Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Willie, Barack, and New York

Okay, truth be told, I do have access to cable television when I workout in the little exercise room our apartment building provides. I happened to see (no sound – just subtitles) the wonderful exchange between President Obama and Willie Mays (spelled Mayes by the subtitlist) as they rode together recently on Air Force One after the All-Star Game. The Say Hey Kid was, of course, overwhelmed by this opportunity to travel with the President on his executive aircraft and quietly expressed his admiration to the President for what he had already accomplished and how much his administration meant to the country. But what I loved was the way the President turned the tables on Mays by telling this baseball legend how much HE meant to the country and how important his courage and persistence had been in helping to make the Obama Presidency possible. And, you know, as they say, the President wasn’t just blowing smoke either.

When Willie Mays first joined the New York Giants as their new center fielder in late May of 1951 he struggled, failing to reach base in his initial twelve tries before breaking this hitless string with a homerun. Willie pretty much flourished after that (going on to be the Rookie of the Year), though the Giants themselves didn’t catch fire until mid-August, finally winning the pennant in that famous playoff game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Imagine for a minute, from a New York perspective, what it must have been like, especially if you were a baseball fan, to live in the Big Apple back then. All the really exciting baseball action was happening almost exclusively in New York, between the Giants, the Bums, and the Yanks. And if you were Black or cared a lot about integrating baseball, the teams especially worth rooting for were the Dodgers, with players like Robinson, Campanella and Newcombe, and the Giants, with Mays and Monte Irvin, (the Yankees didn’t include an African American on their roster until much later). But even on those teams, four years after Jackie Robinson first broke “the color line,” the number of Whites far outnumbered Blacks, and the level of prejudice and discrimination remained oppressive. Mays, more than anyone even during that hateful time, represented the sheer exuberance of going all out, of playing with joy and verve and never letting up on your opponent, despite the often terrible adversity he faced off (and occasionally on) the field.

The way he covered the outfield was magnificent, matched only by an arm that was often compared in power and accuracy to artillery. There was something, too, very New York and very daring about the way he batted. Mantle and others were known for their bat speed, but Willie swung with a kind of uninhibited abandon that was new at that time. He always seemed to finish up with only one hand on his bat and whether he connected or missed, his body seemed to twist gymnastically into a human pretzel. In his prime, he was a sensation not only in the Polo Grounds (where the Giants played) but in the streets of New York as well, playing stickball with the neighborhood kids late into the night. In 1958, when the Giants moved to San Francisco, something about New York baseball as a symbol for the sheer joy of playing and excelling died with his leaving.

And in the years after his retirement and as the Civil Rights Movement began to lead to a somewhat more equitable society, even the seemingly imperturbable Willie Mays divulged how painful those early years of integration had been and how beleaguered he had felt by the name calling, the segregated hotels, and the occasional death threats. In those days, though, most of the public seemed oblivious to all this. We only knew that no one had ever played baseball so beautifully or had done so much to entertain fans. He sustained many psychic hurts and withstood terrible bigotry, but with a huge smile on his face and with an ability to rise above this insistent suffering, he turned in an outstanding performance again and again. In that way, he set an example from which all of us can take heart.

1 comment:

  1. I remember that we were American League fans in the 50's and that I was not very much aware of Willie Mays at that time. I was too preoccupied with the fortunes of the White Sox and, of course, the evil NY Yankees. I knew Mays was good, but that's about all.

    And I should add that I was, in those single digit years, completely unaware of racial disharmony. I had no idea of segregation or any difficulty that anyone, much less Willie Mays, might have because of the color of his skin. I'm not sure if this is a reflection of my sheltered existence, my parents' good work or some combination of the two.