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Willie Mays flap irks many, brings Hagerstown bad p.r.

April 26, 2005

Say it isn't so. Tell us that an effort to honor baseball great Willie Mays didn't turn into a fiasco that has hurt Hagerstown's image, not to mention the feelings of the "Say Hey Kid."

Unfortunately, that is just what has happened. The saddest thing is that need not have happened, if the mayor and council had acted quickly when opposition to their first plan surfaced.

Grant them their good intentions, however. The council was trying to atone for what happened when Mays played his first professional baseball game in Hagerstown in 1950.

The future star was the subject of racial taunts and was not allowed to check into the same hotel as his teammates. Instead, he stayed in the Harmon Hotel, an all-black establishment on this city's Jonathan Street.

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Mays later told interviewers that of all the cities he visited while breaking baseball's color line, Hagerstown was the worst.

But, after years of refusing invitations to return, Mays came to Hagerstown last summer. In an emotional moment during that visit, he said he couldn't hold the things that were said way back when against today's city residents.

All was forgiven, he said, because "You just don't hold that against a town because the town isn't the person who hurt you."

For his part, Mayor William Breichner, who was in the stands for Mays' first game here, promised to have a street named in Mays' honor.

Unfortunately, the street Breichner chose was Memorial Boulevard, which passes right by Municipal Stadium. Although research hasn't turned up much about exactly why the council altered the street's name from Willow Lane in 1934, local veterans' groups were offended by the idea of another change.

The mayor further upset veterans by suggesting that some of the opposition came because Mays was an African-American.

All of this was needless, because there was a simple solution that we advocated on April 5.

Don't want to change the name of the street? Fine, then change the name of the stadium. No one, we said, could possibly get upset if Municipal Stadium were changed to Willie Mays Park.

Changing the name would not only honor Mays, it would be a chance to draw tourists here, particularly if a stadium renovation included an exhibit highlighting Mays' career.

Why the city's elected leaders didn't do that quickly is a mystery. Once again, some Hagerstonians have offended Willie Mays and given the city some poor publicity as well.

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