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Willie Mays: The Greatest to Ever Play

I never saw Willie Mays play. A fact, through the very cruel accident of when I was born, I’ve always regretted, and one my father never let me forget. “You got a lot of great ball players today,” he’d say. “But you never got to see Willie Mays.” I only knew the “Say Hey Kid” through documentaries of his exploits: “When it Was a Game,” Ken Burns’ “Baseball,” and the recently released HBO documentary “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” He was the first five-tool player in baseball (for the uninitiated, that means he hit for average and power, had unbelievable speed, incredible arm strength, and fielding prowess). Those skills made him, at the time, the second player to hit over 600 home runs; the first player with 400+ homers and 300+ stolen bases; end his career with a career .301 average, win a World Series and be forever known for a single, incomprehensibly made play: “The Catch.”

“They throw the ball, I hit it; they hit the ball, I catch it,” is the phrase Mays used to summarize his success in baseball. In a life that took Mays from Alabama at the height of Jim Crow, to the Negro Leagues, the army, the New York/San Francisco Giants, and Cooperstown—the reality is that his triumphs on the diamond required much more than Mays let on. There were few players who worked harder than Mays. Up until a few days ago, Mays was set to appear at Rickwood Field, the former home of the Negro Leagues' Birmingham Black Barons, where the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants were set to face off. Mays did not get to see the game. He passed away two before it was played, on June 18. He was 93.

Willie Howard Mays Jr was born on May 6, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama. He was, from an early age, a baseball savant. His father Cat Mays, a ball player himself, often allowed the young Mays to sit on the bench with him during his Birmingham Industrial League games. Mays’ mother, Annie Satterwhite, was 16-years old when he was born. She did not stay and his parents did not marry. Cat kept custody of the young Mays while Anne eventually married another man, and had a family of ten children. “There was always this kind of specter of abandonment. His mom didn’t want to raise him, but she raised these other 10 children,” explained James Hirsch, author of “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend.” Those early family struggles, however, did not deter Mays. By the time he arrived at Fairfield Industrial High School, he was an accomplished multi-sport athlete.

By the time a 17-year-old Mays arrived in the Negro Leagues for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948, the golden age of the historic league was already nearing its end. The prior year, Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, cracking the color barrier and allowing a flood of Negro League stars to finally play integrated baseball. That fortunate blow against racism, however, was also a deadly blow against the league. By the beginning of the ‘48 season, Satchel Paige and Larry Doby were already playing for the Cleveland Indians, and many other stars were preparing to depart. That same year Mays played in the final Negro League World Series, losing to the Homestead Grays. In 1950, the New York Giants signed Mays. By the 1951 season, he was in the majors. 

From the beginning, Mays stood close to history. On August 11, the ‘51 Giants were 13 ½ games behind the Dodgers for the pennant. In the final 58 games the Giants went 40-18 to tie the Dodgers, igniting a three-game playoff to determine the pennant. The third game was decided in dramatic fashion by Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson’s three-run homer known simply as the “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” (the radio call, fortuitously recorded because of a young fan asking his mother to tape it, remains the most famous in the sport’s history). Mays was on-deck for the historic shot and often quipped that he was probably the last person in the ballpark who made it to home plate. Though the Giants would go on to lose in the World Series to the Yankees, Mays was named Rookie of the Year.    

Mays’ celebration was short-lived. During the 1952 season he was drafted by the army for the Korean War. He missed nearly two years of his career, curtailing many of the records he could’ve set. Mays, nevertheless, never complained.

Like many other towering pop culture figures, the myth has overtaken the man. Mays’ penchant for rarely gripping—a stance that put him at odds with Jackie Robinson and other civil rights leaders, who saw his silence as detrimental to the cause—remained throughout his life (though he did famously stand up against discriminatory housing in 1957 when he was denied from buying a house in a white San Francisco neighborhood). His wide smile, boyish joy, and fondness for yelling ‘hey’ to get the attention of his teammates, earned him the moniker of the “Say Hey Kid.” That moniker trapped Mays in a kind of amber, an amiable Black man of immense talent who spoke to both sides of the proverbial aisle. In the decades that followed, Mays would be photographed with various heads of state: From Gerald Ford to Queen Elizabeth II, George W Bush and Barack Obama (who would later honor Mays with the Presidential Medal of Freedom). 

From dignitaries to little kids, everyone marveled at the legend and aura of Mays. The legend of Mays took hold during the 1954 season, in what also became the beginning of the Golden Age of New York Baseball—the center fielders for its three major teams were Mays (Giants), Duke Snider (Dodgers) and Mickey Mantle (Yankees). That year Mays was selected for his first of twenty-four all-star teams, hit 41 home runs, and won the first of his two MVP awards. Those were all precursors to the most significant event of his career. In game 1 of the World Series against the Cleveland Indians, with the score 2-2 in the 8th inning, a ball off the bat of Vic Wertz appeared ticketed for at least a double in center field. Mays, starting from shallow center, sprinted over 90 feet, turned his back, and caught the ball over his shoulder while somehow throwing it back to the infield in a near-single motion so no runners would advance. The Giants would sweep the Indians, giving Mays his only World Series victory. And Mays, by virtue of “the catch,” would forever be burned into the fabric of the collective memory. 

