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Willie Mays grew up with Birmingham Barons as a teenager


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?"

"Yes, sir."

"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."

In later years, he would contrive plays to incite fan reaction -- such as slipping to the ground before making a catch -- but at this age his natural ability was enough to generate howls, particularly on the bases and in the outfield. "He was the most exciting young player you've ever seen," outfielder James Zapp recalls. "It was a thrill just to watch him in a rundown because most of the time, he'd get out of that hot box." Adds Bill Powell, "He did some impossible catches in the outfield, and then people would just stand there and shake their heads."

On one drive to left center, Willie and the leftfielder arrived at the ball simultaneously and nearly collided. The leftfielder missed the ball, but Willie leaped and caught it barehanded, then threw it to the infield before anyone knew what happened. It was remarkable -- a barehanded catch deep in the outfield -- except Willie did it twice more. Using his oversized hand like a glove, he learned to charge and scoop up base hits with his right hand and throw the ball home in one fluid motion. "Nobody," Davis later said, "and I mean nobody, ever saw anybody throw a ball from the outfield like him, or get rid of it so fast."

The Negro Leagues' quintessential showman was Leroy (Satchel) Paige, the ageless righthander, all legs and arms, whose windmill windup, famed hesitation pitch, and memorable quotes fueled his popularity. His unerring control and ability to change speeds also made him, according to some experts, the greatest pitcher of all time -- any color, any league.

Mays faced Paige in one game, in the summer of 1948, when Paige, 41 and playing for the Kansas City Monarchs, had been pitching professionally for more than 20 years. Mays knew little of the legend, and his first time up, he hit a fastball for a double. As he dusted himself off, Paige walked toward him. "That's it," he muttered.

Next time up, Paige walked halfway to home plate and said to Mays, "Little boy, I'm not gonna trick you now. I'm gonna throw you three fastballs, and you're gonna sit down."

Paige threw three fastballs, and Mays sat down.

The greatest year for baseball in Birmingham's history was 1948. Its white team drew more than 440,000 fans, a Southern Association record, on its way to winning the Dixie Series. Shortstop Artie Wilson of the Black Barons hit .403, winning the batting crown for the second straight year, and the team won the Negro American League Championship, taking the series against the Kansas City Monarchs, 4-3. In the second game, Willie's game-tying single in the bottom of the ninth allowed the Black Barons to win in extra innings.

In the World Series, Birmingham played the Negro National League champion Homestead Grays, which over the years had produced such stars such as Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson and this year featured future Hall of Famer Buck Leonard (known as "the Black Lou Gehrig"). The Grays, who had beaten the Black Barons in the World Series in 1942 and '43, won the first two games of this series.

In Game 3, Mays made a leaping catch against the centerfield wall and also threw out Leonard at second base. With the score tied in the bottom of the ninth and two men on and two out, Mays stepped to the plate and singled sharply up the middle, winning the game. But it was the Black Barons' only victory of the series, with Homestead winning, 4-1.

Willie Mays had proved he belonged. He struggled at the plate, hitting only .226 for the year, but he still made his mark in the field and on the bases. The Birmingham World first mentioned him on September 28: "Willie Howard Mays is the find of the year, if not the rookie of the year. He can hit, field, throw and deliver in the pinch. He lacks experience and has a feeble batting average. But he will break up your ball game and turn hits into putouts with sensational catches."

The season produced one of the most famous photographs in Negro League history. The picture, by Ernest Withers, features the Black Barons in their brick clubhouse after they won the league championship. The jubilant players, many with their shirts off, are pressed together, smiling, cramped in a corner beneath an exposed lightbulb and flimsy hangers -- a gritty, victorious image of camaraderie, unity and love. But in the back row, hidden by arms and shoulders, there is a smooth ebony face without a smile, only wonderment and innocence, a boy among men.

Cross-country bus rides became part of the romantic lore of the Negro Leagues, a celebration of male bonding and roadside adventure that satisfied the wanderlust of any ballplayer. But the rides were also grueling marathons marked by cheap hotels, lousy food and -- particularly in the South -- racial indignities. For Willie Mays, the endless hours on the bus, combined with his sojourns in faraway cities, gave him a view of the country that most of his high school -- age peers could only dream about. These experiences contributed to his sense that baseball was really one big traveling family, quarrelsome at times, but beholden to the greater good of the clan. Willie was still protected, but his time with these older men, intimately familiar with the angry, violent subtext of Jim Crow, broadened his education on how to survive the country's racial codes.

The cross-country experience was full of contradictions. Negro Leaguers might be denied food or gas by the very people who would patronize their games later that day. Their exploits made them heroes in their own community but reminded them of their subordinate position in the country at large.

"It was an arduous existence, which consisted of long rides, low pay, and a game almost every day," said Monte Irvin, who starred with the Newark Eagles in the 1940s before playing with the New York Giants. Players would wash their clothes in the morning and dry them by holding them out the window on their ride to the next town. Barred from hotels in some cities, teams would sometimes sleep on the bus, in rooming houses, or even in jails. "The traveling conditions were almost unbelievable," Irvin said. "That was the tragic part about traveling, particularly in the South, where we couldn't even stay in the third- or fourth-rate hotels."

