By Miles Jaye
On the 6th of May 2021, Willie Mays celebrated his 90th birthday. “Say hey” Willie Mays has lived through nine decades of American history and he’s certainly made his share of contributions to that history. I’m surprised I’m taking time to write about baseball– I’ve never been a fan. I can’t remember ever attending a single professional baseball game. Ironic, when you consider I am Brooklyn Boy, a die-hard New Yorker, home to the Yankees and the Mets. In fact, I grew up on Bedford Avenue, down the street from Ebbets Field, once home to the Brooklyn Dodgers. I come from a real baseball town.
In spite of this much connectivity, convenience and opportunity, Dad never took us to a baseball game. It sounds almost un-American. So, what fuels my interest in Willie Mays? It’s simple, he was the best. Any time I’m made aware of a Black man or woman, given their props as the best, the G.O.A.T., the greatest of all time, I’m compelled to look up and pay attention.
Consider this, baseball, more than any other professional sport, football, basketball, tennis, or golf, is America’s game. Remember, baseball and apple pie? For America to acknowledge that a Black man, in 22 seasons and a 40-year career in the game, has distinguished himself as the best to ever play the game is a big deal. This in no way diminishes the historic significance or athletic achievements of the great Jackie Robinson or “Hammerin” Hank Aaron, but it is a big deal.
America, at large, would much prefer to crown Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, or Ty Cobb as Kings of the baseball diamond, but Mays was decidedly and without debate, the best. Now, imagine how much better he had to be to acquire that acknowledgment. I was taught as a kid, that I would have to be considerably better to be considered equal to my white counterparts, but he wasn’t dubbed equal, he’s the G.O.A.T. Consider also, the backlash of hate and contempt that ha always accompanied Black accomplishment. I can’t begin to imagine the death threats and hate mail that Mays along with Robinson, the first negro to play major league baseball, and Aaron, the first to break Ruth’s homerun record, had to endure. Yet, they would persist, persevere, and push through, consistently performing at the highest levels of the game. I maintain that excellence and accomplishment are arguably the highest forms of social protest.
Sadly, baseball is suffering from a serious case of diminishing interest and significance in Black America. Young Black kids, once trading baseball cards and glued to the tube throughout the World Series are now enamored with the swag of the wealthiest of athletes and rappers. I can remember rehearsals delayed or interrupted for baseball talk. With no , Richie Cummings would rattle off the day’s scores, game highlights,and players’ stats then count off the next tune without skipping a beat. Record executive Greg Peck actually missed an important performance of mine, caught up in the world series. I didn’t think it was so funny at the time but looking back… it’s hilarious. That was the intoxicating power of baseball.
What I fear is that Black kids will miss out on the passion and exhilaration that accompanied this pastime. I fear our kids will forget what Mays, Aaron and Robinson represented– it was monumental. These men were gentlemen as much as giants. Remember Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, Bob Hayes and Wilma Rudolph. These are names dreams were made of– heroic figures who motivated kids to aspirations of greatness, in their own right. Remind the kids of a country boy who ascended to the highest rungs on the ladders of success, from a field in Alabama to the White house, where Mays stood in the company of Queen Elizabeth II and the Fords as the greatest.
That’s what’s on my mind.