The historic signing of Willie Mays revealed

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Editor’s note: Sixty years ago Monday 19-year-old Willie Mays of the Birmingham Barons was signed by the New York Giants. The circumstances that led to the Giants discovering the future Hall-of-Famer provide a previously untold glimpse into the wild-west mentality that prevailed among scouts and major league teams combing the already declining Negro League for talent.

Willie Mays at age 17 in 1948, playing for the Birmingham Barons of the Negro League.
(T .H. Hayes Collection, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library and Information Center)

When the New York Giants signed Willie Mays, they paid his Negro Leagues team $10,000. Mays got only $4,000. When the Giants scouted Mays, they feigned interest in another player to hide their affection with him. Everything about Mays’ courtship seems so foreign today, starting with the method by which the deal was completed.

A Western Union telegram arrived at the Memphis office of Tom Hayes at 9:53 a.m. June 21, 1950. Hayes had made his fortune in the mortuary business, but he was about to give life to one of the greatest careers in baseball history.

Hayes owned the Negro League’s Birmingham Black Barons. Since the 1948 season, several major league teams had asked about his teenage centerfielder, astounded by the youngster’s strength, athleticism and arm. But so soon after Jackie Robinson’s integration of major league baseball, the scouting and acquiring of black players remained an awkward endeavor for teams, and mistrust festered on both sides.

When the telegram from New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham arrived in Hayes’ hands, its simple confirmation belied a complex sequence of events that was about to result in a historically significant transaction that culminated in a Hall-of-Fame career marked by a previously unseen blend of ferocious power, blazing speed and game-changing defense.

“THIS WILL CONFIRM TELEPHONE CONVERSATION TODAY WITH OUR MR. SCHWARZ IN WHICH WE OFFERED TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS FOR THE ASSIGNMENT OF CONTRACT OF PLAYER WILLIE H MAYES JR AND YOU AGREED TO ASSIGN HIS CONTRACT TO THE MINNEAPOLIS BASEBALL CLUB FOR THAT AMOUNT. HORACE C. STONEHAM”

In pencil, Hayes scribbled the words that sent Willie Mays to the world: “Accept your offer of $10,000 for Willie H. Mays Jr.”

The transaction was the culmination of one of the greatest, yet little-known sagas in baseball history, the story of how Willie Mays rode an underground railroad of sorts between baseball’s dying Negro Leagues to the major leagues.

A prodigy in baseball-rich Birmingham, Mays broke into the Negro American League on July 4, 1948, signing a contract for $250 a month. He was only 17, a high school student, but his talent allowed him to compete against men who had been in the league for years. Mays often played on the same industrial league team with his father, Cat, once a flashy center fielder himself. When Cat recognized that Willie’s talents were beyond the coal and steel leagues, he sought his former teammate, Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, to usher his son into the Negro Leagues.

Davis, an All-Star who had once been considered a candidate to break baseball’s color line, became Mays’ guardian. He trained, protected and tutored Mays on the finer points of the game while not tinkering with his natural abilities.

As important as Davis was to Mays’ maturation as a player, he was just as crucial in helping Mays begin the process of escaping a league that had no future. Negro League attendance had plummeted, causing many teams to fold. To stay economically afloat, Negro League owners turned to selling their players to major league teams, but discovered that white owners often refused to acknowledge the validity of Negro League contracts or to pay what black owners considered to be fair-market value.

Davis recognized the value of Mays. He was famous in the black sporting world for his two-sport career as a Harlem Globetrotters basketball player as well as a Black Barons’ star. Davis’ former Black Barons manager and Globetrotters coach, Winfield Welch, was the manager of the 1948 New York Cubans, a Negro League team owned by the flamboyant and savvy Alex Pompez.

A longtime New York sports promoter who had once been one of Harlem’s most successful operators of the “numbers” illegal lottery, Pompez dreamed of transforming the remaining Negro League teams into affiliated minor league teams. That way black and Latin players could be easily scouted and bought by major league teams at reasonable prices.

To realize his vision, Pompez wanted players that would add value to his own reputation. He was willing to sell some of his best players to keep his team in business and to gain trust in major league baseball. Pompez realized how no single Negro League ballplayer meant as much to so many careers as Willie Mays. Pompez saw his opportunity. The first time Mays played at New York’s Polo Grounds was not as a member of the New York Giants, but in a doubleheader between the Black Barons and the Cubans in May, 1949. That day, Pompez sold two of his star players, pitcher Dave Barnhill and future Hall of Fame third baseman Ray Dandridge, to the Giants.

Pompez sold his stars because he needed the money to keep his team in business and pay the rent at the Polo Grounds, but he also wanted a foothold with the Giants. Pompez struck up a business relationship with Carl Hubbell, who had been at the doubleheader to personally scout and sign Barnhill and Dandridge.

Hubbell, the famed former screwball pitcher for the Giants who oversaw all scouting and player development for the team, watched Mays play for the first time that day and was astounded. He wanted to sign Mays immediately, but couldn’t, because Mays was still in high school. Davis had promised Cat Mays that he would not let Willie go until after high school graduation.

