Willie Mays

In the mid-'60s, whites weren't ready for the best baseball player to be black, and blacks weren't ready for him to be black like Mays.

Topics: Baseball,

Willie Howard Mays Jr. was best known for his high, boyish voice; his huge wide-palmed hands, branching out at the wrists like mini baseball gloves; the oversize cap that flew off his head as he rounded the bases or roamed the outfield; and his trademark basket catch — maybe, most of all, The Catch, the one that robbed the Cleveland Indians’ Vic Wertz of extra bases in the first game of the 1954 World Series.

The Catch will make the 20th century highlight shows as Mays’ legacy. Maybe it’s the black-and-white film that makes it so breathtaking today — the field looks so vast, the fence so menacing, the outfielder so small and speedy, like a character in a grainy old silent movie viewed on fast-forward. But it was equally stunning in person. Writer Arnold Hano immortalized it in his book “A Day in the Bleachers.” Hano watched as Mays chased the ball, “turned full around, head down, running as hard as he could … I thought then: it will beat him to the wall.”

But it didn’t. With his back to home plate, Mays caught the ball over his left shoulder, and “then whirled and threw, like some olden statue of a Greek javelin hurler, his head twisted away to the left as his right arm swept out and around … And as he turned, or as he threw — I could not tell which, the two motions were welded into one — off came the cap, and then Mays himself continued to spin around after the gigantic effort of returning the ball whence it came, and he went down flat on his belly, and out of sight.” The Catch helped the Giants win the World Series in four games, their first series win since 1933, and their last to date.

Typically, the opinionated and sometimes ornery Mays himself insists that wasn’t his best catch: “The catch off Bobby Morgan in Brooklyn was the best catch I ever made,” Mays told Salon People, referring to a diving, backhanded grab of the Brooklyn Dodger’s line drive in September 1951 at Ebbetts Field. The impact stunned him briefly. “Jackie Robinson and [Giants manager] Leo Durocher were the first people I saw when I opened my eyes,” Mays recalls. That difference of opinion about The Catch is telling: Even a star as huge as Mays couldn’t control what fans revered about him, and at a certain point he had to give up.

Now, at 68, Mays says he doesn’t much care how he’s remembered. But others do. When baseball luminaries were polled after New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio died to see who had inherited the title of “greatest living player,” St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson asked incredulously: “You’re assuming DiMaggio was the greatest living ballplayer?” Gibson believed Mays was the best even while DiMaggio was alive, and he has a lot of company. And while Mays insists he’s never cared about the title, his failure to secure it until DiMaggio’s death seemed a little strange to me, a holdover from a time when baseball wasn’t ready for its Ruths and Gehrigs and DiMaggios to give way to the Robinsons and the Mayses and the Aarons.

My gut feeling, eccentric and ill-substantiated as it may be, is that Mays never got the full acclaim he deserved, because he was the best in baseball when much of white America wasn’t ready for its best player to be black, and some of black America wasn’t ready for him to be black like Mays. I grew up in New York in the 1960s listening to white kids argue that the
Yankees’ Mickey Mantle was better than Mays, one circumstance in which
whites are decidedly disadvantaged. And I’ve wondered if that accounts for Mays’ ambivalent relationship with fame. He is known for his kindness to friends, but he can be cantankerous and contemptuous to strangers and fans, and even longtime friends and admirers describe him occasionally as “bitter.”

Some people scoff at the notion that Mays never got sufficient credit. “People are going to ask what you’ve been smoking if you try to say Willie Mays didn’t get enough acclaim,” San Francisco Giants president (and lifelong Mays fan) Peter Magowan told me when I ran that idea by him. “He was the highest-paid player in baseball in his day. Fans loved him.”

But Giants manager Dusty Baker agreed with me. Talking about Mays’ difficult relationship with the media, and with the baseball establishment for a time in the early ’80s, Baker offers: “What people don’t understand is what he went through. You’ll just never know. He played in a time when the world wasn’t as open-minded as it is now. And to this day, he’s never gotten what a Ruth or a Cobb or Lou Gehrig have. You ever see a Willie Mays movie? Me, either. So he’s had reason to be bitter. Whole bunch of us had reason.”

