“We think you’ll like Willie,” Halsey Hall told the people of Minneapolis in May 1951. Halsey Hall was right. In his first appearance in Minnesota, Willie Mays “won himself a home with Minneapolis fans” in the first inning of his first game at Nicollet Park. The “phenom in center field” made an outstanding catch near the flagpole in deep center for the third out with two men on base and then singled in his first time at bat. Minneapolis fans loved Willie, but they had only a month and a half to catch him in a Millers uniform before the New York Giants yanked him away into the major leagues. He played in just thirty-five games for the Millers, but he put on a show in that span of time. At age twenty, Mays appeared to be a natural athlete, standing five feet, ten and a half inches, weighing 178 pounds, with big, powerful hands and wrists and forearms so thick that a teammate said they look like Popeye the Sailor’s arms.(1)

His baseball skills were acquired. His father, William Howard Mays, a steel-mill worker in Birmingham, Alabama, had led him to baseball. The elder Mays was a good ballplayer in the city’s Industrial League. William Howard Mays, Jr., was born in 1931, and before he was a year old, he learned to walk, and his father had him fetch a baseball. Soon young Willie was hitting a rubber ball with a stick, and by age five, he was playing catch with his father outside their home for hours at a time. Willie took naturally to playing sports.Mays began playing baseball for pay in 1946, with the nearby semipro Gray Sox. His dad did not want his son to work in the steel mills, and baseball was a way to escape from a dead-end job there. It worked; he signed with the Negro League Birmingham Black Barons at age seventeen. Mays improved his raw talent as an outfielder on the 1948 Black Barons team that made it to the Negro World Series, raising his batting average in three seasons from .262 to .311 to .330 in a portion of a season before moving to the Giants’ farm system.

Following baseball’s recent integration, major league scouts began assessing the Negro Leagues and knew about the talented Mays. The New York Giants offered him a contract in June 1950, buying his rights from the Black Barons. This was just after his high school graduation, the earliest that a major league team could sign him.(2)

Mays did not know what to expect in the minor leagues; in his own words, he was “a wide-eyed black kid entering a white man’s world.” But the young man excelled in his first minor league stop with the Class B Trenton Giants in New Jersey, batting .353 in 81 games—the best average in the league for the season. He experienced racial slurs in a number of games, but he “had learned how to be thick-skinned” from his time with the Black Barons. His personal highlight in 1950 was a grand slam home run where “the ball hit the top of the fence and bounced over,” according to Mays, “that was my big thrill.” (3)

The Giants placed the young outfielder in the Minneapolis Millers’ spring training camp in Sanford, Florida, in the spring of 1951. The city was still segregated, and Mays had to stay in a boardinghouse with two African American teammates, separated from the white players’ hotel facility. He spent much free time watching movies in a segregated theater in the side balcony, reached by a separate entrance.(4)

Leo Durocher watched Willie Mays play in only one game in spring training, and Mays hit a double and a homer, stole a base, and threw out several base runners. Leaving after seven innings, Durocher said nothing to the young player. But Durocher was impressed, as were a host of others.(5)

One of those was Millers’ manager Thomas Heath. Heath said, “He’s as good, at this stage, as any young prospect I ever saw. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say he’s the best I ever had anything to do with.” “What do you look for in a player?” asked Heath, “you look for a good eye, speed, a good arm, baseball sense.” About Mays, Heath proclaimed, “He has ’em all.”(6)

The high expectations put a “good deal of pressure on Willie Mays,” an observer wrote, because he was jumping up two classes, from Class B to Triple A, and had been subjected to “a fantastic buildup.” Others had made “big promises for him,” and it was “up to him to keep their promises for them.” But he “immediately began to field his position brilliantly, hit the ball hard and far and show class and smartness on the bases.”(7)

The highlights of his brief tenure with the Millers were numerous. His statistics were fabulous. In a game against the Louisville Colonels on May 7, Willie Mays astounded the fans and the Louisville team when “he literally climbed the right center field wall to pick off Taft Wright’s jet drive.” The ball was headed for the upper portion of the fence and, according to Mays himself, he got his “spikes in the wall” and “sort of walked up the wall.” The putout was “so nearly an impossible catch” that Jimmy Piersall, the runner on second base, raced home and was in the dugout when Mays’s throw arrived at second base to complete a double play. Taft Wright cruised into second base with what he knew was a double. Wright “wiped off his hands and did all the other little straightening-out chores a base runner” would do, and as he prepared to take his lead off second base, the umpire told him, “You’re out.”(8)

Taft replied, “No I’m not. He didn’t catch that. He couldn’t,” and refused to leave the field. Finally, his manager had to lead him off the field, still protesting.(9)

Mays’s batting average was .477 for thirty-five games. He hit .563 in seven games against Louisville, getting five hits in five at bats in one contest, .643 against Milwaukee, and .500 versus Indianapolis. Millers manager Heath said he “just can’t believe it even after watching him for weeks, but you can see for yourself.”(10)

