Willie, Racism, & Me

4 May

Full disclosure: I am a baseball fan; moreover, I am a San Francisco Giants baseball fan, and have been since I attended my first game at Candlestick Park in 1961, the year after it opened. I was nine years old.

That’s why I was thrilled when my good friend Stan sent me his copy of Willie Mays: The Life. The Legend (Scribner, 2010), a brilliant authorized biography by James S. Hirsch. Although a fan of the game, I seldom read books about sports or sport figures. But Stan promised me Hirsch did not simply relate wonderful anecdotes about Mays and baseball, but told a story about a vital part of the era in which the great ballplayer ruled over America’s pasttime.

My friend was right. Hirsch’s biography reveals as much about this nation’s race relations and the struggle for civil rights as it does about the complex cypher we call the Say Hey Kid. But he also reveals how strongly attached children, particularly young boys, were to Willie Mays. He was our hero. He played the game joyously in major league ballparks, just as we played the game in city streets and suburban playgrounds. We did not want to grow up and be as good as as Mays. We wanted to be Willie.

Scrawny white kids like me would imitate the great centerfielder’s basket catch. We’d run as fast as we could so that our caps would fly from our heads just as his did. Whenever any of us would make a nice play the ultimate accolade would be: “Just like Willie Mays.”

Henry Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, and other great players of the era never connected as deeply with kids as Mays could. That’s because kids knew that Willie’s affection for them was completely genuine. Hirsch, who sprinkles stories about Mays’s special relationship with kids throughout his 600-plus page tome, devotes an entire chapter to the ballplayer’s love and dedication to children. “Youth Is Served” ought to be required reading to any person lucky enough to sign a professional sports contract.

In just one of many instances from the book, someone recalls an event Mays attended for some underprivileged kids. “[He] did this for no money, no publicity, no conditions whatsoever. He did it just because he loved kids, plain and simple.”

Willie would do anything for children. Maybe that’s why I was able to intervene on his behalf in an adult argument when I was 11 years old.

My stepfather had three daughters from his previous marriage. Two were married; one to a giant of a man, whose size and booming voice utterly intimidated me and I always tried to steer clear of the man.

It was 1963 and he was in a loud argument with my stepfather at some social gathering at our house. He was berating his father-in-law for not using his position in the community “to stomp those niggers.” I can remember that phrase because the word “stomp” was a common playground term used by bullies and “nigger” was a word never uttered in our home.

My stepfather offered a lackluster defense of his unwillingness to “stomp” anyone, probably more for sound business reasons than for any devotion to civil rights. But after listening to their row for a few minutes, I screwed up my courage and squeezed between the two men. I remember looking way up to my step-brother-in-law and in a shaking voice demanded to know how could he be against Negros. I reminded him that he, too, was a baseball fan, even a San Francisco Giants fan, and that Willie Mays was the not just the greatest Giants player, but the greatest baseball player ever. And because Mays was a Negro, it was illogical for him to want to “stomp” him, too. Or so I remember the thrust of my innocent reasoning.

He just looked down on me, and with a face full of hate that chills me to this day, said, “Willie Mays is just a nigger just like the rest of them.”

My stepfather quickly shooed me away. I remember crying alone in my bedroom, ever more fearful of my step-brother-in-law.

While Hirsch’s biography of Mays brought back that memory, more importantly, it retold the times in which black men like Mays, even after they had become legends, had to endure people like my in-law and worse. But it also reminded me that children don’t think about skin color when they meet other people. It’s adults who poison their minds with foul ideas. Willie Mays knew that, which is why, to this day, he prefers to be in the company of kids rather than that of adults. Who can blame him?

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4 Responses to “Willie, Racism, & Me”

  1. William Miller May 4, 2010 at 6:11 am #

    Hi Mark,I just came across your blog. Nice post about Willie Mays. I haven’t yet read that book, but I intend to. I’ll be sure to check out your next post as well. Nice work, Bill (ondeckcircle.wordpress.com)

  2. meh2meh May 4, 2010 at 6:22 am #

    Very much appreciate your kind words, Bill. And Hirsch’s book even better than I described. For example, if you remember the Marichal-Roseboro incident, the role Mays played as peacemaker is amazing and wonderfully presented.

  3. Rick May 6, 2010 at 9:26 pm #

    Nice post, Mark.

    I quite loved Hirsch’s book as well.

    • meh2meh May 7, 2010 at 7:00 am #

      Yes, Hirsch made me appreciate Mays all the more. Not just as a great ballplayer, but as a man.

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