Mays, of course, has too many accomplishments to count. His New York years were a tremendous, near-superhuman stretch. He not only had two 30-30 seasons (30+ homers and 30+ stolen bases), he also accomplished a mind-boggling 20-20-20 season (20+ homer, 20+ stolen bases, and 20+ triples). He was a hero to children, often playing stick ball with local kids in front of his house—and delighted a fanbase with a brand of electric baseball that has rarely been seen since. His career would later switch to San Francisco, when Giants owner Horace Stoneham followed the Dodgers and moved his team to the west coast. In San Francisco, Mays and the Giants eventually played in Candlestick Park—giving Mays the distinction of hitting in maybe two of the worst hitters ballparks in major league history—where he won a second MVP, played in the 1962 World Series, and became regarded as the best player of the 1960s by Sporting News. Mays would not return to New York City as a home player until, with his speed diminished and his once formidable power gone, he was traded to the Mets in 1972. That season, in the heat of a pennant race, Mays had the last spurt of good baseball he’d play—guiding that team to an appearance in the World Series. They would lose the fall classic. Mays would play one last season. And in a tearful retirement message to the fans say “Good-bye, America.”   

He ended his career second all-time on baseball's home run list at 660 homers (he remains one of only nine players to reach the 600-homer milestone). He was the only player with 500+ career homers and 300+ stolen bases until Barry Bonds joined him. He is one of nine players with 500+ homers and an over .300 career batting average. He was, at the time, the 10th member of the 3000 hit club (there are now 33). Mays won two MVPs, was named to 24 all-star teams, and won 12 Gold Gloves—cementing him as the greatest defensive center fielder in baseball history.    

Mays would go on to be hitting instructor for the Mets until 1979. That year he was also selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on his first ballot. He remained close to the game throughout his life. In 1997 he was named to MLB’s All-Time team, and in 1999 he was named to baseball’s All-Century team. He was godfather to baseball’s controversial all-time home run leader Barry Bonds—who might have been baseball’s best all-around player if not for the existence of Mays—and remained a steady presence around the San Francisco Giants. He was also married twice. First to Marghuerite Wendell Chapman, who he divorced in 1963 (they had an adoptive son Michael). Then to Mae Louise Allen until her death from Alzheimer's disease in 2013.

Throughout his baseball career and after, Mays was often seen on television screens in other ways. He appeared as himself in episodes of “This is Your Life,” “The Donna Reed Show,”  “Bewitched,” “The Joe Namath Show,” “The Merv Griffith Show” and more. He also voiced himself in the animated short “Willie Mays and the Say-Hey Kid.” It's telling how much television Mays did. He was not only a ball player for the television, he was a Black ball player for the television age. That was rare.

Negro League games weren't broadcast on the radio until 1942 (twenty-one years after the majors). The first Negro League World Series game wasn't televised until 1948. For reference: the first MLB World Series was televised in 1947 (a series Jackie Robinson played in). Because Negro League games weren't always covered in newspapers—when they were, they were usually covered by the Black press in newspapers like The Chicago Defender and The Pittsburgh Courier—and box scores were not regularly kept, most of the exploits of those Black players only lived in the minds of the people who watched them play, becoming apocryphal stories to be passed down. No one truly knows how fast Cool Papa Bell was or how much power Josh Gibson really had. And while we do have some stats (MLB recently decided to integrate Negro League statistics with theirs, adding ten more hits to Mays' hit log), they remain a small window to the daily wonderment Black baseball provided. 

But Willie Mays was different. While Robinson broke the color barrier when he was 28-years old, thereby, limiting how much of his peak was seen by everyone—nearly all of Mays' peak was televised. If you were a Black man like my father, for the first time, the stories of superhuman exploits no longer sounded made up. You could point to actual proof that this did happen. You could point to the Trenier's Say Hey song. You could point to "the catch." You could point to Mays' moonshots. 

Recent documentaries have only deepened the legacy television set. And while I love to see Mays permanently enshrined as folk hero, I'm also worried that we may come to flatten the man behind the highlight reel. I personally wish a documentary like “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” hadn’t totally perpetuated his smoothed image. Mays was a joyous player, yes. But he was also a fierce competitor. 

In a post-credits scene from the documentary, for instance, he recalls breaking a catcher’s leg during a game. “Del Rice, good guy,” says Mays. “Then why did you break his leg,” asks Nelson George, the film’s director. “Because he got in the goddamn way,” Mays spits back. That was Willie Mays. That was the player my dad, and many Black men of his generation revered and loved, and tried emulate. That was the Mays who inspired many to adopt the basket catch and made many fall in love with the poetry of the game. That was the speed, the power, the flash, confidence, and tenacity. That was the player, I wish, to this very day, I could have seen play. I envy the many who did, and who will not soon forget, the greatest to player to ever play the game, the “Say Hey Kid.”

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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