Negro Leaguers later bristled at this vagabond image -- puttering across America, nearly broke, bordering on desperation -- as obscuring the dignity of their efforts and their own resourcefulness. Roy Campanella, who began his career in 1937 with the Washington Elite Giants, recalled that the bus combined home, dressing room, dining room and hotel. "Rarely were we in the same city two days in a row," he said. "Mostly, we played by day and traveled by night; sometimes we played both day and night and usually in two different cities ... [But] I loved the life despite the killing schedule."

As the youngest Black Baron, Mays sat in the back, over the rear wheel, and watched this traveling ecosystem. Card games drained a lot of time. Other players sang gospel songs, told jokes or read newspapers; third baseman John Britton studied the sports pages and told Willie how many hits DiMaggio had. Some players discussed their sexual conquests. But the most popular topic was simply baseball.

Some rides would start at midnight, hurtling past cotton fields and prairies so the team could avoid a hotel bill. A different city every night: Kansas City or Chicago, Little Rock or Memphis. They would eat out of paper bags or stop at grocery stores along the way. At one bus station in New Orleans, black cooks and waitresses would give them special service in the back.

The Black Barons demonstrated character and pride in ways beyond winning games. How you looked also made a statement. "We were one of the sharpest dressed teams in the league," Bill Greason says. "We walked off that bus and were well respected. We wanted to represent our city well, our people well and our team well."

If a player didn't have nice clothes, his teammates chipped in and bought him some. Such gestures were common in the Negro Leagues. The teams didn't have trainers, so the players gave one another rubdowns. The ballparks didn't have lights, so the guys strung their own. The owners didn't have money, so the teammates shared what they had. "It was the togetherness," Greason says. "We all dealt with family problems, but we all helped each other out. [The Black Barons] were the best group I've ever been around."

Willie received a pointed education about race in America. Growing up in the mill town of Fairfield, Ala., he had been relatively insulated from overt hostility, his carefree personality putting everyone, black and white, at ease, his athletic achievements making him a budding celebrity. The Black Barons cast race relations in a different light. They understood how tenuously they clung to their freedom as well as their lives.

They played for a team in Birmingham, which was different from the rest of the country, even different from many other places in the South. Different -- as in more hostile to blacks. Controlled by white supremacists, the city crushed any hint of Negro defiance with swift, violent efficiency. That message was delivered in 1942, when a black man in Birmingham argued with a white bus driver about three cents in change. The man stepped off the bus, and the driver shot him six times. No charges were filed. The violence was organized and systemic. In 1947, a year before Mays joined the Black Barons, a reenergized Ku Klux Klan adopted a new tool to keep black families out of white neighborhoods: dynamite.

On August 18, 1947, six sticks were used to blow up the house of a black man who had successfully sued to end Birmingham's racist zoning laws. Within two years, so many black homes had been detonated in one area that it was known as Dynamite Hill, and the city was nicknamed Bombingham. Its most famous bombing, killing four black girls at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963, culminated years of terrorism against the African-American community. In the civil rights era, the man most closely associated with using police-state tactics to uphold segregation was Eugene (Bull) Connor, the city's police commissioner. He was elected to office in 1937 and was responsible, in 1963, for turning fire hoses and attack dogs against peaceful demonstrators.

Birmingham's suffocating bigotry stunned the black journalist Carl T. Rowan, who visited the city around 1950 and encountered passive Negroes who "dare not be seen" on any street after sundown. He discovered that blacks in Birmingham lived under a shadow of intimidation and oppression, and he was left "aghast by the obvious fear in the eyes of innocent people."

All blacks in the South were in peril, for southern authorities had long been arbitrarily arresting African Americans on trumped-up charges, such as vagrancy or loitering, and leasing them into corporate slave camps. Douglas A. Blackmon, in Slavery by Another Name, documents the pervasive use of this practice in the coal mines surrounding Birmingham; headstones still mark the sunken graves of those who died in collapsed prison mines. Blackmon estimates that in 1930, "the great majority" of African Americans in the Black Belt of the South were almost certainly trapped in some form of coerced labor.

Negro baseball players, in comparison, led a charmed life, so the Black Barons had good reason to bear their resentments quietly. At the 1948 Negro League World Series, several games were played at Pelican Park in New Orleans, and black fans, including the wives of players, were separated by chicken wire, corralled like farm animals. But those affronts could be endured compared to other forms of oppression.

Greason, seven years older than Mays, was the second youngest player on the team. He says the veterans taught all the young players how to survive in an unjust, unforgiving world. "With all the rejection we had to suffer, you had to learn to laugh and keep going," Greason says. "Don't let anybody know they hit your weak spot. Just keep going as if you didn't hear it, and try to make your enemy your friend. If you perform well enough, they'll come to your side."

This conciliatory approach echoed Piper Davis's advice to Willie on getting hit by a pitch: brush yourself off, run down to first, and steal a base. Physical retaliation or verbal sparring serves no purpose.

The Black Barons taught Mays that defiance was self-defeating, or as Mays describes it: "Keep your mouth closed." He credits his father for insisting that he remain positive, but the Black Barons prepared him to overcome racial assaults. "I was programmed," he explains, "to do these things before I got into professional ball. You had to understand that they were going to call you names, you had to understand that whatever you did it was going to be negative because of who you were. I knew that stuff from the Black Barons."

Mays repeatedly uses the word "programmed" in describing his preparation for the outside world, a hardwiring of stoicism and strength that no adversary could reverse.