I live on the East Coast and love to write about sports such as baseball, hockey, and basketball.
The Great Willie Mays
Willie Mays is one of the signature players in baseball history. However, not much is known about him beyond the typical stuff like the 1954 World Series catch, the 660 career home runs, the Hall of Fame election, and the “Say Hey Kid” nickname. Beyond these obvious items, he is kind of an enigma. Mays is often portrayed as a happy-go-lucky player, but he rarely shared anything personal and kept his business to himself. This prompted me to research him more, specifically by reading Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend by James Hirsch, which is the most comprehensive biography available about Mays. Here are ten interesting items I learned about Willie while reading the book.
1. His Dad Played Baseball
Willie Mays Sr, or Cat as he was known, played in an industrial baseball team league for the mills and factories around Birmingham, Alabama and by all accounts was a decent player with good speed.
Willie’s father was good-natured and spent a lot of time with his son Willie showing him the finer points of baseball. He also taught Willie to avoid smoking and drinking. He warned him that they were no good and would only slow him down. Cat was easy going, but also firm when it was needed. It appears Willie inherited his genial demeanor and good-natured manner from his dad along with some baseball fundamentals.
2. The Say Hey Kid
Mays has one of the best nicknames in baseball history. It came about because he used to great everyone with “Hey” when he saw them. He was meeting so many new people that he often couldn’t remember if he had met someone before so he would just say to them “Hey, how you doing?” or “Hey, where you been?” The beat writers took note of this and started calling him the Say Hey Kid.
This nickname fit well with his high-pitched voice and engaging demeanor. Early on he was also called Duck Buck because of his rear end, which stuck out like a duck’s. It was shortened to just Buck, which his old friends still call him today. He was also called Cap because he was the team captain of the Giants for several years.
3. He Wasn't Raised by His Mom
Willie was brought up by his dad Cat and his two aunts. His mom, Annie Satterwhite, didn’t want to be with Cat Mays after Willie was born. She married someone else, had 10 kids, and lived a separate life across town. Willie would visit her occasionally, but he didn’t see her on a regular basis. She died during childbirth in 1953 at the age of 37. Willie rarely looks back and almost never talks about his mother. Others that knew her said she had a fiery temper and would stand up for herself.
4. He Played in the Negro Leagues
Willie joined the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948 when he was just 17 and still in high school. Mays playing style can be traced back to his time with the Barons where he learned a faster, more exciting brand of baseball that emphasized base stealing, bunting, and the hit and run. Most of his teammates were at least 10 years older than him and were grown men. They were also good. Mays had two hits in his first game on July 4th and afterwards was offered a contract for $250 a month. He was allowed to play only when school was out. Because of his salary, he was banned from playing for his high school teams. He learned from his older teammates how to deal with racism.
5. He Had an Incredible Throwing Arm
Willie could throw the ball so hard that many scouts projected he would make a better pitcher than outfielder. There are numerous stories of Wille throwing strikes from the outfield fence to nab the runner at home plate. He could throw a ball 200 feet and make your hand sting said one player. He amassed an amazing 195 outfield assists in his career, including 22 in 1955 and 23 in 1956.
There is one legendary play from August 1951 against the Dodgers that turned the tide of the season when Mays threw out Billy Cox at home with a 275-foot strike. One player said that Mays was the only one he ever saw that could run hard one way and throw hard in the other direction. Joe DiMaggio said he had the greatest arm he ever saw.
6. He Served in the Army
When the 1951 season was over, Mays received a letter from the selective service asking him to report for a physical. Uncle Sam needed men to fight the war in Korea and Willie was a prime candidate to be drafted. He tried to claim hardship and deliberately flunked the written exam the first time, but was still declared eligible by the draft board. He was never sent to Korea. His primary job was to entertain the troops by playing baseball for the Fort Eustis team. He spent most of his time playing baseball and reading comic books.
7. Jackie Robinson Criticized Him
Willie only had admiration for the Dodger legend. However, on two occasions, Jackie took shots at Mays. The first was when Jackie’s book Baseball Has Done It was published. Robinson singled out Mays and Maury Wills for not being more vocal about their experiences as African-Americans in the game. Then in 1968, during a television interview, Robinson criticized Mays as a “do-nothing” when it came to civil rights activism. Willie responded by saying that he was not a vocal leader and that his tactful approach helped open doors for others that followed him.
8. He Was Very Smart
Mays was always studying other players to look for weaknesses and tendencies that he could take advantage of at a later date. Willie directed the defense on how to play the batter. He intervened in fights, most notably the incident where Giant teammate Juan Marichal struck Dodger catcher John Roseboro with his bat, which caused a melee. Willie’s good sense averted what could have erupted into a riot.
Tom Seaver said Mays was the only position player that asked him how he was going to pitch opposing batters when they played together for the Mets. The 1965 documentary A Man Named Mays is fascinating to watch. It shows a player that is articulate with a good sense of humor.
9. He Is Barry Bond's Godfather
Willie played with Barry’s father Bobby Bonds in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Bobby was a phenom with the Giants who regularly had 30 home runs and 30 steals in a season. His young son Barry would hang around the clubhouse and play catch with Willie before games. Mays supported Barry Bonds through his steroid accusations and has never said anything negative about him.
10. He Was Banned from Major League Baseball
It seems unthinkable now, but Commissioner Bowie Kuhn banned Willie from baseball in 1979 for accepting a job with Bally’s Resort as a casino greeter. Kuhn was worried about the integrity of the game and didn’t want anyone from Major League Baseball to associate with organized gambling. Because of this decision, Willie lost his front office job with the New York Mets.
Mickey Mantle was also banished for a similar job with another casino. Thankfully, Willie was reinstated to the game in 1985 when Kuhn was replaced as the Commissioner of Baseball by Peter Ueberroth.
I came away from the book Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James Hirsch with a much greater appreciation for Willie Mays as a player and a person. Many times when I read a biography, I end up liking the player less when I’m finished. However, in this book, Willie comes across as a gentle soul who is smart, articulate, and funny. He was criticized for not being more vocal for the civil rights movement, but it just wasn’t in his nature. He preferred to lead by example. I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in baseball.