Willie Mays, 1971
Only those who were reading then can fully appreciate the impact it made at a time when the media so seldom criticized anybody on the sports scene, but here it is:
“At his testimonial dinner (for his 40th birthday), Willie Mays told the audience that being a ballplayer is different. It certainly is. It pays better, for one thing, and you can’t beat the hours.
“That wasn’t what he meant. Willie Mays, who has garnered fame and wealth beyond the dreams of most, was complaining. He wanted sympathy. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
“Mays is certainly the best and most exciting ballplayer of his generation, but he sheds his greatness like a cloak when he leaves the playing field, the Willie Mays myth not to the contrary.
“You know the myth, created by New York writers, the “Say Hey Kid,” a happy-go-lucky fellow with a kind word for everyone.
Try that on an autograph-seeking kid who has been brushed off, a sportswriter who has been cursed, a manager who has tried to assert his authority, a black who has tried to get Mays to speak out against racial inequality, as Hank Aaron, Bill White and Bob Gibson do.
“Mays has had an idolatrous press, but that has not made him cooperative. He talks only to the syncophants and those he thinks can help him. Questions from the others are met with obscenities or silence. He is suspicious, say his friends. Of what, pray tell?
“Giants managers are hardly more fortunate. They know they must give Mays preferential treatment or he will become fatigued or beset by one of his mysterious ailments.
“Leo Durocher started it, spoiling him outrageously. Mays loved it and now he, not the manager, decides when he will play. For sure, it is never when Gibson is pitching.
“Some Giants managers have tried to treat Mays as just another player. Bill Rigney, for instance. Rigney got fired. Clyde King told Mays to play an exhibition when Mays preferred not to. They almost fought in the dugout, and King was gone the next year.
“Mays hypochondria and love of special treatment fused a few years back when he was sent to the hospital after one of his famed fainting spells. He doted on that special attention and now sends himself to the hospital from time to time. When the Giants are looking for him, they check the hospitals first.
“It will be interesting to see what Mays does when his playing days are over because his very special athletic talents will not help him then.
“He has said that he wants to go into television, but he has done little to further that aim. A local TV show only exposed his lack of preparation and knowledge. Once he asked Leo Durocher if there would be a bidding war over O. J. Simpson, apparently ignorant of the pro football merger. Maybe Willie was out of town at the time it happened.
“He went on the Dick Cavett show earlier this year and acted like the boor who spills drinks on your rug and burns a cigaret hole in your couch. He continually interrupted and insulted Cavett and fellow guest Jim Bouton. He will not be invited back.
“Occasionally, there is talk that Mays will be the first black manager, but he would bring only indolence, an uncertain intelligence and a petulant personality to the job..
“Better keep playing, Willie.”
* * * *
There are some points I’d like to make about that column:
--In his biography on Mays, James Hirsch wrote that the timing was bad because Mays was playing so well at the time; among other things, he set a National League record for runs scored that month. In fact, I think the timing was perfect because, if I had waited much longer, I could have been accused of kicking Mays when he was down. By July, two months after his 40th birthday, Mays had become an ordinary player, having finally surrendered to the passage of time.
--I was in a trial period with columns at that point. The publisher, Charles Theirot, didn’t want to replace Ron Fimrite, who had left for Sports Illusttrated, because of the expense. So, I was just a member of the sports staff and, as such, was assigned to write a locker room story on Sunday of that week. As soon as I entered the locker room, Gaylord Perry started screaming at me – Perry didn’t like Mays, but he liked reporters even less – and others joined the cry. Clubhouse attendant Eddie Logan told me, “You’d better go,” and I agreed, because there was no way I could conduct any interviews. I waited outside in the hope of catching individual players. Ken Henderson, then thought to be Mays’ potential successor, was the first to emerge, and he graciously answered my questions at length, so I had a story – and I was eternally grateful to him. Except for passing references, I never wrote much about this or my other encounters with players because I believed in the Dick Young dictum: Readers aren’t interested in how the bananas are delivered.
--A year later, after Mays was traded to the Mets, I was assigned to a road trip. Younger players sought me out to tell me, off the record, about their complaints about manager Charlie Fox. One player finally went on the record: Ron Bryant blasted Fox after a Saturday game in St. Louis. I wasn’t at the game because the joint operation gave the Examiner the sports section on Sunday, so I couldn’t write on the game. But Bryant called me when he got back to the hotel and told me what he had said. I wrote it – as a story, not a column – for Monday’s paper. It was news because none of the other writers on the trip had bothered to write about Bryant’s rant!
That apparently was the tipping point for Theriot. He allowed sports editor Art Rosenbaum to hire another staffer, David Bush, and made me a full-time columnist. I immediately moved out of the office and set up business at home; among other reasons, I wanted to watch my son, Scott, who was two the next month, grow up. It was sometimes hectic because there were times when I wrote columns with a cat asleep in my lap and Scott crawling around my legs, but it was well worth it. And I had learned to concentrate when I had worked in a Chronicle office which had constantly ringing telephones, chattering teletype machines and Art Spander talking nonstop.
EXAMINER COLUMNS: I’ll write in Tuesday’s Examiner, probably on Cal basketball, and then, my next column will be March 19, after our return from South America.
WEBSITE COLUMN: I will try to write March 19 or 20, though most of it will probably be on our trip, since I’ll be out of touch with the local sports world on our trip. My regular website columns will resume on March 24.
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