Willie Mays remembered for breaking barriers on and off the field

As we honor the legacy of Willie Mays' baseball career, we can’t forget the steps he took towards civil rights during the height of a controversial time in our history.

The ‘Say Hey Kid’ was the one of the first Black players in MLB history. While he often kept to himself when it came to issues of race and politics, he let his game speak for itself.

He started in the Negro Leagues as a Birmingham Baron in the Deep South at just 17 years old. 

"I really tried to get out of Alabama as quick as I could," Mays said during a previous interview.

"Willie Mays saw the worst of American society in terms of race prejudice and backlash, Jim Crow enforcement," said James Taylor, professor of politics at USF.

As one of the first to integrate pro baseball, the star eventually ended up in New York, playing for the Giants.

When the Giants moved out west, Mays struggled to buy a house in the primarily white Sherwood Forest neighborhood on Miraloma drive, after the neighbors complained about a Black family in their community.

"He was not on the front lines, per se, of the civil rights movement. It was unavoidable for a Black man during that time, because at that time, all you needed to be was black to warrant you being hated," said Shaun Fletcher, assistant professor of public relations and sport communications at San Jose State University. 


Giants fans memorialize Willie Mays, remark on his impact

The Bay Area is continuing to react to the death of a man synonymous with San Francisco, and sports.

Criticized for not being more outspoken during the civil rights movement, he sent a message through his actions, drawing crowds of white and Black folks.

"We should not mistake Willie Mays' humility and non-public confrontation with discrimination as some sign of weakness," said Taylor.

"He brought many together. Even those that resisted his blackness could not avoid his prominence as a baseball aficionado," said Fletcher.

In 1966, after a Black teen was shot by a white San Francisco police officer, the Black community revolved in what’s known as the Hunter’s Point Uprising. Mays spoke up on the radio.

"I’m compelled to believe that amongst all the things that he did off of the baseball diamond, when he spoke out, which he didn't do often, it meant something to him," Fletcher said.

He later helped fundraise for youth activities in Hunters Point.

"He was very much so for his community. He was very much so for uplifting, the Black community and doing any and everything that he could do to move our plight forward," said Fletcher.

"He represents Black America. He represents the silent majority of Black America. If Jackie and Malcolm X were one type of response to the circumstances, then Willie Mays was a different type of response," said Taylor.

In 2015, he earned a Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President Barack Obama, when Obama said, "It’s because of giants like him that someone like me could even think about running for president."

Mays lived through a very tense time, but regardless, he was often seen at events signing baseballs for little kids – both Black and white – and each time, giving some words of encouragement, calling them all "God’s children."

This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.


Willie Mays dies: Giants legend and MLB Hall of Famer was 93

Willie Mays, the electrifying "Say Hey Kid" whose singular combination of talent, drive and exuberance made him one of baseball's greatest and most beloved players, has died. He was 93.