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Mays museum? It all started here

August 29, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

This week I received a letter from a Hagerstown man who said that all the hoopla about baseball great Willie Mays' recent visit to Hagerstown was overblown. The writer implied that Mays had made plenty of money as a result of the meet-and-greet session and really hadn't done much for Hagerstown.

My first thought was that to begrudge a Hall of Fame player who was born too soon to get a multi-million-dollar salary a few bucks for an autograph session seems a little mean-spirited to me.

The essence of the story was that someone who had been deeply hurt in Hagerstown in 1950 had returned and said that all was forgiven.

It's a great story and one that should not be forgotten, because it's a great lesson about America and how things have changed for the better in this country.

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But how do we make sure that people don't forget? By building a Willie Mays museum here, preferably as part of the renovation of Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium.

Exhibits would tell the story of a young man who endured the taunts of an ignorant few to become one of the world's greatest baseball players. Those who visited could see the field where he actually played and learn about how, years later, he'd forgiven the town where he was taunted.

Here's the slogan: "For Willie Mays, it all began here."

It wouldn't be the first such museum. In February 2002, the San Francisco Business Times reported that the Port of San Francisco had reached agreement with the Willie Mays Foundation to put a 25,000-square-foot museum on Pier 24 - the same number Mays wore throughout his playing career.

For that reason, Mays' memorabilia may be a little bit scarce. Much of it is already owned or exhibited by a number of other museums, including the Museum of the City of New York, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and even the Bridgeton, N.J., All Sports Hall of Fame, which has one of his Golden Glove mitts.

But the lack of actual artifacts, if that's the right word, shouldn't be a problem. If it were, they would never have opened the Wright Brothers Museum in Kitty Hawk, N.C. On a visit there several years ago, I noticed that except for a sewing machine a few tools, there wasn't much historic material.

But there were pictures and reproductions and luckily, in the era when Mays played, the wire services took plenty of pictures of his mighty swing at the plate and his acrobatic catches. Perhaps the star might be persuaded to send copies of other, more personal photos - baby pictures, birthday parties and the like.

It would work because it wouldn't just be the story of one baseball player, but of how American changed between 1950 and now, from a society that actively oppressed one entire race to one that has integrated to the point that two of the president's top advisors are African-Americans.

Now I'm not naive enough to believe that racism has been wiped out. The Ku Klux Klan is still holding rallies, but most citizens know that even if they have racist feelings, smart folks keep them to themselves.

But compared to the Balkans or Northern Ireland, we've come a long way in a world where most ethnic hatreds survive for thousands of years. We are no longer assaulting people of other races with fire hoses or siccing police dogs on them because they want to sit at the same lunch counter as the white folks or ride side-by-side with them in the front seat of a city bus.

Those things happened in 1963 in Birmingham, Ala., when I was in the ninth grade. We watched Public Safety Commissioner "Bull" Connor's men on our tiny black-and-white TV as they used powerful streams of water to sweep demonstrators off the sidewalks as easily as children blow the seeds off a dandelion.

Willie Mays was part of that story. It is one thing to be booed because you've dropped a catchable fly ball or swung at a ball way outside the plate. The irony was that when Mays began, even being the best player in the league wouldn't have changed some people's minds about whether he belonged there.

We can tell the story here, from start to finish. Not just the story of his baseball career, but the story of how a society changed for the better. It would be good for Washington County's young people to see that, but it would also be a nice tourist attraction.

Where would the money come from? I'd build it into the stadium renovation and also sell shares in it, with local people and businesses buying pledges. The Convention & Visitors Bureau, whose members are always looking for new ways to sell Washington County, should be a natural source of fund-raising talent.

Now, after all my enthusiasm, a note of caution. The proposal to build a National Civil War Museum in Hagerstown died because its organizers wants to spend more than $50 million on it right off the bat.

My preferred model is Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, which started modestly, built a base of boosters and has done nicely. The story of Willie Mays and America is a big story, but just as baseball players need a stretch in the minors, it will take some time and patience before this exhibit can achieve Hall-of-Fame status.

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