As baseball gathers in Boston Tuesday for its annual family reunion, the All-Star Game, it’s worth looking back at the 20-time All-Star, Willie Mays, who is now, officially, the “greatest living baseball player” — much better late than never.

As a 20-year-old rookie, Mays fought his promotion from the Triple-A Minneapolis Millers to the New York Giants in 1951. He told Giants manager Leo Durocher he couldn’t hit big-league pitching yet. Durocher reminded him he was batting .477 with Minneapolis, and asked simply, “Do you think you can hit .2-fuckin’-70 for me?” After Mays went 1-for-25 in his first six games with the Giants, the rookie collapsed in tears by his locker (tears figure prominently in stories about Mays; the high-strung perfectionist was prone to fainting spells and mysterious bouts of nervous exhaustion, for which he was twice hospitalized during his career). Durocher put his arm around the young center fielder and gave him a pep talk. Then he moved him down to eighth in the batting order, and Mays took off. He wound up National League Rookie of the Year, batting .2-fuckin’-74, with 20 home runs and 68 RBIs, and the Giants went to the World Series.

The city and the media fell for the speedy center fielder with the big bat and the squeaky voice. Photographers found him in Harlem, where he lived, playing stickball with neighborhood kids, before and after games. The stories about the stickball-playing rookie were affectionate, but depicted him as a childish, almost cartoonish figure, an image Mays never entirely lost. Some of the images were even more pernicious. In his rookie year the Sporting News ran a cartoon about the new star, captioned in dialect: “Ah gives base runners the heave ho!” and “Ah aims to go up in the world.”

Mays was drafted by the U.S. Army after one year in the majors, and the Giants did poorly without him. It was the two-year Army stint, plus his 12 years playing at San Francisco’s windy Candlestick Park, that cost him a shot at Ruth’s home-run record. Do the math: Mays finished his 22-year career with 660 homers, an average of 30 a season. Give him just 25 each for the two years he was in the service and he’s up to 710 (the Babe hit 714), and give him another 5 a year for time served at Candlestick — the renowned graveyard for long fly balls that would be homers anywhere else — and he would have hit 770, surpassing even Hank Aaron’s 755.

But that’s focusing on what he didn’t do. Mays is best remembered for what he did: He’s among baseball’s top 10 all-time leaders in home runs, RBIs, hits, runs scored and total bases. He stole more bases during his career than his recent rivals for greatest living player — Ted Williams, Aaron and DiMaggio — put together. He led the league in home runs three times, and in stolen bases four years in a row. He was Most Valuable Player in 1954 and 1965. He holds some offbeat records, too — for hitting the most home runs in extra innings (22), and being the only player in history to hit a home run in every single inning through the 16th.

Yet when people lucky enough to have seen him play talk about Mays, they don’t trade in records and statistics. They describe him as a perpetual-motion machine, a one-man show of nonstop agitation and cogitation, at the plate and in the field, a danger to his opponents from the first at bat to the last out of every game he played.

“He would routinely do things you never saw anyone else do,” says Giants president Magowan, who saw him play at New York’s Polo Grounds in his rookie year. “He’d score from first base on a single. He’d take two bases on a pop-up. He’d throw somebody out at the plate on one bounce. And the bigger the game, the better he played.”

But for every anecdote about the way Mays used his bat or glove, there’s at least one about the way he used his brain. “He played in the days before you had computerized printouts and videos and all the stuff we have now to tell you what a guy does against you,” says Dusty Baker. “And still there was nothing he couldn’t do.” Mays had an encyclopedic memory, Baker says, for the pitchers he faced, and their pitches. He was known to swing at good pitches, and even strike out if there was no one on base, early in a game, just to fool the pitcher into throwing the same pitch in a dangerous situation later — when he’d nail it.

