Willie Mays is the best of all time, not just in baseball but despite everything he’s overcome – SF Chronicle Datebook | Episode Movies

Willie Mays (right) is the subject of a new HBO documentary, Say Hey, Willie Mays! John Shea (left), the Chronicle’s national baseball writer, is interviewed in the documentary. Photo: Brad Mangin

John Shea, national baseball author and columnist for The Chronicle, grew up in the Bay Area wanting to become Willie Mays, the Baseball Hall of Famer and the San Francisco Giants, whom many consider to be the greatest player in history.

“We all wanted to be Willie – 5-10, 180 – because that’s what his baseball card said,” Shea said, laughing.

Instead, Shea became one of May’s most trusted friends during his long career covering baseball. They collaborated on the 2020 bestseller 24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid, and now Shea is a consulting producer as well as on Nelson George’s new HBO documentary Say Hey, Willie Mays!

The documentary follows May’s childhood in Alabama during the Jim Crow era and his early career in the Negro Leagues; his rise as a young star with the New York Giants and his lifestyle in Harlem, where he held court at the Red Rooster restaurant; and his journey to becoming a San Francisco icon as the Giants moved west.

Fun fact: shea and I’m the only person from the old Hearst Examiner sports division who’s still with the Hearst Chronicle (the staff merged in 2000), so it was a pleasure chatting with my 24-year-old colleague – say hey, that’s it Willie May’s number! – on a recent phone call.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The great San Francisco Giants and Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays is interviewed in the HBO documentary Say Hey, Willie Mays! Photo: HBO

Q: What did you think of the documentary? And where did they film your interview?

A: In the upper reaches of Oracle Park. That wasn’t my best side (laughs). No, I think it’s a beautiful film. It captures Willie’s personality, his roots, his strength, his passion. He’s the greatest player that ever lived. He would never touch that question, you know. But I call him that, and I always will.

Q: What makes him the greatest over Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and others?

A: Not only is he the greatest overall player in history, he also played in the Negro Leagues. He grew up in Jim Crow South in the town that Dr. Martin Luther King called America’s most segregated city (Birmingham, Alabama). And that he overcomes all of that and takes the right path in life on so many fronts. He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke; never charged the mound — he wasn’t even kicked out of a game. He was the peacekeeper, the unifier. He ended the fighting, he didn’t cause it.

His upbringing, his relationship with his father and the Negro League players, his mentors. The lessons learned from a life well lived. All of this shaped the man.

Willie Mays holds four baseballs representing the four home runs he hit against the Braves on April 30, 1961 in Milwaukee. Photo: Associated Press

Q: As your book and film show, he didn’t just experience racism in the South. He experienced it when he came to San Francisco, which Barry Bonds calls “the most unracist city in America” ​​in the film. But of course that was 1958.

A: When he came to San Francisco they didn’t want to sell him a house that he and his wife really wanted. That was a lesson for the people even then (in San Francisco). They offered him a house somewhere else. The mayor, George Christopher, said, “Live with me until you find someone else,” and Willie said, “No, I want this house. Not just for me, but for the next minority that comes and wants to live here because they won’t be Willie Mays. They will not become famous and they will not appear in the newspapers if they are rejected. So let me carry the burden here.”

Q: What is your personal favorite memory of your time with Willie?

A: I was over there (at May’s house) so many times and we just spat or talked and watched TV.

One time it was nearing the end of the book project, and that project wasn’t complete until I spoke to Hank Aaron. I said, “I can’t reach Hank. I cannot reach him through his assistant; He keeps hesitating and saying no.” He said, “What do you mean you can’t get Hank?” And we called Hank. It was on speakerphone. “That’s Hank.” Willie says, “Hank! Willi!” and these guys are talking like it’s 1954 or 1962 and they were hanging out at the All-Star Game.

And three times during that conversation, Willie said to Hank, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Hank is three years younger. Both from the Negro Leagues, both from the same state.

That’s Willie. I visited Willie two weeks ago. And he always asks himself: “What do you need? What do you need?” And I think I let him down when I said I didn’t need anything. He’s been taking care of other people for so long, that’s just part of his slang.

SF Giants star Willie Mays waves his hat as he cruises the track at Oracle Park on May 7, 2021, the day after his 90th birthday. Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Q: For the past few years, you’ve been playing the game Field of Dreams: a major league regular season game on the cornfield where the 1989 movie was filmed. But the field will not be available next year because they are renovating it. You and your Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins have an idea for where the game should take place, and it affects Willie.

A: Rickwood Field (in Birmingham, Alabama), which opened in 1910. It is Willie’s oldest standing professional home park and the oldest professional ballpark in America. Older than Wrigley Field, older than Fenway Park. Still used for college and high school tournaments. The Birmingham Barons, a Double-A team now playing downtown Birmingham a few miles from Rickwood, have a tribute game there every year. So it’s functional, it can work. It’s Americana at its finest.

It’s a great tribute to the Negro Leagues (May’s first professional club was the Birmingham Black Barons). Willie Mays played there, but also Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth and many other old legends of Barnstorming times. But because Willie Mays played there, it should be a museum and cherished. By the end of the 1948 season, he was the everyday guy as a 17-year-old boy due to an injury to midfielder Norman Robinson. When the Black Barons played the Homestead Grays in the last Negro League World Series, Willie Mays was the midfielder and the pitchers loved him because he spotted everything.

Director Nelson George interviews Willie Mays for his HBO documentary Say Hey, Willie Mays! Photo: HBO

Q: What do you hope people who don’t know much about Willie Mays – who may not even be baseball fans – will benefit from the documentary?

A: To live a good life. Being open to inspiration and inspiring others, people of all races, colors. This is the essence of Willie. You can run through this full history of the sports he played, his relationship with his father and two aunts, the Black Barons, and the relationships he forged during his two years in the military. The racism he felt when he came to San Francisco. Here’s a man who never had an agent. There was no freedom of choice. The most he ever earned was $155,000.

Really everything about him. You know, on Halloween night, a local sheriff comes by because there’s a huge line, and Willie always wants to greet these kids with candy and baseballs and stuff like that.

It should be an inspiration not only for the younger generations, but for all generations.

“Say hello, Willie Mays”! Premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday, November 8, on HBO and HBO Max.

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