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Racism rampant during Mays' debut

June 26, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Before the game, shouts came from a small but vocal group in the right field bleachers.

"Watermelon man!"

"Crapshooter!"

Willie Mays, the 19-year-old signed as the Trenton Giants' new center fielder, didn't acknowledge the slurs. He put his head down and kept walking with his teammates along the first-base line.

Bob Miller, a former Hagerstown Suns general manager, was just 10 years old when Mays arrived at Municipal Stadium to start his professional baseball career. Looking back, Miller said the moment didn't mean much to him - until his father commented on the rough treatment. Then, Miller felt bad.

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William M. Breichner was 18 years old then, decades away from becoming Hagerstown's mayor.

He was part of the "Knot Hole Gang," children of varying ages who congregated behind third base under the watchful eyes of Councilman Jack Hellane and dry cleaner Benny Basore.

Breichner said there was a buzz about a great player coming to town from the Birmingham Barons of the Negro leagues, but he doesn't recall racial problems before or during Mays' first game.

But Mays - who will return to Hagerstown on Aug. 9 for a reception and a private gathering - didn't forget the sting.

In his 1988 autobiography "Say Hey," Mays wrote, "When I walked onto the field for the first time, I heard someone shout, 'Who's that (epithet) walking on the field?' But I didn't let it bother me. I was programmed very well from playing with the Barons. I had learned how to be thick-skinned."

Mays arrived in Hagerstown on Friday, June 23, but didn't play in that night's game. He played center field the next day and was hitless in four at-bats.

He picked up his first two hits in Sunday's game, according to Herald-Mail archives. Breichner said Mays beat out two infield hits.

After each game, Mays again felt the difference of playing in Hagerstown, the only Interstate League team south of the Mason-Dixon line. He was forced to stay at the all-black Harmon Hotel on Jonathan Street.

Mays wrote in "Say Hey" that being separated from his white teammates "confused" him, considering that nearby Washington, D.C., and Baltimore weren't that way.

"Some of my teammates couldn't understand it, either," he wrote. "About midnight, about five of my new teammates knocked on my window to check whether I was okay. It made me feel good, and I didn't have any trouble falling asleep."

During a TV interview with Larry King in 1988, Mays said Hagerstown was the worst for racial problems among cities in which he played.

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