Saying goodbye to the 'Say Hey' Kid

By Benjamin Chase of the Plainsman
Posted 6/22/24

In this From the Mound, the writer remembers the life of Willie Mays

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Saying goodbye to the 'Say Hey' Kid


“He runs the bases like a choo-choo train
Swings around second like an aeroplane
His cap flies off when he passes third
And he heads home like an eagle bird.”
“Say Hey” — The Treniers

In an era with great nicknames for baseball players, few can say that their nickname came from a song written about them! The Treniers, led by twins Cliff and Claude Trenier were a 1950s “big band” jump blues (a mix between swing music and 1950s rock) group.

Originally from Mobile, Ala., the home of a whole host of elite major league players (Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Satchel Paige, and later Ozzie Smith), the group moved to New York City to push forward their music career just as Willie Mays, an Alabaman himself, became a star for the New York Giants.

This song, released in 1955, is the origination of the nickname that stuck with Mays, though he was honored this week in Birmingham for a time in his life when he was known as “Buck.”

When Mays was still in high school, the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues spotted his immense talent and recruited the youngster to play on their team.

Willie recalled the first time that he encountered legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, then pitching in a barnstorming manor before finally signing with the Cleveland Indians later that year. Willie was 17.

“It was 1948. Satchel had a very, very good fastball, but he threw me a little breaking ball, just to see what I can do, and I hit it off the top of the fence and got a double. When I got to second, Satchel told the third baseman, ‘Let me know when that little boy comes back up,’” Mays recalled to GQ magazine in 2010. “Three innings later, I’m coming up, and the third baseman says to Satchel, ‘There he is.’”

He continued, “I walk halfway to home plate, and Satchel says, ‘little boy, I’m not going to trick you. I’m going to throw you three fastballs and you’re going to go sit down’ and I’m saying in my mind, ‘I don’t think so!’”

“He threw me two fastballs and I just swung right through them. The third ball, as he threw it, he said, ‘now, go sit down, little boy,’ while the ball was still in the air. I swung through that one as well.”

That rough introduction to professional baseball aside, Mays would be a key component to Birmingham making the 1948 Negro Leagues World Series, the last Negro Leagues title series that would be played as integration with Major League Baseball eventually killed off the Negro Leagues.

Mays would graduate high school and immediately sign with the Giants in 1950, though he had offers to play basketball and/or run track from multiple colleges. The Giants signed the future Hall of Famer for $4,000.

Incredibly, he and fellow Alabaman Hank Aaron could have been teammates with the Giants or the Braves, as the Braves submitted a higher offer to Mays, but he didn’t receive the offer from the Braves until after he’d already signed the contract with the Giants.

When Aaron was being scouted, the Giants made the first offer to Aaron, but the Braves offered more money and signed him. The two would become friendly rivals and would become two of the top ten players in the history of the game.

Mays burst into national consciousness in 1954, but not before he won the Rookie of the Year award in 1951, then participated in the World Series that season against the Yankees.

Mays hit a pop fly between an aging Joe DiMaggio and rookie Mickey Mantle in the outfield, and when DiMaggio didn’t warn the youngster, Mantle’s leg got caught in an open drainpipe, and he suffered a knee injury that would hobble him the rest of his illustrious career.

Willie was drafted into the Army after the 1951 season and served in Korea, returning in 1954. He hit a home run on Opening Day in his return, and the Giants were sparked by their 23-year-old Most Valuable Player as Mays slugged 41 home runs and had a .345 batting average to lead New York to the World Series.
It was in the 1954 World Series, played against Cleveland, where Mays made his most memorable moment in the game.

He was already widely-renowned for his defense before Cleveland’s Vic Wertz hit a drive to straightaway center field in Game 1 that Mays caught with his back turned to the field, then had the presence of mind to immediately turn and throw the ball back into the infield to hold the runners. The Giants would go on to win the game and the series. It would be the only World Series ring of Mays’ career.

Mays would have one of the most impressive statistical careers of any player in the game’s history. He made 24 All-Star teams in an era when two All-Star games were played each summer. That was second only to Aaron’s 25. Interestingly enough, many feel that Mays could have been the guy to break Babe Ruth’s record if not for his military service. Instead, Aaron broke the record and hit 40 more home runs after breaking the record, finishing with 755, while Willie’s career mark was 660.

This past Thursday, Major League Baseball played its annual game held at a historic or well-known field that typically does not host MLB games - previously these games have been held at the Field of Dreams field, in Omaha (at the site of the College World Series), and outside the United States, in Mexico and Puerto Rico.

This year’s game was held at historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham.

The game was already set to have plenty of recognition for Mays, arguably the most famous player to have ever called the historic park his home stadium, but it became even more so upon his passing two days earlier.

Chandler Simpson, a prospect with the Tampa Bay Rays that was on one of the two teams that played in the minor league game at Rickwood on Tuesday, learned of Mays’ passing during the game.

“He was definitely here in spirit throughout the whole game,” Simpson said of Mays. “But everybody gave thanks, and then everybody was appreciative of him and all the greats that came before me.”

Simpson is a rarity now in the game, a Black player working his way to the major leagues. After integration, Mays was part of a flood of talent that quickly led to Black players making up more than 10% of MLB players, a number that peaked at 19% in 1981 and has been in significant decline since the 2000s. MLB Opening Day rosters in 2024 featured just 6.1% Black players, the lowest percentage since 1955, which was within a decade of integration of the game.

Mays fought horrific racism throughout his professional career on and off the field, relaying a story about trying to find housing when the Giants moved to San Francisco before the 1958 season.

Reggie Jackson spoke on the pregame before Thursday’s game about the racism that was present throughout the game when he began his professional career nearly 20 years after Willie began his journey. (For what it’s worth, Reggie’s interview was tremendous and is highly recommended viewing for anyone.)

Mays is one of the last of his kind in the game of baseball, a man who can speak to the horrific history of racism within the game while being positive on encouraging young people of all races to get involved in the game he loved.

Unfortunately, many want to remove discussion of the true history he faced in this country, and without those living who can counter the misinformation in those removals, we could be doomed to repeat the same atrocities.

For Thursday, it was a wonderful moment to remember and honor the life and efforts of the Say Hey Kid, Willie Mays.

Rest in power.