When Mays played here, what went on?

August 08, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN - Willie Mays was a central figure in a raging baseball question of the 1950s: Which New York player shone the brightest in center field - Willie, Mickey or the Duke?

Who knows? We'll never agree.

Hagerstown, though, can be certain that it always will be an answer in Mays' Hall of Fame career. It's the city where Mays played his first professional game for the New York Giants organization.

There are other questions to examine: What happened when Mays debuted here? Why does he consider it racially the worst place he ever played?


It's unknown if or how much Mays will delve into his past when he visits Hagerstown on Monday. His assistant with the San Francisco Giants - the Hagerstown Suns' parent club - turned down both a request for an interview with him and a request to have him give a short statement by e-mail on why he's coming back.

Mays - whose 660 home runs are the fourth-best total in Major League Baseball history - is a special assistant with the Giants.

Mays, 73, will be at the Clarion Hotel & Conference Center Antietam Creek on Dual Highway on Monday afternoon. People who paid $750 or $1,000 will meet privately with him. Then, he'll spend time at a $50-a-ticket reception in the ballroom.

At 6:30 p.m., Mays will go to Municipal Stadium for a ceremony before the scheduled 7:05 p.m. game.

That's now. What about then?

The train to Hagerstown

"I signed with the Giants by accident," Mays wrote in his 1988 autobiography, "Say Hey."

A scout from the New York Giants went to see another player on the Birmingham (Ala.) Black Barons of the Negro Leagues - and ended up recruiting Mays.

The Giants sent him to play with their minor league team in Sioux City, Iowa. But the city was caught up in a race controversy and he couldn't play there, he wrote.

Instead, the Giants sent Mays, who was 19, to Trenton, N.J., in the Class B Interstate League.

"The train ride from Birmingham, Alabama, to Hagerstown, Maryland, where I was to meet my new team, seemed like an eternity that spring day in 1950," Mays wrote. "I kept looking out the window, or fumbling with the bag of sandwiches that Aunt Sarah had made for me, but I was too nervous to eat."

Hagerstown, the only team in the league south of the Mason-Dixon Line, was segregated. Mays wrote on being a "wide-eyed black kid entering a white man's world."

Only three years had passed since Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Trenton Giants came to Hagerstown, home of the Braves, in June 1950.

The home team, of the Boston Braves' farm system, was sagging. Hagerstown had lost six straight games and dropped from first place.

A Friday, June 23 Daily Mail preview of the series didn't mention that Trenton - 81/2 games behind Hagerstown in the standings - had a promising new outfielder named Willie Mays.

History in the making

But Saturday's paper reported the impending end of the league's racial monopoly.

"Interstate League history will be made at the Stadium tonight when Trenton starts the first Negro player in league competition," a sports story said. "Willie Mays, signed by the New York Giants earlier this week and optioned to Trenton, will hold down one of the outfield positions for the Giants. The colored newcomer joined the Trenton club last night but did not see action."

Frank Colley's column "Colley See-Um of Sports" also noted the milestone.

"History was made last night as far as the color line is concerned when the Trenton Giants placed a colored player in uniform and he sat out the last two innings of the ball game on the bench," Colley wrote.

"Tonight Manager [Genovese] of the Giants will place Willie Mays ... in centerfield, moving Cunningham into left and benching Bob Easterbrook."

Colley's column also mention that this was not Mays' first time playing in Hagerstown.

"Mays has played in this city two years ago as a member of the Barons when they played an exhibition game at the Stadium with either the Atlanta team or the Elites of Baltimore," he wrote.

Conflicting details

It's important to note that some details - maybe important, maybe not - are in conflict about Mays' start in pro ball.

In "Say Hey," Mays wrote, "I didn't get a hit that first game or for the rest of the four-game series. I started my organized baseball career oh-for-Maryland, and in a segregated town, to boot."

Actually, the Braves and the Giants played a three-game series, according to ongoing newspaper coverage.

Also, Mays might not have done as poorly as he wrote.

The box score from his first game on Saturday, June 24, 1950 - supplied by the National Baseball Hall of Fame - shows that Mays was hitless in three at-bats. He batted sixth and played center field, where he made four putouts.

In his second game - on June 25 - the newspaper box score credits him with having two hits in four at-bats.

A story about the game confirms part of this: "The Giants knotted the count in their half of the seventh. Mays led off with a single to left."

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