Willie Mays' Way

by Nathan Oravec

Click Here to view the photo gallery of Willie May's visit to Hagerstown.

Sans apostrophe, that’s what they renamed the street running behind Hagerstown’s Municipal Stadium in honor of the ballplayer who broke the color barrier here some fifty-four years ago in his first-ever professional game with the Trenton Giants. The visiting team took the game from the hometown Braves that day.

Hagerstown still won.

Here’s how you know a legend just walked into the room. It’s not the standing ovation - that’s procedural - it’s the “gasp” moment that precedes it, like an electric shock zig-zagging throughout the audience as they catch a glimpse, and the accompanying feeling, like when you were four years old and you thought you heard Santa Claus on the roof.

And you don’t know him. Know nothing about him except what you’ve read and what you’ve heard and what you’ve seen on TV. You didn’t get to meet him, didn’t get to shake his hand. You didn’t get an autograph. Others - a clamoring swarm of sticky, pawing fingers - tried, and failed. A legend’s handlers, it turns out, are somewhat legendary in their own right. But one day, when you look back on it all, you will be able to tell your children, or your grandchildren, that you shared the same space with an icon - and, what’s more, without swinging a bat or throwing a pitch, he measured up to the designation. And that’s an infinitely greater kind of signature.

The dedications were made at a Welcome Reception held at the Clarion Conference Center in town, Monday, August 9, 2004; The re-Christening of a road, the retirement of Mays’ jersey number, 24, from the Suns. It was really a Welcome Back reception. Hagerstown had not been the most hospitable to Willie when he was here in 1950. The message, stressed by event-sponsors Antietam Cable Television, Fujicolor, The City of Hagerstown and the Suns, was this: “We’ve changed.”

“Since we announced that you would be visiting we’ve been flooded with phone calls,” Suns Manager Kurt Landes greeted Mays moments after he took a seat in front of an awestruck audience of hundreds. “It’s amazing how many lives you’ve touched.”

“Hagerstown,” he continued, “is not today what it was 54 years ago, but a growing, thriving community. And your presence here represents everything good about our city. Mr. Mays, welcome back - this is Hagerstown.”

And then the legend, a grandfatherly presence with an ailing knee but an exuberant, sardonic voice undaunted since the days of Wheaties commercials, spoke. And every single soul, seated in the Clarion Conference Center on the Dual Highway of this changed Hagerstown, listened.

Four or five years ago, Willie Mays recalls, he was asked to serve as a grand marshal for a parade being held here. He declined. “There was a little sadness in my throat about that.” When he was invited again this year, he decided the past was behind him, it was time to return. “The experience I had here, I don’t hold that against the town,” he says. “A town doesn’t hurt you. Individuals do. So many cities that I visited after I left here were very similar in the way they treated me. And those have all changed for the best, too... Now, when I come to a place like this, it’s like going home again. Do you understand what I mean by that? It’s like when you walk in the door, there are four to five people hugging and kissing you. It makes you feel really good.”

“That’s why I came back. It wasn’t because of a ball club or anything. It was to see what the town was all about. So, I’m happy to be part of whatever it is you’re having here,” he pauses, “I don’t know what it is...” The audience laughs and then - Willie Mays’ voice breaks. “I’m going to start crying here,” he says, reaching for his handkerchief. “I’m going to pass the mic.”

Presented with an honorary plaque from Brian Robinson, the great grandson of Walter Harmon, proprietor of Hagerstown’s former Harmon Hotel where Mays stayed the night of his first pro game, the ball player’s eyes light up. “That’s the hotel I stayed at?” he intones. “I have a great story about that hotel.”

“This hotel accepted me without any problem,” he remembers. “I think they thought I didn’t want to stay there, but that wasn’t the case. I remember just about everything that happened that Friday after the game.”

It was twelve midnight and three guys climbed through Mays’ hotel window. “Not a word was spoken,” he says. “They just came in and laid on the floor with me and slept. Come daylight, they were back out the window and down the fire escape.” The three had wanted to stay with him from the beginning, but they were white - and Mays’ hotel wasn’t.

“They were good teammates,” he says quietly.

Joe “Pop” Durham, hometown Newport News, sits in the front row, a professional acquaintance. When he finally speaks, Willie knows exactly who it is - and how far Durham has traveled to be present. Pop played the Major Leagues from 1954 to 59 - three seasons with two teams, the Orioles and the Cardinals, and against some of the greatest ballplayers in the sport. “Nobody can touch you,” he tells Mays. “And I’ve been in this game a long time.” Nineteen fifty-nine was the last time, Durham says, that the two played the same field. “Anything you say about this guy is only half. And his heart is as big as a medicine ball.”

“You said it just like I told you to,” Willie teases. “I must’ve done something good for him along the way.”

A reporter approaches the microphone with a question. “Come to me,” Willie waves him closer; the PA system is not cooperating. “I can barely hear you.”

For many garbled questions, Mays has interpreted for the audience, “The gentleman is wondering...” or “What he wants to know is...” but not for this inquiry: If you could - would you still like to play?

“Let me explain life to you...” he responds. “You can’t have ‘if.’”

Over the shoulder catch, 1954 World Series; 12-time Gold Glove Award-winner; .302 batting average eight years running; 660 home runs - fourth place in the all-time home run record; MVP 1954-1965. They wonder if it wasn’t for those two years in the service, what that home run record would be.

But, you can’t have if.

“I had a good career,” he says. “I’ll keep it the way it was.”
There’s another question. Nineteen fifty-one - Bobby Thompson’s “hit heard ‘round the world” - was he the last guy to realize what happened?

“I had no idea we won the pennant,” Mays exclaims. “Everyone was shouting ‘The Giants won the pennant! The Giants won the pennant!’ It was my first year.”

“You were on deck!” someone shouts from the back of the room. “I was there! You were on deck!”

Willie takes a beat, then - “You’re right. You people probably know more about me than I do about myself.”

“You’re the greatest!” the fan shouts.

Say, Hey, Willie - If you didn’t know that before, you do now.

For more photos from Willie Mays’ visit to Hagerstown go to www.picketnews.com.