Willie Mays

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Willie Mays

Willie Howard Mays Jr (born May 6, 1931 in Westfield; died June 18, 2024 in Palo Alto, California) was a first-ballot Hall of Fame baseball player who was twice named National League player of the year, appeared in 24 All-Star Games, and won 12 Gold Gloves.

Mays, the son of Negro League baseball player Willie "Cat" Mays and high school sprinter Annie Satterwhite, was recognized early in life as a gifted athlete. His parents never married and he grew up in Fairfield, initially with several of his mother's siblings in the home of Otis Brooks at 5412 Avenue C Ensley, and later in a house headed by two of his mother's sisters, Sarah and Ernestine, at 216 57th Street.

Mays' father taught him to play ball, and he actually played first base for two innings for his father's Fairfield Stars when he was 10 years old. He starred in football and basketball at Fairfield Industrial High School while continuing to play with the Stars in the Industrial Leagues.

Birmingham Black Barons

Mays as a Black Baron in 1948

In 1946 the then 15-year-old Mays made his professional debut with the New York Cubans. He played with the Chattanooga Choo-Choos some the next season before joining the Birmingham Black Barons as a $250 per month part-timer on July 4, 1948. He played baseball on weekends and continued his schooling during the week. Principal E. T. Oliver threatened him with expulsion if he missed school for baseball, but he managed to keep his attendance perfect while also sharing tales of his travels with classmates. Mays helped the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons to a 55-21 record and the Negro American League pennant. The Black Barons lost the final Negro Leagues World Series to the Homestead Grays.

Under the tutelage of the Black Barons' Piper Davis, Mays developed into a powerful and patient hitter. His batting average rose to .311 in 1949 and .330 in 1950. Black Barons owner Tom Hays' partnership with promoter Abe Saperstein had the team playing regularly in double-header bills in New York City, at Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. On one such trip in June 1950 the team bus caught fire in the Holland Tunnel.

Partly through those trips scouts from the Major Leagues had become aware of Mays' abilities. Some were convinced that he struggled too much with curveballs to succeed, but others saw unprecedented talent on display. The Giants' Carl Hubbell was the most dogged pursuer. He concealed his interest, sending his scouts to Birmingham ostensibly to evaluate first baseman Alonzo Perry. Counseled by promoter Alex Pompez, Hubbell and Jack Schwarz quietly negotiated with Hayes for Mays' contract. At Hayes' insistence, Giants owner Horace Stoneham formalized his $10,000 offer in writing on June 21. The Giants also paid a $4,000 signing bonus to Mays, who would continue earning $250 a month as a member of their Minneapolis Millers farm team. After 35 games with the AAA Millers in 1951 he was hitting .477 and earned his call up to Polo Grounds to play in the big leagues.

Mays debuted on May 25, 1951 but went hitless in his first 13 at bats. On his 14th trip to the plate, he homered off Warren Spahn before returning to his rookie slump. Giants manager Leo Durocher had confidence in his young center fielder. After 121 games he was hitting .274 with 20 home runs and 68 runs batted in. It was his brilliant fielding, however, that contributed to his winning the National League's Rookie of the Year award and to the Giants' claiming the pennant from their rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"The Catch"
Mays' glove from "The Catch"

In 1952 Mays was drafted into the Army. He played on baseball teams at Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia but was never sent overseas. Upon his return to the Giants he enjoyed a stellar 1954 season, batting .345 with 41 home runs, 110 runs batted in and 119 runs scored. He was the league's Most Valuable Player and led the Giants to a World Series title over the Cleveland Indians. His over-the-shoulder running catch of Vic Wertz's long hit, followed by a quick-turnaround that prevented a runner from scoring, is still remembered as "The Catch". After the "Gold Glove" award was created in 1957, Mays won 12 consecutive times.

