Thursday, February 25, 2010

Willie Mays - Thoughts On The Say Hey Kid

I only have one physical artifact that connects me with the legendary Golden Age of New York baseball - a dark blue wooden slatted seat from Ebbets Field, painted with a white stenciled number 1. I do not know what row or section of that famed ballpark the seat was in, but I do from time to time think of all the people who sat there and witnessed the history that I only heard and read about.

New York from 1947 to 1957 was the center of the baseball universe. Of the city's three major league clubs, at least one appeared in the World Series ten times during this period, and in seven of those years both Series contestants hailed from New York. One cannot think of this era without thinking of the three great centerfielders of the respective teams: Mantle (who took over from another legend, Joe DiMaggio), Snider, and of course Willie Mays. With the end of Black History Month and the appearance of James S. Hirchs's excellent new biography "Willie Mays, The Life, The Legend", I thought it appropriate to take a brief look at the "Say Hey Kid". My talents are too humble, and this space too small to shed much new light on Willie Mays as a baseball player, but I offer a few observations on the man who - despite his fame - continues to be a surprisingly elusive personality.

We Americans love a simple, satisfying narrative. We are not so good with nuance and complexity. It is possible that in no other subject is this more true than in the history of race relations in this country. From the narrative that has become familiar, it seems like Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963 and we all lived happily ever after. Instead of playing the same excerpt from that speech every year on MLK Day, I wish we could hear his "Bootstraps" speech, or his speech denouncing the war in Vietnam. King may have believed in non-violence, but he was no starry-eyed dreamer. His idealistic vision of equality was accompanied by sharp critiques of the American society, which were not popular with many people at the time. It is also useful to be reminded of just how many senatorial arms had to be twisted by Lyndon Johnson to advance the legislation that made it illegal to prevent people from voting or be discriminated against in housing based on skin color. Extending the protections of our Constitution to all of our citizens was still a controversial idea in 1964.

Likewise we have been handed down a narrative that Jackie Robinson integrated the majors, and afterward all was peace and harmony on the baseball diamond. In fact it took some teams almost a decade to find a black player "qualified" enough to play on the same field with whites. When Robinson was finally allowed to speak his mind, he was resented by some of his teammates and criticized in the press as a loudmouth and troublemaker. We like our heroes to stick to the script.

I mention this because Willie Mays - as great as he was - had to endure indignities of a subtler but no less damaging kind than Robinson. Although fans and the sporting press definitely took to the enthusiastic, amazingly gifted youngster from the start, some context is useful. Mays was often described as an "instinctive" player. This was a sort of backhanded compliment that was typical of the descriptions of black players at the time. Blacks were never described as "intelligent" players, or lauded for their strategic talents. They had "natural" talent. Take "The Catch", Mays' amazing grab of Vic Wertz' drive in game one of the 1954 Series at the Polo Grounds. The catch itself was incredible, there's no denying that. But it's what Mays had to do before and after the catch that is really impressive. He had to get the ball into the infield quickly in order to prevent possibly two runs from scoring, and he had to do this from almost 500 feet away from home plate with his momentum taking him in the wrong direction. And he had to start thinking about what to do with the ball after he got to it from the crack of Wertz' bat. What bothers Mays to this day is that no one ever talked about The Throw.

A teenage Willie Mays (back row, center) celebrates winning the Negro American League pennant with his teammates in 1948.

By no means were Mays' difficulties limited to the prejudices of some of white America. At a time when blacks were struggling to change negative stereotypes, many African-Americans were uncomfortable with Mays' relationship with Giants manager Leo Durocher, which bordered on paternalistic on Durocher's part. (It could not have helped matters that Willie referred to Durocher as "Mr. Leo"). No less than Jackie Robinson criticized Mays' reluctance to speak out more forcefully on racial issues. It was not that Mays cared any less about discrimination, after all he grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, perhaps the most ruthlessly segregated city in America - it was just not his style or in his comfort zone to be outspoken or overtly political. But this in no way means that Mays accepted any less than was his due as a man, as he showed by his response to an unfortunate incident in the early days of the Giants' adopted new home.

