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If you like Willie Mays's story, you might also like:
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Willie Mays
Willie Mays
Profile of Willie Mays Biography of Willie Mays Interview with Willie Mays Willie Mays Photo Gallery

Willie Mays Interview

Baseball Hall of Fame

February 19, 1996
Atherton, California

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  Willie Mays

To begin with let's talk about your childhood in Alabama. What was it like being black when you were growing up?

Willie Mays: The same as being black right now. I don't think that's different.

In Birmingham at that time, everything was segregated: the movies, the restaurants, and different things. And you had the bathrooms that had "colored" and "white" on it, and all that kind of junk. So, you knew exactly what was going on, but you couldn't do anything about it at that particular time. So, I think it affected a lot of people at that time coming along. I guess they had to accept what was going on, they couldn't do too much about it.

In my home town, Fairfield, we used to play football and baseball together. They would stop us from playing. When I was about 12 years old we used to go down on the field and play football, and about 3 or 4 o'clock an officer would come down and break us up. We'd go our separate ways.

There had to be some anger.

Willie Mays Interview Photo
Willie Mays: I was very fortunate to play sports. All the anger in me went out. I had to do what I had to do. If you stay angry all the time, then you really don't have a good life. We knew what was going on, but again, if you just stay focused on what is happening as far as your life is concerned, I don't think you'll have a hard time. Sure, I went to all an all-black school. And like you said, there had to be some anger there, but what good was it going to do? Who were you going to go to?

When I had a job that I didn't like and that wasn't good for me, my father would say, "Hey, don't work, you're going to play baseball." I really didn't understand what he was talking about at the time. But he was saying, "I don't want you going into this field. I don't want you working where you don't want to work." So I was very fortunate.

Did anyone besides your father influence you?

Willie Mays: I had an uncle that played a great role in my life as far as sports. Like I said, in the South we would always play like three or four o'clock in the afternoon. I would have to go to school, and he would do my chores. When I say chores, that means I had to cut the wood, I had to wash the clothes; I had to do everything that everybody in the house had to do. So he would do all that stuff for me, and I was very happy about it because I wasn't about to mess my arms up and my hands, so I could go and play ball and didn't have to do too much.

Did anybody say anything to inspire you?

Willie Mays: Oh yeah.

My uncle would say every day, "You're going to be a baseball player. You're going to be a baseball player, and we're gonna see to that." Not knowing that I was going to be a professional baseball player, but see, my life was like this. At ten I was playing against 18-year-old guys. At 15 I was playing professional ball with the Birmingham Black Barons, so I really came very quickly in all sports. Basketball was my second sport. Football was my first, baseball was my last. But I picked baseball because it was the easiest of the three. And I don't think I had a problem with that, but the others I thought I would get hurt in, so I just picked that. And my father didn't have money for me to go to college. And at that particular time they didn't have black quarterbacks, and I don't think I could have made it in basketball, because I was only 5' 11". So I just picked baseball. There wasn't no height limit there in baseball. You'd just go in and play and have a good time.

There were no blacks in the major leagues then.

Willie Mays Interview Photo
Willie Mays: I played with the Birmingham Black Barons. I was making 500 at 14. That was a lot of money in those days. Jackie Robinson didn't come along until 1947, but I played in Birmingham in '47, '48 and '49, and the Giants signed me in 1950. I had traveled from Chattanooga and Memphis. I had been through all parts of the country. In New York I had played with the New York Cubans. I had played against Philadelphia, and in Pittsburgh, against the Newark Eagles. I had been to all the big cities.

We had a guy by the name of Piper Davis who was the manager of the Birmingham team, and he let me go to school. My father said I had to go to school. After the school year, I would travel with the ball club. During the year, I only played on weekends. I had to go to school five days and play two days with them.

Tell us why there was a need for Negro league.

Willie Mays: There was a need because we couldn't play with whites. That was segregation. I don't think there's a big secret about that. We had to create different things among ourselves, not just in the sports world, but all parts of life. When you bought a car you had to buy it from the right guy. When you bought a house you had to buy it on time, because you only got paid once a week. You got paid in chits in the South. You had a commissary that would only pay if you worked in that particular area.

We really had to do many, many things among ourselves, and sports was one of them that would get everybody together. And what the teams did is that, for instance, if you worked for Fairfield, or you worked for Westfield, or you worked for a company called Stockton, Sippico, all those teams -- all those mills had a team. And they would play, like on Saturdays and Sundays, and they used to draw like 10 -- 15,000 people. When you hit a home run they would pass the hat around and that was a big deal. So I didn't hit home runs because I was so small. I was about 150, 160 or something, but I could run, I could field, I could throw. I had a lot of guys teach me. So when I was a bat boy -- I was about ten, 12. I was the bat boy, so they let me play the last two innings at first base. So they really took good care of me. That's why I would say I was blessed when I was coming along as a small kid.

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