Conservative pundit and baseball devotee George Will lists Mays among the smartest and best-disciplined players in baseball history. But he “received a lot of semi-disparaging praise as a ‘natural,’” Will wrote in “Men at Work,” because of “the residue of racism.” Mays was stealing other teams’ signs as a rookie, Will notes, and he routinely stayed on the field when the other team took infield practice, partly for the extra conditioning, and partly to watch the way his opponents positioned themselves when fielding, so he could know when to try for an extra base during the game.

His managers, from Durocher onward, sooner or later learned to leave him alone and let him call the shots in the outfield and at the plate. Some reporters, and occasionally his teammates, thought they were coddling their superstar. But when Herman Franks, who managed the Giants in the mid-1960s, was asked why he often deferred to Mays so frequently, he put it this way: “Because he knows more about those things than I do. You got any hard questions?”

But Mays had his share of disappointment in his stunning career. Unbelievably, when the Giants moved to San Francisco from New York in 1958, fans booed him, while embracing rookies like Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey and Jim Davenport. It was at least partly because provincial San Franciscans wanted to bury the New York past of the team they wooed West. Racism no doubt contributed to the ugly reception: Mays couldn’t buy a home in the city until the mayor intervened, and a brick was thrown through the window of his first residence.

And while Mays insists he doesn’t dwell on it, it had to sting that despite his stature — the Sporting News named him “the player of the decade” in 1969 — the Giants went to the World Series only once in the 1960s, although they had the second-best record in all of baseball through those years. In his personal life, he got divorced in the mid-’60s and wound up on the verge of bankruptcy, thanks to some bad financial advice and the fact that he played just before salaries started to skyrocket.

In 1972, Mays was traded to the New York Mets for pitcher Charlie Williams and $100,000. At first he was devastated, though with the Mets he made his fourth and final trip to the World Series, at 42, in 1973. But while he made key contributions to the Mets’ winning season — including hitting the game-winning single to clinch the division — he was widely criticized for playing past his prime. Early that year Roger Angell complained that Mays, whom he loved, “has so far resisted the clear evidence that he should retire … His batting reflexes are gone, and so is his arm … His failings are now so cruel to watch that I am relieved when he is not in the lineup. It is hard for the rest of us to fall apart quite on our own; heroes should depart.”

It’s clear that leaving baseball was one of the hardest passages of Mays’ life. “Oh, it was difficult. Very difficult. I’ll say that to this day,” he says. “You know, a lot of people said when I was 40, I should quit, but I don’t think so. You should play as long as you can and as long as you enjoy the game. In ’73, I wasn’t enjoying the game, so I quit in May, I retired, and they wouldn’t let me retire. So I finished up in the World Series. But I say to players: Play as long as you can, because you only have one chance.”

If retiring was hard, Mays’ worst professional blow was his ban from baseball in the early 1980s, when he went to work, as a meeter-and-greeter, for Bally’s Casinos. No baseball millionaire, he needed the money. But Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled that Mays and Yankees great Mickey Mantle, who worked for Claridge’s, could no longer hold even honorary jobs with major league teams because of their association with gambling. Baseball writers savaged Kuhn, noting that his anti-gambling edict didn’t affect owners like the Yankees’ George Steinbrenner or the Pittsburgh Pirates’ John Galbreath, both of whom owned racetracks.

The ruling devastated Mays, and his news clips from the early 1980s are a series of negative stories — Mays’ not showing up for old-timers games, the All-Star Game and at other public appearances. When Peter Ueberroth became commissioner in 1985, he brought Mays back into the fold, and Mays began working again with the San Francisco Giants. In recent years, as a baseball ambassador with the Giants, he’s had a higher profile again and gotten better media.

The baseball ban is still a bitter memory to Mays. When I brought it up during our mostly pleasant interview, he became hostile and the conversation never recovered.