Meanwhile, Mays continued to develop through 1949 and into 1950. He was no longer a secret. The Boston Braves made a run at signing him, but the front office hesitated because Mays was black. The Boston Red Sox signed Davis a few months before Mays graduated from high school, but when their behind-the-scenes efforts to get Mays failed, they released Davis. The Cleveland Indians knew about Mays because Globetrotter founder Abe Saperstein scouted for them. The Yankees and Dodgers were both informed about Mays, but declined to pursue him.

The Chicago White Sox also made a run. Contrary to the popular myth that Buck O’Neil was the first black scout in major league baseball, it was actually former Negro League left-handed pitching legend John Donaldson, who was hired fulltime by the Chicago White Sox in 1949, while O’Neil was manager of the Kansas City Monarchs. Donaldson wanted Mays but couldn’t get his front office to commit.

Mays rewarded Davis’ commitment to his growth. Mays played with the Black Barons for the first few months of the 1950 season, and with each game, it became more apparent that he was an impact player. Most teams couldn’t understand the reclusive and skeptical Hayes. But the one person he trusted, Pompez, had won the Giants over.

Willie Mays' MLB stats
Season Team H HR RBI Avg.
1951 NYG 127 20 68 .274
1952 NYG 30 4 23 .236
1954 NYG 195 41 110 .345
1955 NYG 185 51 127 .319
1956 NYG 171 36 84 .296
1957 NYG 195 35 97 .333
1958 SF 208 29 96 .347
1959 SF 180 34 104 .313
1960 SF 190 29 103 .319
1961 SF 176 40 123 .308
1962 SF 189 49 141 .304
1963 SF 187 38 103 .314
1964 SF 171 47 111 .296
1965 SF 177 52 112 .317
1966 SF 159 37 103 .288
1967 SF 128 22 70 .263
1968 SF 144 23 79 .289
1969 SF 114 13 58 .283
1970 SF 139 28 83 .291
1971 SF 113 18 61 .271
1972 SF/NYM 61 8 22 .250
1973 NYM 44 6 25 .211
Career   3283 660 1903 .302
Source: MLB

Pompez had been their informant on the Negro Leagues and on Mays. He hinted that a vast wealth of talent was available to the Giants in Latin America – if they hired the right person to help them dig. He would help them get Mays if they helped him.

When Mays and the Black Barons returned to play Pompez’s Cubans in the Polo Grounds in early June of 1950, the Giants were waiting. Hubbell and Stoneham had one more look at Mays playing a doubleheader. Fearful they would lose him if other teams found out they wanted him, Hubbell tapped power-hitting first baseman Alonzo Perry on the shoulder.

Perry had hit two home runs in the doubleheader and thought Hubbell wanted to sign him. Instead, Hubbell asked him to confirm that the player in center field was indeed Mays. The Black Barons’ bus had caught on fire inside the Holland Tunnel on the way to the game and destroyed most of their gear, so they wore borrowed uniforms with no numbers on the back.

Perry also served as a decoy for Hubbell to dispatch two scouts to Birmingham, Ed Montague and Bill Harris, the following week. Quietly, Pompez was also sent to negotiate with Hayes on behalf of the Giants. Pompez helped the Giants understand why it was so important for major league teams to acknowledge the validity of Negro League contracts, providing Hayes with the respect he felt he deserved as the Barons’ owner.

It was a two-part deal: Montague signed Mays to a minor league contract for a $4,000 bonus and Stoneham paid Hayes $10,000 for Mays’ contract. It was the most money any major league team had spent for a Negro League player. Pompez, like every other Negro League owner, eventually lost his team. But he had prevailed in one sense. He was hired by the Giants to help explore Latin America and brought them Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda and the Alou Brothers.

Hayes later sold the Black Barons and left baseball.

The Giants also signed Davis to a minor league contract. Just like he had been a fan favorite in Birmingham before Mays, he became a fan favorite in the Bay Area, playing five solid seasons for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League in the 1950s.

Three transactions changed both America and baseball: the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees from the Red Sox, the signing of Robinson, and the Giants signing of Mays.

Mays’ deal with the Giants shaped so many others that it belongs, like him, in a class by itself. What if Mays and Henry Aaron had played in the same outfield? What if Mays and Ted Williams had played together? Would the Red Sox have won a World Series? Would the Yankees have been forced to integrate sooner?

If Mays hadn’t been a Giant, would young Bobby Bonds have signed with the San Francisco Giants in August, 1964? Bonds picked the Giants because he desperately wanted to play with Mays and he had a new mouth to feed, son Barry, who had been born in July. Mays became the boy’s godfather.

When Donaldson, the White Sox scout, learned that Mays had been bought by the Giants, he knew he would never have the chance to sign a player as good as Mays again. In a letter to Hayes asking if he could have a chance at signing right-handed pitcher Bill Greason, he added a postscript.

“PS,” Donaldson wrote. “Glad you sold Mays. I wish him the best of luck.”

John Klima is the author of “Willie’s Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, the Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend.” He is also author of the website, baseballbeginnings.com, dedicated to scouting professional prospects and identifying future major leaguers.

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