Willie Mays, I am not. I had almost forgotten the day a baseball fan thought I was Willie Mays. I like to think that I was a good baseball player when I was in my prime, but no way as proficient with the bat, the glove or as fleet on the base path as the “Say Hey Kid.”
What prompted this reflection is the news that the Atlanta Braves, formerly my hometown team, and the Florida Marlins played a game, the day before the 240th birthday of the United States of America. The game was played before 12,500 soldiers and their families on a ball field constructed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina just for this one game.
The boxscore is not what is important or to be remembered from this game. The fact that Major League Baseball devoted the time and the resources to bring a regular season game, that will count in the standings, to the men and women who protect the homeland with little financial reward is how this game should be remembered when sports fans look at this event.
I applaud Major League Baseball, the front offices of the Braves and Marlins, the coaches and players for bringing a bit of joy into the lives of our soldiers and their families.
This leads me back to the day an obvious fan of the game thought I was Willie Mays. It happened during my second year as a collegiate baseball player. I was an outfielder for the Tuskegee Institute Golden Tigers. It was early March, 1972. The sun was out but a chill hung over the stadium. My school, Tuskegee Institute was playing Albion College. We often played predominately white universities, who traveled south to play games in the early spring, while their baseball diamonds thawed out from the late winters experienced in the north.
Coach James Martin penciled me in the lineup in center field to start the second game of a double-hitter. During the pregame warm-up I made a basket catch or two, to the chagrin of Coach Martin, and fired a strike from center to home plate. When I trotted off the field, I heard someone in the stands say, “Hey Willie Mays.” I had no idea the fan was talking to me.
We were playing this game, at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama, similar to the game played by the Braves and Marlins at Fort Bragg, for the benefit of military veterans who were undergoing treatment.
Each year Coach Martin would schedule a game or two for the veterans. The hospital was built in 1923 within walking distance of the Tuskegee Institute campus, to service Black veterans who had been injured in World War I.
The property was part of the 5,000 acres of land amassed by Lewis Adams and Booker T. Washington for the school at Tuskegee. Washington’s successor Robert Russo Moton, donated the land to the federal government so this hospital could be built. This was the first VA facility specifically built to care for Black servicemen who complained of not getting adequate care when they visited facilities that catered to white veterans.
Many of the servicemen at the Tuskegee VA had mental health challenges as a result of their participation in World War II and the Korean Conflict. They came to the stadium in wheelchairs, some with walking canes, some assisted by a nurse. While others walked under their own power. They were excited to see a baseball game between Black and White players.
When it was nearing my time to bat, I took a 33 ounce Louisville Slugger out of the bat rack and sauntered to the on-deck circle. I took a knee, held the wooden bat in a vertical position in the palm of my right hand and leaned forward, just like I had seen Mickey Mantle do it in old Yankee Stadium.
“Hey Willie,” one veteran yelled, “hit a homerun for me!”
Now I finally get it, this fan thinks I am Willie Mays. Although, Mays would retire from the game after the World Series later that year with diminishing skills from the kid who broke into the league in 1952, I could not see how this Vet could mistake me for Mays.
“That ain’t Willie Mays,” another veteran yelled.
“You don’t know what you are talking about, that is Willie Mays,” the first Vet said.
“It can’t be,” the second Vet said, “he wearing number 39, that’s Roy Campanella.”
Then the PA announcer said, “Now in the on-deck circle is Harold Harvey from Macon, Georgia.”
“That ain’t no Harold Harvey,” the first Vet said, “that’s Willie Mays. Hit that ball out the park Willie Mays.”
“See I told you that wont no Willie Mays,” the second Vet said.
“Walking to the batter’s box is Harold Harvey,” the announcer said.
“Hit that ball out of the ball park, Willie,” the first Vet yelled!
I grounded out to third.
“That’s alright Willie, you’ll get him next time,” the first Vet shouted!
On my next at bat I drew a walk, but had a slower base runner on second base and did not get a chance to dazzle the veterans with my baserunning skills. The game was called after five innings so the teams could get to the campus cafeteria before it closed.
I did not hit that home run for the veteran who thought he was watching the great Willie Mays play baseball, but as the years pass, I look fondly on that day and the joy I brought to Black soldiers who served their country so that I could play baseball, the American pastime.