“Say hello, Willie Mays!” review: On the wonderful HBO doc, the superstar leaves the praise to others

We all love those viral videos that show Mike Trout of the Angels and Mookie Betts of the Dodgers having fun with fans in the stands before a game, right?

Consider that some 70 years ago, Willie Mays regularly engaged in next-level fan interaction. As we see in archival footage featured in the wonderful HBO documentary “Say Hey, Willie Mays!”, when the New York Giants baseball superstar lived in Harlem in the 1950s, a few blocks from the a former Polo, he played stickball in the streets with neighborhood kids for an hour most mornings, took them to the streets for ice cream like a dapper Pied Piper – then headed to the ballpark. Can you imagine? To this day, there are probably alumni still recounting how they played stickball on the streets of Harlem with the great Willie Mays when they were young.

If you are familiar with the life and times of Willie Mays, this documentary will serve as an invaluable reminder of his greatness; if you’re only vaguely aware of its legend, this is must-watch TV. Every baseball fan and student of American history should know the story of the greatest player to ever wear a uniform: a five-tool phenomenon who was equally spectacular hitting, hitting for power, leading the bases, defensively and throwing. (Oh, and let’s not forget the signature “basket catch”. Let’s let the rest of the outfield population – past, present and future – catch flyballs the traditional way. Willie Mays put his hands down and grabbed some flies like canned vegetables knocking off a high shelf. What an amazing style!)

“Say hello, Willie Mays!”

Esteemed and prolific author and filmmaker Nelson George is to be commended not just for his flawless storytelling skills, but for landing an interview with the somewhat reclusive and private 91-year-old Mays, who talks about his love of the game and his fond memories of growing up as a baseball prodigy – but refuses to acknowledge he was the greatest of all time. To this day, that’s just not his style. The film leaves it up to others, from former costars such as Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda, to broadcasters such as the late Vin Scully and Bob Costas, to sing Willie’s praises.

“Say Hey” takes us through Mays’ childhood growing up in 1940s Jim Crow South Fairfield, Alabama, where he was raised primarily by two aunts. Willie’s father worked at the local steel mill, and when his shift ended in the early afternoon, he would drive to the ballpark with his son and teach him baseball. “They called [my father] ‘cat’ because he could run, he could throw and he could line up and he could hit, man,” Willie says.

Like father, like son. At the age of 17, Mays was the starting center back for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League. Jackie Robinson, who had recently crossed the color barrier at the majors, recommended the Brooklyn Dodgers sign Mays – but their scout reported that Willie couldn’t hit the curve (oops) and that the New York Giants would sign Mays and would assign him to their Class B affiliate in Trenton, New Jersey, where he heard vicious insults from some fans. “They called you all kinds of names, n—– this and n—– that,” recalls Willie, who took his father’s advice and never acknowledged the hate. “He left that on the pitch,” says Mays’ son, Michael.

Mays has encountered racism throughout her career. In 1958, the Giants moved to San Francisco. As former mayor Willie Brown recounts, it was a time when if you were black, “you couldn’t be a policeman, you couldn’t be a firefighter, you couldn’t live in certain parts of town.” When Mays and his then-wife tried to buy a house on Miraloma Drive, they were initially turned down, solely because of their race.

Willie Mays (pictured in 1964) says in ‘Say Hey’ he encountered racism during his baseball career.

Still, Mays remained a publicly upbeat, uncontroversial presence — guesting on TV shows such as “Bewitched,” “The Donna Reed Show” and “What’s My Line?”, never turning down an autograph request and keeping her point of view for himself as he racked up one sensational season after another en route to breaking Mel Ott’s all-time National League record.

Mays was deeply hurt when Jackie Robinson publicly criticized him for not being a public voice for civil rights and joining Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Arthur Ashe on the front lines of the fight, but Willie responded by saying : “In my own way, I think I’m helping. Joe Morgan, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Maury Wills were among the many black players who came to Mays’ defense, citing his behind-the-scenes efforts to help and support them. (Mays’ godson, Barry Bonds, also speaks eloquently and emotionally about Mays’ impact on him throughout his life. The doc doesn’t get into Bonds scandals, and doesn’t need to; we all know that story.)

Most of the time, however, “Say Hey” is a celebration of a player who was so special, so talented that he would have a place on Mount Rushmore of the all-time greats.

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