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Knowing Both Stories: Willie Mays and American History

Among my prized possessions was a Willie Mays home run ball, clubbed into a summer night where it stopped next to Walt Horn’s car. Horn made annual trips to watch Major League Baseball. Mays’ recent death captured the headlines and, for those of us who watched him patrol center field for all those years, tugged at our hearts, too. As it should have. That’s because Willie Mays did not simply make baseball history. He made American history.

Horn’s barber shop was a regular stop for me during my childhood, before the Beatles and Woodstock convinced me that haircuts were overrated. One Saturday morning between the cutting and snipping, Horn said he had something for me. He stepped into his backroom and returned with a baseball that had clearly been used: a scuff mark and umpire rubbing “mud” on its horsehide. He handed me the ball. He said Willie Mays had hit it out of the park. At the time, I worshipped Mickey Mantle and later Roberto Clemente, but a Willie Mays home run ball? The Giants center fielder took his rightful place among the holy trinity of my baseball gods.

Willie Mays baseball field without hyphens

Perhaps that’s why his recent death touched me deeply. Or perhaps it has something to do with recapturing some innocence of youth. Or perhaps my reaction was that I was grateful I knew the Willie Mays story, not simply the stats and stardom and the scintillating grace and power with which he played the game. I also knew the social and racial milieu in which he played and thrived. That’s the American history some people want to change or ignore or literally whitewash. People who believe that students should be shielded from our nation’s past, lest it make them feel guilty. People who depend on critical race theory to scare us into rewriting history.

What’s critical is that we tell the entire American story … all of it … not just the comfortable part. That’s the Willie Mays story. Those who insist that a clear-eyed study and reckoning of the past will sow division want us to move forward with an American narrative missing too many chapters. Mays played for the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro Leagues. They shared Rickwood Field with the Birmingham Barons, a white minor league team affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals. In bittersweet timing, MLB’s St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants (Mays’ MLB team) played a game at Rickwood Field just two days after his passing.


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