Growing up, I was such a Willie Mays fan that my friends called me “Say Hey” in honor of the Say Hey Kid. In those pre-Internet days it was tough to live in Tennessee and keep up with late-night baseball in San Francisco. However, many was the summer morning I called the sports department of the Daily News Journal to ask for the previous evening’s scores off the wire. This was serious business. Many years and games later, I still believe Mays was the best, most complete ballplayer to play the game.
So I was thrilled recently to see the new book Willie’s Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, the Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend by John Klima. The title tells what’s in store. This is a book about the difficult period when major league baseball was undergoing integration and Birmingham – that hotbed of both baseball and racial segregation – was at the center of the story. In 1948, Mays was a 16-year-old rookie on the Black Barons and helped the team appear in the last Negro League World Series. He went on to a storied career with the New York and San Francisco Giants, hitting 660 career home runs, collecting 3,283 hits, gathering 12 Gold Gloves and playing in 24 All-Star games.
There’s so much to like in this book, but I’ll only quote two passages. The first is from the prologue. Carl Hubbell, the “Meal Ticket” pitcher of the 1930s who famously struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and three others consecutively in the 1934 All-Star Game, was at the Polo Grounds with New York Cubans owner Alex Pompez in 1950 to scout an 18-year-old Willie Mays.
“Hubbell noticed how the boy liked to play extremely shallow in center field, which in the cavernous Polo Grounds was like walking the plank….Finally, a ball was struck well into left-center field, providing the first chance to watch Mays. The ball landed safely for a base hit, a double in most circumstances. Mays’s toes turned so quickly that his cleats severed the grass blades beneath him, and he reached the ball on the first bounce, speared it with his bare hand, and uncoiled the whip. His throw to second was made off-balance, but arrived with such velocity that Hubbell noticed the second baseman lift his glove to meet the ball, not because Mays missed the target, but because he threw so hard that the ball was still rising. The throw was enough for the trepid base runner to hurry back to first base, like a mouse running for a hole….Years of pitching in the big leagues had taught Hubbell to conceal his emotions, an advantageous ability for a scout. But Pompez could read a man too. He knew Hubbell was astounded.“
Hubbell watches similar defensive plays throughout the day, sees Mays hit a home run with a bat that moves through the strike zone faster than any of the greats he played with, and is convinced. Years later, after Mays became a Giant and the story of his “accidental” discovery had been told, Hubbell would…
“relive that day in the Polo Grounds when the Giants truly discovered the talent, the power, and the voice of Willie Mays. ‘Gentlemen,’ he’d say regally, ‘that was the day I saw the best goddamn baseball player I have ever seen in my life.'”
Later in the book, Klima introduces the reader to Rickwood Field, where the Black Barons played when the (White) Barons were out of town. The Birmingham Barons were affiliated with the Boston Red Sox, and in the spring of 1948 the Sox come to town for an exhibition. Ted Williams…
“…took batting practice and played left field in Rickwood Field….part of a banner spring in Birmingham. On April 12, the New York Yankees came to Rickwood Field. That was largely because of Yankee radio broadcaster (and Birmingham native) Mel Allen….Allen might have been the local hero, but there was no doubt that the real box-office gold was Joe DiMaggio….He collected a single in three at-bats and struck out with the bases loaded in the first inning. It didn’t matter. DiMaggio was DiMaggio, and in the spring of 1948, three of the greatest outfielders of all time, DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Willie Mays played at Rickwood Field.“
That’s hallowed ground in my book. Thankfully, Rickwood Field is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The wonderful web site Baseball Pilgrimages has dubbed Birmingham’s Rickwood Classic the #1 Baseball Pilgrimage for 2010. (As an aside, you’ll note that a visit to historic Durham Athletic Park – the star of the great sports movie Bull Durham – is #2 on the list.) When the Rickwood Classic takes place on June 2nd, it will mark the field’s 100th year of professional baseball, two more years than Fenway Park. To learn the history behind the numbers, check out the preservation story of Rickwood Field as recounted in Preservation magazine’s Field of Forgotten Dreams. Both the magazine and Willie’s Boys are recommended reading.
To top off this Mays love fest, I’ve posted a video of his most famous catch, the grab and throw from the blast off the bat of Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series. Enjoy.
More to come…
Image: DJB beside the statue of Mays outside San Francisco’s ballpark in 2014.