But if Mays hates talking about his ban from baseball, there’s a subject he’s arguably even less happy talking about, and that’s race. But it’s unavoidable. He was born in Birmingham, Ala., which Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed the most viciously segregated city in the South. Police Commissioner Bull Connor, who later became notorious for deploying fire hoses and police dogs against civil rights marchers, did the radio broadcasts of the Birmingham Barons, a local semipro baseball team. But very early in his biography, “Say Hey,” Mays felt compelled to put his Birmingham childhood in perspective:

I always enjoyed playing ball, and it didn’t matter to me whether I played with white kids or black. I never understood why an issue was made of who I played with, and I never felt comfortable, when I grew up, telling other people how to act. Over the years, a lot of organizations have asked me to be their spokesman, or have wanted me to make speeches about my experiences as a black athlete, or to talk to Congressmen about racial issues in sports. But see, I never recall trouble. I believe I had a happy childhood. Besides playing school sports, we’d play football against the white kids. And we thought nothing of it, neither the blacks nor the whites. It was the grownups who got upset … I never got into a fight that was caused by racism.

But just a page later, Mays notes that “life was rough for blacks in those days.” While his family never lived in abject poverty, it got by thanks to time-honored survival strategies of the Southern poor: extended-family homes, boarders, backyard farming and everybody bringing in a little income every way they could, from moonshine to baseball. Mays’ parents separated when he was a baby, and he lived with his father and two young cousins he called “Auntie.” His father, Kitty Kat, supported the family by working at a local steel mill, when it was open, as well as playing baseball in the semipro Industrial League. From the age of 14 onward, Willie was playing alongside him, augmenting the family’s budget while he was becoming a local baseball legend.

So Mays could write honestly that “life was rough for blacks in those days” and “I believe I had a happy childhood.” He was only 16 when he started playing with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, and he thrived in the separate, unequal but glamorous black baseball world. The Black Barons outdrew the white Barons in attendance locally, and when he traveled he was a black-community celebrity. Ironically, it wasn’t until he left the Negro Leagues and signed with the New York Giants that he experienced racism’s sting directly: He couldn’t join the Giants Class A team in Sioux City, Iowa, because its management wouldn’t field a racially mixed team, so he was sent directly to the Class B team in Trenton, N.J.

When he got to the major leagues, Mays and other black players couldn’t stay in the same hotels as their white teammates in several cities, including Phoenix, where the team spent spring training. But in 1954, Jackie Robinson finally got the Brooklyn Dodgers to force St. Louis’ segregated Chase Hotel to let its black players stay there. And by the early 1960s, Mays found himself confronted less directly with white racism than with black demands that he use his celebrity and influence to ease the way for other blacks in baseball, and in society.

Perhaps the most painful controversy was the firestorm over Giants manager Alvin Dark, a veteran of the New York team who had played alongside Mays in the early ’50s, and managed the San Francisco team in the early ’60s. A conservative Christian Southerner, Dark was a paradox: He fielded the most colorful team in baseball, managing black and Latino stars like Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, Felipe Alou and his brother Matty. On days when Juan Marichal pitched, there might be only one or two white Giants on the field.

But Dark couldn’t overcome his backward attitudes toward race. He feuded constantly with the feisty Cepeda and tried to crack down on Latin music and the use of Spanish in the clubhouse. The conflict boiled over into public view twice: First, when Jackie Robinson interviewed Dark for his 1964 book “Baseball Has Done It,” the talkative Southerner went on patronizingly about the “colored boys” he managed, and opined that the civil rights movement was “being rushed too fast,” and “we from the South actually take care of the colored people, I think, better than they’re taken care of in the North.”

It got worse. After a disappointing Giants slump, the bitter manager unburdened himself to Newsday writer Stan Issacs. “We have trouble because we have so many Spanish-speaking and Negro players on the team,” Dark told Issacs. “They are just not able to perform up to the white ballplayer when it comes to mental alertness. You can’t make most Negro and Spanish players have the pride in their team that you can get from white players. And they aren’t as sharp mentally.” Dark singled out Cepeda and McCovey as slackers, but didn’t mention Mays.