Twin Cities sportswriters looked for a weakness in Willie Mays; they found none, writing “he does everything well.” “He has speed to burn,” noted Charles Johnson, and “he has the best throwing arm in the league.” Not only that, but “His fielding has been terrific” as he kept on coming up with a “miraculous catch” night after night. Writer Bob Beebe called him “spectacular.” Another writer prophesied, “Many veteran observers feel he may well become the greatest player his race has yet produced.” Opposing ballclubs were “at a loss as to how to pitch to him” because he could hit to all fields. Even his own manager admitted that he did not “know how he would have his hurlers pitch him if Willie were on the other team.”(11)

Willie Mays’s address in Minneapolis was at 3616 Fourth Avenue South, where he rented a room in the home of Mr. and Mrs. William H. Walker. Third-baseman Ray Dandridge and pitcher Dave Barnhill lived just across the street.(12)

Willie Mays did not live in that house very long; he was just too talented to stay in Minneapolis. The New York Giants called him up to the major leagues in late May. Mays was afraid to go, telling Manager Leo Durocher that he was not sure he was “ready for the majors yet” and that he did not think he “could hit big-league pitching.” Durocher asked, “What are you hitting now?”(13)

To which Mays answered, “Four seventy-seven.”

Durocher, exasperated, asked Willie if he could hit .250 for the Giants, sprinkling his question with a few curse words.(14)

Willie told him, “Sure,” because that “didn’t seem too hard.”

Mays took over in center field for the Giants and won Rookie of the Year honors in the National League for 1951. His team won the pennant when Bobby Thomson hit his dramatic home run—“the shot heard round the world”—with Mays as the on-deck batter. The Giants won the World Series, too.(15)

But Minneapolis mourned the loss of Willie Mays. Without their star, the Millers finished the year in fifth place in the eight-team American Association. Tom Heath said, “I suppose a kid who can play like Willie doesn’t belong anywhere but in the big show.” Many fans had been waiting for warmer weather to attend a game and to see the star center fielder. They became members of the “I Didn’t See Him Club.” Those who did witness Mays in action in the early going of 1951 saw a Hall of Famer before he hit the big time.(16)

Mays came back to the Twin Cities to play just one more time, in the All-Star Game at Metropolitan Stadium in 1965. He continued his hitting in Minnesota just as he had left off in 1951—belting a 415-foot leadoff home run, walking twice, and then scoring the winning run in a 6–5 National League victory.(17)

For those fortunate enough to have witnessed the play of Willie Mays in his time in Minnesota, they saw the greatest all-around African American player in all of baseball history. The Sporting News listed him as number two on its list of Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players, behind Babe Ruth. Total Baseball, in rating pitching, fielding, batting, and baserunning, included Mays, along with Ruth and Barry Bonds, as the three best players ever. It was fate that brought Mays to Minneapolis in 1951, and it was his good fortune to remain healthy and have a long career. And what a career it was—660 home runs to rate as number four all time, 3,283 hits (seventh all time), first in putouts by an outfielder, and third in runs scored and total bases. A twenty-four-time All-Star, he was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1954 and in 1965.(18)

Notes

1. Minneapolis Tribune, May 1, 1951, p. 18, May 27, 1951, p. F1; Minneapolis Star, May 2, 1951, p. 41, May 2, 1951, p. 41, May 8, 1951, p. 29; Willie Mays, Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 49.
2. Minneapolis Tribune, May 27, 1951, p. F1, F3; Mays, Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays, 16, 17, 20; Minneapolis Star, May 25, 1951, p. 35; Riley, Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, 523–24; Clark and Lester, eds., Negro Leagues Book, 144, 146, 148.
3. Mays, Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays, 47, 49; Willie Mays, Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays  p. 49; Minneapolis Tribune, May 27, 1951, p. F3.
4. Mays, Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays, 54–55.
5. Mays, Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays, 53–54.
6. Minneapolis Tribune, Apr. 10, 1951, p. 7.
7. Minneapolis Tribune, Apr. 23, 1951, p. 21.
8. Minneapolis Star, May 8, 1971, p. 29; Mays, Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays, 58–59.
9. Mays, Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays, 59.
10. Minneapolis Star, May 21, 1951, p. 26, May 10, 1951, p. 42, May 8, 1951, p. 29.
11. Minneapolis Star, May 22, 1951, p. 36, Apr. 24, 1951, p. 33, Apr. 30, 1951, p. 25, May 10, 1951, p. 42.
12. Minneapolis Tribune, May 27, 1951, p. F3.
13. Mays, Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays, 60–61.
14. Nancy Caldwell Sorel, “Willie Mays and Leo Durocher,” The Atlantic, July 1993, p. 63.
15. “National Baseball Hall of Fame: Willie Mays,” www.BaseballHallofFame.org (accessed Jan. 14, 2003).
16. Johnson and Wolff, eds., The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 400; Minneapolis Star, May 25, 1951, p. 35.
17. “1965 All-Star Game,” baseball-almanac.com/asgbox/yr1965as.shtml (accessed Jan. 13, 2003).
18. “Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players, the Sporting News,” Legendary Lists, BaseballAlmanac.com (accessed July 15, 2002); Minneapolis Star-Tribune, July 23, 2002, p. C5; “National Baseball Hall of Fame: Willie Mays’s Plaque,” www.BaseballHallofFame.org (accessed Jan. 14, 2003).

From Swinging for the Fences: Black Baseball in Minnesota, edited by Steven Hoffbeck, copyright Minnesota Historical Society Press.