Fourteen-year-old Orenthal James Simpson awoke to the sound of voices downstairs. "Orenthal," his mother called, "you come down here." He got up and ran down the stairs. There, in the living room of the little house in the slums of San Francisco, sat Willie Mays.
"You want to come out with me this afternoon?" Mays asked.
All Orenthal could do was nod. He had no idea why Willie Mays of the San Francisco Giants was in his family's living room. It seemed to be a miracle.
To Bay Area boys like O.J., as he is better known, the Giants hadn't brought Mays with them from New York so much as Mays had brought the Giants with him. Mays was at his peak then, and his appeal seemed to transcend color lines. "Wherever I went, whoever I spoke to," Simpson recalls, "people were talking about Willie Mays. And I realized this was a black guy they were talking about and that it didn't matter!"
Simpson will never forget the first time he saw Mays play. Orenthal's father, Jimmy, wasn't much of a sports fan, but O.J.'s uncle Hollis was. One night, when O.J. was 10, he and his uncle went to Candlestick Park to watch the Giants.
"I never took my eyes off Willie Mays," says Simpson. "I had heard about his basket catch and the way his cap always fell off when he ran, and I watched for those things. He did them all. He even hit a home run for me."
Orenthal began imitating the way Mays caught the ball, the way he swung the bat, even the way he got his cap to fall off when he ran. "He was my hero," Simpson says. "I hate to go so far as to say that he was my god, because my family was religious, but it almost amounted to that. I could almost say that I worshiped Willie Mays."
Orenthal's first position in Little League was catcher. He was disappointed, but soon realized he could still become a star like Mays. Position was unimportant. He would be to catchers what Mays was to centerfielders.
Simpson knew sports were his ticket out of the slums. "I couldn't sing or dance, and I wasn't going to be a brain surgeon," he says. "So it had to be sports."
By the time he was 13, Orenthal was already a member of a gang, the Persian Warriors. Once a year the Persian Warriors held a big dance. "We were all underage, of course," Simpson says, "so we couldn't buy liquor, even if we had money, which we didn't. But we devised ways of getting it [liquor] anyhow."
Four or five Warriors would go into a liquor store, and two would pretend to start a fight. While the store owner rushed to separate the combatants, the other Warriors would quickly stuff bottles under their jackets. Then everybody would run out.
In 1961, O.J. was on the refreshment committee for the dance, which meant he had to hit a few stores. He made the mistake of ripping off one where his mother frequently shopped and had often sent Orenthal to pick things up. So the couple who owned the store knew him and knew where he lived.
When O.J. got home after the Friday night dance, the police were waiting for him. They took him to San Francisco's Juvenile Hall, where he and four of his accomplices spent the weekend locked up. O.J. knew that come Monday morning he would have to face his father—and his father's belt.
Orenthal lived with his mother, who was separated from his father, but when any serious disciplining had to be done, Eunice Simpson called Jimmy. On Monday morning she picked up her son at Juvenile Hall, brought him home and told him to go to his room. "I knew the format," Simpson recalls. "I knew my father would come over, and he would yell and he would whip me with his belt. So I waited in my room, and then I must have dozed off. That was when I woke up and heard those voices downstairs."
So, in awestruck amazement, he saw Willie Mays in his living room. Much later O.J. found out that his uncle Hollis had spoken to a man named Lefty Gordon, a youth counselor at the local Booker T. Washington Center, and Gordon had gotten the word to Mays about this Simpson kid, a fantastic young athlete who was on the verge of getting into big trouble.
"So there in our crappy little project house was my hero," says Simpson. "Willie Mays—in my house! He asked my mother if it was O.K. if he took me out for the afternoon, and he asked me if I wanted to go. She said yes, and I said yes."
Mays and O.J. left together. Simpson figured he knew what was coming next—a lecture. But it never came. They just walked around, and Mays did the things a ballplayer does on his day off. He went to the cleaners to pick up a couple of suits. He went to a store to buy something, just what O.J. doesn't remember. He went to someone's house, where plans were being made for a banquet, and even took O.J. to his San Francisco home.
All the while, Mays and O.J. talked easily: What do you think of the new Chevy? Who's going to win the pennant? Nothing serious and no lecture. "It was his way, I guess, of showing me what to do," O.J. says. "Willie Mays is no teacher, any more than I am a teacher today. He just tried to give me a good example to follow, which is what I have always tried to do myself."
After about three hours, Mays took him home. To O.J.'s relief, his father wasn't waiting for him. As it turned out, his father never whipped him again.
"I had an entirely different outlook on everything after that day with Willie Mays," says Simpson. "I can't really say that it turned my life around, just like that. I honestly believe that I would have made it on my own. But that time with Mays made me realize that my dream was possible. Willie wasn't superhuman. He was an ordinary person, so there was a chance for me."
Although the paths of Mays and Simpson crossed on occasion, it wasn't until almost 20 years after their initial meeting that O.J. reminded him of that afternoon in San Francisco. Although Mays wasn't sure he remembered it at all, Simpson has never forgotten it.
Dick Kleiner covers Hollywood for the Newspaper Enterprise Association.