The clubhouse erupted. Mays called a team meeting in his hotel room in Pittsburgh and, according to biographer Charles Einstein in “Willie’s Time,” he faced down Cepeda, who swore, “I’m not going to play another game for that son of a bitch.”

“Oh, yes, you are,” Mays retorted, “and let me tell you why.” He told his teammates Dark would eventually be fired for his remarks, and advised, “Don’t let the rednecks make a hero out of him.” And with typical Mays pragmatism, he argued that Dark’s racism had never interfered with his fielding the best team, because “he likes money.” Cepeda and others disagreed, but a players’ revolt never materialized, and Dark was fired, as Mays predicted, on the last day of the disappointing 1964 season. According to Einstein, Mays never talked to Dark again all season. (But on the eve of Cepeda’s belated induction into the Hall of Fame this month, Dark finally apologized to the Puerto Rican slugger.)

Yet Mays’ role in dampening the revolt against Dark would count against him among some black players. Both Jackie Robinson and St. Louis Cardinals star Curt Flood, who changed baseball history when he refused a trade to Philadelphia, would criticize his silence on civil rights issues. In his militant, moving memoir, “The Way It Is,” Flood wrote, “All but a few major leaguers share my view of baseball reality. Among those who do not, the most prominent is the great Willie Mays, who reports from privileged isolation of his huge success that he has nothing to complain about.”

Robinson went on in a similar vein in “Baseball Has Done It”: “Big league Negroes are aware. They are eager to help in the struggle … Rarely did anyone decline. Among those who did [was] Willie Mays … Willie is the highest paid star in baseball … I hope Willie hasn’t forgotten his shotgun house in Birmingham’s slums … Willie has faced the same problems that confront every Negro … What has he learned from life? We’d like to know. Willie didn’t exactly refuse to speak. He said he didn’t know what to say. I hope that he will think about the Negro inside Willie Mays’ uniform, and tell us one day.”

But to this day, Mays has rarely spoken about race publicly, not even to answer his critics. Perhaps his most revealing statement came in a 1974 speech he made on the occasion of his induction to the Black Athletes Hall of Fame. “This award means a great deal to me, because the time that I broke into baseball, I was like a young Jackie Robinson … I had a lot of hardship that no one knows about. I don’t like to speak about it because I was very ashamed of it. I’ve been told, Willie, you don’t care about your people. But that’s a lie. The suffering that I received in the last, I would say, 23 years, I couldn’t talk about because it was inside of me … I had to hold it.”

Mays’ defenders have pointed out the steps he has taken on behalf of African-American players, as well as his support of black youth with scholarships and other financial donations. The week we met, he was heading to New York to attend the graduation of a young student he’d encouraged as a child. But when I asked him if, given the quiet things he’s done for African-Americans, he was bothered by criticism that he didn’t speak out, he snapped: “Why? Why should I speak out? Yes, I did things; I still do. That’s not speaking out. I don’t speak out. I don’t do things for the notoriety. I’m the type of guy, I do what I like to do and if people don’t like it …”

He trailed off, and I thought about how, among the infinite number of ways racism scars black people, is the way it makes a political example — symbol, spokesman, victim, race-traitor — of individuals who’d rather just be people, and “do what I like to do.”

These days, though, Willie Mays gets to do what he likes to do. He greets his public when he feels like it, and he mostly ignores the media. He’s making an appearance at this year’s All-Star Game in Boston (a far cry from when he boycotted the last game held in San Francisco, in 1984, because he wasn’t offered a public role). He claims his 1951 catch against the Brooklyn Dodgers as his best, and doesn’t worry about the rest of the world’s insistence on The Catch. When he won the title of “greatest living baseball player” in the poll after DiMaggio’s death, he declined to be interviewed about it. Later, he told me:

“That doesn’t mean nothin’ to me. I got credit, but I don’t care about credit …

“I played my 22 years, and I’m proud of it.”

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