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Willie had no comments on the fine at all. He has clear-cut opinions on a player-manager relationship. "A manager should tell a player what he wants him to do. If the player don't do it, then the manager should take some of his money away from him. I think that's the quickest way to get a player to do what he should." Willie looks blank when someone comments on how hard he hustles. "I never can understand how some players are always talking about baseball being hard work. To me, it's always been a pleasure, even when I feel sort of draggy after a double-header."
In Willie's life there isn't a time he can remember that wasn't dominated by baseball. He was born on May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama, a grimy little steel-mill town near the outskirts of Birmingham. Willie's father, Willie Sr., worked in the tool room of the mill and played in the outfield on the mill's baseball team. Nicknamed "Kitty Cat" because of his fast hands, the elder Mays was also a former outfielder and lead-off hitter for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League. "Willie," his father has related, "was almost born on a ball diamond. There was a ball field right across the street from where we lived. When Willie was 14 months old I gave him a rubber ball. I used to come home from the steel mill, and every afternoon I'd roll that rubber ball across the floor to Willie—oh, 30 or 40 times—until I'd get tired. Willie never got tired. As soon as I stopped rolling the ball, he'd cry."
When Willie was 3, he and his father would go over to the ball diamond and play catch in the afternoons. "But by the time Willie was 6," his father said, "I'd come home from work and catch him across the street on the diamond all alone, playing by himself. He'd throw the ball up and hit it with the bat and then run and tag all the bases—first, second and third—and then when he got home, he'd slide. He learned that from watching me. I showed him how to slide."
Before Willie reached school age, his mother and father separated, and Willie went to live with an aunt, Mrs. Sarah Mays. Willie still thinks of Sarah Mays as his mother, and her death in 1954 dealt him a crushing blow. His real mother died in 1953 while giving birth to her 10th child by her second marriage.
Some of the nonsense written about Willie concerns his childhood. "It makes me laugh to read some stories about how I picked cotton as a boy or worked in one of the mills around home," he says. "All I ever did since I was 6 was play ball, except for when I was in the Army and one other time. That was when I was 15, and got a job in a cafe in Birmingham washing dishes. Folks there treated me grade-A, but I quit after one week."
Stories which tell of Willie's poverty as a child are also misleading. Sarah Mays's home, the only home Willie remembers, is in Fairfield, another small industrial town adjacent to Birmingham, on a height overlooking the steel mills. It is neat and substantial and considerably better than the homes of some steelworkers in the community, white and Negro. Willie's father, who never remarried, lived a few blocks away. He and most of the other menfolks in Willie's family worked in the mills and drew the prevailing union wage. Willie's childhood may not have been bountiful but he never missed a meal and was adequately clothed and attended school regularly.
Willie, admittedly, did not have scholarly leanings. "All the time my algebra teacher was saying, 'X equals how much?' I was thinking about the next ball game," he has confessed. To which his father says: "I never saw a boy who loved baseball the way Willie always did." The youngster was always on hand when his father played in the outfield in the local Industrial League games. Whenever possible he even accompanied the team on its short trips to play in other communities. It was some time before Willie realized his father was paid money for playing ball. "I remember the biggest surprise of my life was the day I found out folks paid him money for it," he says. "That seemed to me just about the nicest idea that anyone ever thought up."
By the time Willie was 10 he was playing ball with 15-year-olds. "Even then he never did throw the way other boys did," his father recalls. "He threw that kind of underhanded throw. He got that throw from rolling that ball when he was real young." At 14, Willie was excelling as a pitcher and earning a few dollars with a semipro steel-mill team. He was also attending Fairfield Industrial High School and taking a trade course in pressing and cleaning. One advantage of the course was that Willie had access to the school's equipment and could do his own clothes free of charge. To this day he seems to feel a real pain when he sees wrinkled clothing. The slacks and sports jackets in his bulging wardrobe are impeccably pressed, and he even wears creases in his uniform pants.
Willie's high school did not have a baseball team, so Willie—who for some reason nobody can remember had acquired the nickname of "Buck-duck"—took a fling at football and basketball. He made such a reputation as a fullback that for a brief spell he considered concentrating on football and trying to win a college scholarship. But baseball kept beckoning and, besides, college wasn't much of an attraction to Willie, free or otherwise. When he was 16 his father settled the matter by taking him around to meet an old friend, Lorenzo (Piper) Davis, manager of the Black Barons in Birmingham. Davis gave Willie a tryout and promptly signed him as an outfielder. Part of the agreement was that Willie would continue attending high school. It wasn't difficult for the Barons' management and Willie's principal to work out a program which permitted him to be excused from school when he was needed to play ball.
Willie's single flaw at the time was hitting. Davis promised him an extra $5 a month if he would hit more than .300, but Willie never collected. "He stood a little too close to the plate," Davis said. "He kept thinking that all the pitchers were trying to hit him, but he was just crowding."