This city is still trying to figure out a way to call Willie Mays its own, but it remains a love affair without intimacy.
Mays played 15 of his 22 major league seasons here, but it was New York where he began his career in 1951, where he ended it in 1973 and where he became a national icon and part of the lore of the game. The Giants moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958, and while the city recognized its treasure, the fans didn’t connect with him like they did with the stars who arrived shortly after the team moved — players like Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda.
The Giants honored Mays before last night’s All-Star Game, and earlier in the day, they had the groundbreaking for a new Willie Mays Boys & Girls Club in Hunters Point, a poor section of the city not far from where Mays played at old Candlestick Park. Behind the stage where Mays sat and watched the ceremonies, there was a giant black and white photograph of Mays.
Was it a shot of him connected to his career in this city?
No. It was a photo of Mays playing stickball with kids in Harlem.
Mays, 76, spoke to the crowd about the importance of making the right choices to find a way out of places like Hunters Point.
“The right road for me was baseball,” he said. “I had it hard. I had it hard living in different cities, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.”
One of the cities where he had it hard was Hagerstown, Md., which, like San Francisco, once tried to claim a piece of Willie Mays’ greatness. Mays’ stay in the Western Maryland city was brief — just a few days in 1950, when he made his minor league debut with the Trenton Giants on the road.
When Mays took the field, he was the target of racial slurs. He has spoken about his treatment in Hagerstown over the years. So in 2004, when the Hagerstown Suns were a Giants affiliate (they are now a Washington Nationals Class A club), mayor William Breichner — who saw Mays play during that stop in 1950 — wanted to make amends.
Breichner invited Mays back to town and held a dinner for him. Mays threw out the first pitch for a game at Municipal Stadium, the same place he endured racial insults 54 years earlier.
“We wanted to show him this was a different community now,” Breichner said. “I thought it was important to let Willie know that Hagerstown had grown up. He came back and was extremely gracious, very cordial and friendly with the fans. People came from out of town to see Willie Mays.”
Breichner wanted to do more and also saw an opportunity. He saw a chance to connect his city to this American symbol and proposed renaming Veterans Highway — which runs to Municipal Stadium, one of the oldest minor league ballparks in the country — after Mays.
But it turned out it wasn’t the right road for Willie Mays and Hagerstown. Local veterans said the highway was named to honor those who had served their country. It became a political controversy and again raised the issue of race in the city. All the positive attention the city received when it invited Mays back was lost in what became a divisive issue in the community.
“I think the controversy took away from what we did,” said Breichner, who worked for the city for 30 years. “We were thinking about bigger and better things with Willie, but those ideas never materialized. He said he didn’t want to offend the local veterans, but that pretty much brought the relationship to an end.”
Someone tried to start a movement to name the ballpark, which is owned by the city, after Mays, but it was too raw a subject for the town to pursue.
“There was not a lot of steam behind the effort to name the ballpark, I think because of the severe way the road renaming was shot down,” Suns general manager Will Smith said. “It never really took off. There was not a lot of great press about it.”
It may have cost Breichner, now 75, his job as mayor.
“I took quite a beating in the press for my effort,” he said. “Some people claim I lost the election because of that, but I don’t know. But I still feel very proud of what we were trying to do for him.”
Breichner watched last night’s ceremony honoring Mays here in San Francisco and thought of what could have been for Hagerstown.
“He deserves the admiration of a lot of people,” Breichner said. “I met a lot of people over my political career, governors and vice presidents, but my greatest thrill was meeting Willie Mays and have him come to town here.”
Yesterday morning, the crowd at Hunters Point seemed thrilled to see Mays. The emcee for the event said that she asked a young man what he knew about Willie Mays. He said: “He’s Barry Bonds’ godfather.”
Not in Hagerstown. There, he’s a symbol of a town that tried to come to grips with part of its past and committed an error.