Summer 1996. The Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees, my favorite National League and American MLB Teams respectively, were on a collision course to face off in the World Series. Mid-way through an evening Atlanta Braves game (I can’t remember the opponent), we changed from TBS Sports to HBO. The Saturday night movie was the HBO original SOUL OF THE GAME, which chronicled the post-war exploits of Negro Leagues players Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson, and blue-collar worker and baseball fan Cat Mays. In the film, Cat’s son meets Jackie Robinson. That young man would be one of the most well-rounded players in major league history. Willie Mays is his name.
Many baseball pundits name Willie Mays as the most-well rounded baseball player of all time. Offensively, he is a member of the 3,000 hits club, maintained over .300 batting average, and is sixth all-time in home runs. Mays’s defensive prowess yielded over 7,000 advancing runners being thrown out, and he was awarded 12 Gold Glove Awards. SAY HEY, WILLIE MAYS presents these statistics early in the documentary, through interviews with sports writers and fellow players that know Mays. A key point is they know this legend and not knew (sic) him. This 91-year-old legend is alive and well as someone nearly a century old can be. His wholesome nature and acuity to adapt to changing times will entertain sports fans and casual viewers.
On the surface, Mays’s childhood is similar to many African Americans born during the Jim Crow era. However, Mays’s high spirits and work ethic not only transcended racism but allowed him to emerge not bitter. We learn that after working long arduous shifts at a Westfield, Alabama steel mill, Cat Mays would take his son to a local park to play America’s Pastime. Before graduating high school, Mays had surpassed his father’s teachings (who was a semi-pro player) and signed a deal with the Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. Willie Mays would give up to $1000 a month ( a hefty sum in the 1940s) to his aunts. The young man only needed money to occasionally go to the movies and on dates.
Mays’s celebrity trickled into television, and he appeared in numerous guest roles on tv sitcoms and was a regular on talk shows. Despite his popularity, Mays faced resistance from the white residents of a neighborhood that he and his then-wife wanted to move into. The now San Francisco Giants paid Mays enough to live wherever he desired, but some did not desire the young athlete to live amongst them. However, the intervention of a civil liberties union allowed Mays to purchase the home of his dreams.