boost from his exceptional hearing, Hirsch says. One of his boyhood friends told the biographer that Willie always could hear a person whispering from across a room, so that “his ears were a weapon.” Hirsch explains that “the sound of the ball hitting the bat, the crack, gave Mays the information he needed to know how hard the ball was hit and so he got great jumps on the ball” dashing to first base. Mays was so fast for a power hitter (he hit 51 home runs in 1955) that he was one of the first major leaguers to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in a season. In 1956, for example, Mays hit 36 home runs and pilfered 40 bases. “That’s what made Willie so distinctive,” Hirsch says. “He redefined the game of baseball. He was a power hitter who could also lead the league in stolen bases. He was a fast runner who could steal bases and also led the league in home runs. That had never happened before. He was this perfect fusion between Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb…a five-tool player, the guy who can do it all, and that was Willie’s contribution to baseball as a player.” As for speed, Mays, had never distinguished himself as a base stealer until the 1955 season when the Giants lost some of their power hitters and run-scoring punch. So he decided to become a base thief to help the club generate more offense, and it worked.
Playing all-out was the only way Mays knew to play the game. “Willie would crash into walls and run over catchers, and dive for balls, and that did have a cumulative effect on his health,” Hirsch says. Late in his career he suffered from spells of exhaustion where he would collapse on the field and had to be hospitalized. In his early playing days, Mays vied for stardom in New York as a great center fielder against Duke Snider of the Dodgers and Mickey Mantle of the Yankees. There was a “friendly rivalry” between the men as each wanted to be known as the best center fielder “so they pushed each other to excel” even more than they would have ordinarily,” Hirsch says. In one game, Mays almost threw for the cycle—that is, from his outfield position he threw runners out at first, second, and home plate and would have gotten another runner out at third except the third baseman dropped his throw. Mays, the biographer says, had “a sixth sense” for the game. Once he made a catch in center field facing the outfield wall robbing the batter of a hit, catching runner Hank Aaron, who had rounded second, scrambling to get back to first base. Instead of throwing the ball to first to double out Aaron, Mays threw to team mate second baseman Tito Fuentes yelling to him to touch the bag, which he did. The umpire called Aaron out as he had missed tagging second on his way back to first. When reporters later asked Mays how he could have seen Aaron miss tagging second when he was looking the other way, Willie replied, “I know the way he runs.”
Over his career years, Mays acquired several nicknames: the “Say Hey Kid” and “The Peacemaker.” It is commonly believed Mays went around greeting people with “Say hey!” but, in fact, he never used the phrase. In the area of the South he came from people said “hey” instead of “hello” and Willie would go around saying “hey” a lot, Hirsch says. “Willie was also terrible remembering people’s names,” his biographer says, so instead of addressing someone by his or her name he would just say, “hey you” or “hey, how you doing?” so a sports writer dubbed him the “Say Hey Kid” because, literally, he did say “hey” and, at age 18, he was a kid. “And it was really the perfect nickname for Mays not just because it was pithy and catchy but as it captured Willie’s exuberant, outgoing, and smiling personality,” Hirsch says. The name stuck with Mays all through his playing days and beyond so that when introduced before audiences in his post-career years he was still introduced as the “Say Hey Kid.” As for “the peacemaker,” Hirsch said he earned it by breaking up fights on the field.
During one game in August, 1965, Juan Marichal hit Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro with his bat. “Willie knows for this fight to be defused he has to get Roseboro —who is running around trying to get at any Giant—-off the field. Willie grabs him and drags him off. He takes Roseboro into the Dodger dugout, sits him down, takes a towel and begins mopping the blood off of Roseboro’s face where he had been hit.” A TV camera catches the action—and “shows there’s a tear in Willie’s eye,” Hirsch says. Asked why he was crying, Mays told sports writers, “’I was just so sad,’ Hirsch says, explaining, “What the comment indicates is that to Willie baseball was his family. Not just the players on his team, but the other players, the umpires, (and) other managers. And to have his family fighting each other like that moved Willie to such an extent that it brought him to tears and everyone saw what that meant to him.” Off the field, Mays was a role model for youth and Wikipedia notes “Magazine photographers were fond of chronicling his participation in local stickball games with kids.” Hirsch recounts how Mays used his celebrity status to help kids. “He would just take them out and buy them things like ice cream and food or clothes and shoes for kids who needed them. Willie was aware of what it was like to be in need of those things.” And he was always “generous to a fault with his friends,” Hirsch adds.
When Hirsch last visited Mays, then nearly 80, he said, “I feel for him that he’s not able to see like he once did, but he does have a good life. He did well financially in his retirement. He’s surrounded by people who care about him, people who love him, and he’s very proud of everything he’s done in his life and I think he’s proud that it’s now been captured in this volume.” Hirsch added, “It’s important to him that he’s older than most of the ballparks” (because that attests to his durability,) “and he’s proud that when the game began he always answered the bell.”