When the Giants pulled up stakes and headed to San Francisco, Mays was at first prevented from buying the house he and his wife had chosen. He offered the purchase price (there were no competing offers) and waited. After going some time with no response it was learned that the owners, as well as the builder, did not want Mays to have the house at any price. The neighbors were against the sale as well. They did not want to live next to a black man even if he was Willie Mays. The mayor of San Francisco eventually had to get involved and extreme pressure applied to the recalcitrant parties before Mays was permitted to buy the house of his choice. This was eleven years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line, and in urbane, sophisticated San Francisco. The incident was a huge publicity black eye for the city. When word of his dilemma got out, Mays was offered other homes in more "appropriate" neighborhoods, but although Mays was no activist, he politely refused these offers and quietly held his ground until the right thing was done. The publicity from this episode exposed the hidden exclusionary practices of the San Francisco housing market. Had Mays accepted the invitation to move into a "Negro" neighborhood and avoid controversy, these practices might have continued for years to come.

Another area of misunderstanding for some was Mays' playing style. Mays brought an exuberance to his play that some fellow players mistook for showboating. But Willie came from the Negro leagues, where the emphasis on entertaining the crowd was deemed almost as important as one's baseball skills. Mays honestly believed he owed the paying fans a good show. He simply loved to play the game, and his love of playing was reflected in his style of play. (The stories of him finishing a game at the Polo Grounds and then playing stickball with kids in Harlem are true.) He was accused of "hogging" balls in the outfield, when actually he was told to catch any ball he thought he could reach. Cleveland pitcher Bob Feller even suggested Mays wore a hat that was too big so that it would easily fly off his head and therefore make his plays look more exciting.

It is interesting that it took Bay Area fans several years to warm up to Willie. Part of it was that ironically he was competing again with the ghost of DiMaggio, in a new city. Joltin' Joe was the best centerfielder to come out of San Francisco, and some fans did not want anyone challenging the sanctity of his status. Another reason was pure provincialism. Willie Mays was "imported" from New York, and San Franciscans wanted their own home-grown hero (it's interesting that Orlando Cepeda - who had no New York connection - became a more popular player than Willie Mays in his first few seasons).

By the time I got to see Mays in the flesh, he was a fading legend, but still a powerful force on those great 1960s Giant teams that included McCovey, Marichal, and the Alou brothers. As with all great veterans, what was lost in speed and physical ability was at least partly made up for by wisdom and experience.

Mays returned to New York for his last two seasons only at the insistence of Mets owner Joan Payson, who was the only board member of the Giants who had voted against the move West back in 1957. Although resented by manager Yogi Berra and treated shabbily by the front office, Mays was used much more than initially intended due to injuries to the team and even got to finish his career by playing in one last World Series, which ironically pitted a New York team against a team from the Bay Area - the Oakland Athletics.

A brief run through of our Willie Mays flannels:

- Mays' professional career started at the tender age of fifteen with the Negro Southern League's Chattanooga Choo-Choos.

- Mays joined the Birmingham Black Barons while still in high school. The Barons of the late 1940s were one of the top black clubs of all time, and defeated the Homestead Grays in the 1948 Negro World Series with a teenage Mays in the outfield.

- After being signed by the Giants, Mays had a brief sojourn in Trenton, where he integrated the Inter-State League, then started the 1951 season with the Minneapolis Millers where he was so wildly popular, that Giants owner Horace Stoneham took out an ad in the Minneapolis newspapers apologizing to fans for taking Mays away from them. Mays was hitting .477 for the Millers when he was called up.

- Mays played winter ball for the Santurce Cangrejeros, where wore #24 and shared the outfield with Roberto Clemente.

Mays with Giant manager Herman Franks in Puerto Rico.

The Washington State Senate passed a resolution today honoring Ebbets Field Flannels for our work in preserving baseball history and for donating uniforms to the Iraq National Baseball team last year. I was in the gallery to watch the reading and vote on the resolution, and got to stand up and tip my cap when introduced (I brought a 1957 Seattle Rainiers - 7 1/4). It was a thrill to go into the ornate classical Capitol building and watch the proceedings on the Senate floor. We are truly honored to receive this recognition.