Willie Mays grew up with Birmingham Barons as a teenager
An excerpt from Willie Mays' biography: Willie Mays, The Life, The Legend
Mays first displayed his Hall of Fame ability as a 17-year-old with Black Barons
Black Barons made Mays a man by helping him deal with racial injustice
Copyright © 2010 by James S. Hirsch. From the forthcoming book WILLIE MAYS: THE LIFE THE LEGEND by James S. Hirsch, authorized by Willie Mays to be published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
In the major leagues, Willie Mays was often described as the game's most exciting player, and his style can be traced to his years in the Negro Leagues with the Birmingham Black Barons. The black game placed greater emphasis on speed, creativity and daring, for it was designed to explicitly entertain fans at a time when organized entertainment was limited. Negro League games featured a range of performers, such as tap dancers, jugglers, vocalists and bands, and the players themselves were part of the show. Just as segregation fostered the spirituals, blues and jazz, the strict racial divide allowed Negro baseball players to develop their own athletic imprint.
When Willie Mays arrived at Birmingham's Rickwood Field, in 1948 at age 17, he had been given no assurances that he would make the team. He was given a faded uniform (number 21) with BIRMINGHAM across the chest and a cap inscribed with three Bs on the front.
"Go shag some flies," the manager Piper Davis told him. The Black Barons centerfielder, Norman Robinson, was a 5'8" speedster with a weak arm, and Davis had heard about Willie's gunshots from the outfield.
His new teammates were skeptical. "I ain't never seen a ballplayer like that in my life," Bill Powell, a righthanded pitching ace, recalled. "When he came out as a little ol' boy, his pants were too big for him, his bat was too heavy."
The doubleheader against the Cleveland Buckeyes began, and Mays, sitting out the first game, was doubtful as well. He was more than 10 years younger than most of his teammates. He wasn't nervous about his age -- he had always played with older boys or grown men -- but these guys were bigger and stronger than anyone he'd played with. And they were good. He didn't appreciate how good until he reached the major leagues; the Black Barons, he believed, were equal to anything he saw there.
He just sat.
"Watch," Davis said. "Watch what's going on."
The Black Barons won the first game, and before the next one began, the players gathered in the clubhouse, cooling off and drinking sodas. Mays felt isolated, alone. Then Davis approached him. "I'm going to let you play the second game," he whispered. "I don't know how you're going to do. Play leftfield and give it your best shot."
Davis called over the equipment manager, Roosevelt Atkins, and handed him a slip of paper. "Roo, hang this lineup in the dugout." Davis looked at Willie and winked. Listed seventh in the order was "Mays, LF."
The manager was standing near home plate when he heard one of his players say, "That little boy's in left field." Others crowded around the lineup card and were complaining as well.
Davis returned to the dugout and asked, "How's the lineup look to you fellows? If anybody don't like it, there's the clubhouse, and you can go back in there and take off your uniform if you want to. And you can take it with you."
He had no takers.
Mays had to face Chet Brewer, a tall righthander who entered the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1925, six years before Willie was born. In this instance, youth prevailed -- Mays rapped two singles. After the game, Davis told Willie that he was hired and the Black Barons would pay him $250 a month.
Davis knew that all Willie needed was the opportunity. "He was an infant compared to the folks he was going to be playing with, but you could see the talent in him," he recalled. "He had that something special inside."
His job was to teach Willie on the field and protect him off it. In truth, he tried to protect him on the field as well. Mays was not expected to be an everyday player, but Robinson broke his ankle, leaving centerfield open. The job was suddenly Willie's, though the corner outfielders tried to take advantage of him. One game, when a ball was hit to right or left, the other outfielders yelled, "Come on, Willie! Come on, Willie!" forcing him to make long runs.
Davis would have none of it, and between innings, he called over the offending Black Barons. "You're going to have to earn your money," he barked. "We can get anybody to stand out there and yell, 'Come on, Willie!' I don't want you running him foul line to foul line."
While Mays was precocious, he was still unpolished. His arm was as powerful as rumored, but Davis instructed him to charge the ball as fast as possible, especially with a runner on second base. This advice, in hindsight, seems obvious, but the practice wasn't common at the time. In organized ball, outfielders were instructed to field grounders on one knee to ensure that the ball didn't skip past them. When Mays reached the major leagues, he stunned baserunners when he charged the ball -- he played the outfield like the infield.
Davis found other ways to help. Playing second base, he would signal to Mays in centerfield what pitch was being thrown, and on the bench he would tell him what the pitchers would try to do and who would knock him down. On baserunning, he implored Mays to slide more aggressively into fielders who tried to block him from the base. At the plate, Mays struggled with the curveball, but Davis told him to stand straighter, keep his shoulder pointed toward the pitcher, and resist lunging. Ironically, major league pitchers would later try to get Mays out with hard stuff, high and tight, because he had learned to kill curveballs.
Davis emphasized forcing the action, speed and aggression, especially on the bases. "If you think you can make, try it," he'd say. Toughness was equally important. In a game against the Memphis Red Sox, Mays sped toward home plate and barreled into All-Star catcher Clinton (Casey) Jones. Mays and the ball arrived simultaneously, the runner's spikes catching Jones high on the leg and leaving a long, bloody gash. Jones dropped the ball, but Mays felt terrible. When he reached the dugout, he headed straight for Davis. "Piper, I couldn't help it. I didn't have to hit him like that." Davis took him aside. "Willie, that's the man to hit. He's got all that equipment on and he beats up on everyone, so he's the one to tear up. He won't block the plate on you no more."
On another occasion, Mays hit a home run off Chet Brewer. His next time up, the veteran pitcher drilled him in the arm with a fastball. No ball had ever hit him so hard. Mays crumbled to the ground and began to cry. When he looked up, Davis was glowering over him and kicked him.
"Skip, they're throwing at me," Mays said. His screechy voice rose even higher when he was excited.
Davis made no effort to help him up. "Boy, you see first base?"
"Point to it."
"It's right down there," Mays said, motioning down the line.
"Then get up and go down there, and the first chance you get, you steal second, and then third."
Davis turned and walked back to the dugout, and Mays trotted down to first. He stole second and then third. He scored on a fly ball.
Back in the dugout, Davis said, "That's how you handle a pitcher."
Willie saw "shadow ball" in his first year with the Black Barons. The game stopped in the seventh inning, and, as he recalls, "they played baseball without the baseball." His teammates were running around the bases and sliding into home just before the tag. "It was fun and entertaining, and people loved it," he says, "but the real value was the mental part. You had to think what you were going to do with the ball even when there was no ball. You had to exercise your mind."
Mays had always competed to win, but now, playing before large crowds, some reaching 10,000, he realized he could be more than a baseball player. "In the Negro Leagues, we were all entertainers," he says. "And my job was to give the fans something to talk about each game."