In 1958 the Giants relocated to San Francisco, California. They won another pennant in 1962 and made Mays their team captain, the first African American so honored in the major leagues, in 1964. He was named the National League's most valuable player for the second time that year. He was also asked by teammate Bobby Bonds to serve as godfather to his son, Barry.

In 1966 Mays signed a contract making him this highest-paid player in baseball history. He hit his 500th career home run in 1969, and was the first player to surpass 3,000 hits and 500 home runs for his career (two peak years of which were lost to his military service). The Sporting News named him their "Player of the Decade" for the 1960s. In 1972 the aging star was traded to the New York Mets where he played two seasons as a part-time first baseman. He broke Stan Musial's record for the most All-Star nominations in 1973 and announced his retirement later that year.

Charles Brooks' editorial cartoon from May's 1973 retirement

Mays finished his career with 660 home runs, 3,283 hits, 1,903 runs batted in, 338 stolen bases, and a career batting average of .302. As a fielder he recorded 7,752 put outs with 156 errors, with a 0.981 fielding percentage. He remained with the club as a hitting coach until 1979.

After baseball

1979 marked a high and a low for Mays' legacy. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but also banned from the sport by commissioner Bowie Kuhn for working as a greeter at the Park Place Casino in Atlantic City. He was reinstated, along with Mickey Mantle, by Peter Ueberroth in 1985. The following year he was hired as a Special Assistant to the President of the San Francisco Giants.

Willie Mays on board Air Force One with President Obama en route to the 2009 All Star Game

Mays had never been formally celebrated in his home town. He did visit as a guest of Mayor George Seibels to speak at a Youth Opportunity Drive in Collegeville and Marks Village in 1968, but turned down many other invitations. He was even absent when he was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1977. On October 31, 1981 visited Birmingham for Willie Mays Day, highlighted by a parade and the presentation of a key to the city during halftime of the Magic City Classic. Since then he has returned to the Classic as its "ambassador" in 2000 and served as a host of a February 26, 2006 throwback game produced by ESPN at Rickwood Field with amateur players in the uniforms of the Birmingham Black Barons and Bristol Barnstormers. Mays has been supportive of efforts to develop a Negro Leagues Museum in the city.

Large Topps baseball card on display outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to promote MLB at Rickwood Field on June 20, 2024.

He was also a member of the inaugural class of the Birmingham Barons Hall of Fame in 2005. Mays' jersey number, 24, is used throughout the Giants' AT&T Park, the address of which is "24 Willie Mays Plaza". The right-field wall of the stadium is 24-feet tall. A 9-foot-tall bronze statue of Mays stands outside the stadium. May 24 is celebrated as "Willie Mays Day" in San Francisco. In New York, the service road connecting Harlem River Drive between 155th and 163rd Streets near the Polo Grounds was dedicated as "Willie Mays Drive" in 2008. Mays was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama on November 24, 2015. In 2022 filmmaker Nelson George made a documentary about his life entitled "Say Hey, Willie Mays!".

Locally, the former 66th Street Park in Fairfield was re-named in his honor in 1985 and a two-block section of 1st Avenue South fronting Regions Field was renamed "Willie Mays Drive" in 2016. Also in 2016, a portrait statue of Mays making "The Catch", by Caleb O'Connor and Craig Wedderspoon, was installed on the 14th Street South side of the ballpark. The commission honored Birmingham Barons owner Don Logan as part of the Alabama-Mississippi Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's "Legacy of Leadership" series.

In 2000 Mays served as Ambassador for the Magic City Classic at Legion Field. He was invited to be the guest of honor for MLB at Rickwood Field events, capped by a regular season matchup between the Giants and Saint Louis Cardinals at Rickwood Field in June 2024. Shortly before the Rickwood Classic on June 18 he sent his regrets that he would be unable to travel due to health reasons.

Mays died hours later. When his death was announced during the Classic, fans stood to sing "Say Hey" in his memory. A large Willie Mays mural was dedicated on the side of the Birmingham National Garage the next day.


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