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Willie Mays Doesn’t Hold Back in a New HBO Documentary on His Life

7 minute read

Willie Mays represents so much, for so many.

He brought a certain joy and whimsy to the game of baseball, which during Mays’ heyday in the mid-20th century was the dominant sport in America. He was a true sports superstar, embraced by all swaths of America, at a time when many Black Americans still suffered under the awful indignities of Jim Crow.

And as revealed in Say Hey, Willie Mays!, a new HBO documentary debuting Nov. 8, to none other than Jackie Robinson Mays could be considered what’s called, in modern parlance, a “sellout.”

“Willie is personable and has great talent,” the film quotes Robinson as saying about Mays in the late 1960s. “But he’s never matured. He continues to ignore the most important issue of our time. He’s never had any decent guidance in these matters and probably keeps looking only to his security as a great star. It’s a damn shame he’s never taken part. He doesn’t realize he wouldn’t be where he is today without the battles others have fought. He thinks it isn’t his concern. But it is.”

The film serves as a useful reminder that the raging debate about the proper role of activism in sports is not new. Robinson thought Mays needed to play a prominent role in the Civil Rights movement, like so many athletes of the 1960s, such as Bill Russell, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali, did. Say Hey considers Robinson’s critique, and contextualizes Robinson’s words—and Mays’ timing.

Setting the stage for those who came later

Mays entered the majors in 1951, just four years after Robinson integrated baseball. While Robinson helped win access to professional baseball, Mays, through his effervescence on and off field the field, helped Black Americans take a further step toward acceptance. His appearances on lily-white entertainment enterprises such as the Donna Reed Show, Bewitched, or on the Ed Sullivan Show, were crucial, since they proved that white America was willing to embrace a Black cultural figure in their living rooms—on television, at least.

Mays didn’t necessarily need to take a vocal stand, the film contends. His exploits on the field, like the legendary over-the-shoulder centerfield catch on a Vic Wertz fly ball in the 1954 World Series, spoke loudly enough, and set the stage for Russell, Ali, and others to bring Black empowerment to a new level.

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Mays the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “A few years ago, Willie rode with me on Air Force One,” Obama said at the White House ceremony that day. “I told him then what I’ll tell all of you now—it’s because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for President.”

“Some marched and protested, some won gold medals and World Series,” says Willie Mays’ son, Michael, in the film. “That’s what happened in the ’60s. These people made it impossible for us to be dismissed, ignored. They brought the light.”

And none shined brighter than Mays.

Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan

Mays made baseball a true national pastime. He started his career in New York, with the Giants, then came west with the club, to San Francisco, after the 1957 season. Mays’ place out west expanded the game’s bi-costal appeal.

The film also explores how he mentored Latin American players on the Giants, paving the way for waves of Latin players to grow comfortable in the United States and thrive in Major League Baseball. Mays played Winter Ball in Cuba and Puerto Rico in the early 1950s. Orlando Cepeda served as a batboy for Mays’ team in Puerto Rico. “After watching Willie play, I wanted to be a ballplayer,” says Cepeda, the future Hall of Famer who joined the Giants in 1958, in Say Hey. The Giants also signed Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou, and Ozzie Virgil Sr.

Now 91, Mays is still a delightful presence on screen. At one point, he talked about how his manager, Alvin Dark, named him captain of the Giants. “Whatever I said, that’s what they did,” Mays says in his high-pitched voice. “If they didn’t do it, they didn’t play.”

This year’s World Series, which the Houston Astros clinched on Saturday night, marked the first time in more than 70 years that no American-born Black player participated in the Fall Classic. Before the series, Astros manager Dusty Baker, a confidante of Mays who became the third Black manager to win a World Series title, told USA Today he was “ashamed of the game.”

The spotlight on Mays comes at an opportune time. Say Hey serves as a reminder of baseball’s prominence in Black culture—”he is a precursor, to me, of Michael Jordan,” says the film’s director, Nelson George—and why restoring that connection is so worthwhile.

Read more: The One Reason To Root For The Houston Astros In The World Series

Willie and Barry

Say Hey delves into the relationship between Mays and his godson, Barry Bonds. The controversial San Francisco slugger holds baseball’s all-time home run record, but has thus far been denied entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame given his ties to performance-enhancing drug (PED) use (Bonds has denied knowingly taking steroids). Bonds’ career received newfound attention this fall, as New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge became the first player with no ties to PEDs to hit more than 61 home runs in a season. Judge finished with 62, and for many fans and pundits, Judge now holds the “authentic” or “clean” single-season home run record, not Bonds, who hit 73 home runs in 2001.

Bonds has clear affection for his godfather, and we see an unfamiliar side of him in Say Hey. He comes across vulnerable, insightful, and dare I say, even extremely likable. (Bonds earned a surly reputation with the media in his playing days). It’s not entirely surprising to see Bonds transform into a smiling kid when talking about his godfather. Mays has always had that affect on people. Plus, it’s human nature to enjoy talking about people you adore.

The film falls short, however, in taking the PED issue head-on. Bonds is not seen addressing his own suspected PED use, which is relevant to the documentary, since the film spends so much time on the Mays-Bonds dynamic. (Mays was friends and teammates with Bonds’ father, the late Bobby Bonds, an All-Star in his own right.) And while the film makes clear that Mays supports his godson’s Hall of Fame candidacy, Mays does not discuss his own view on Bonds and steroids.

Why does Mays support Bonds’ Hall of Fame candidacy despite Bonds’ ties to steroids? Does Mays think Bonds knowingly cheated? Why or why not? These questions remain unanswered.

“Whatever private discussions [Bonds and Mays] had, we weren’t privy to,” says George. “It wasn’t something I wanted to press him on.” Given Mays’ age—he was 89 at the time of their interview—George was reluctant to push him too hard on something so complex and uncomfortable. “I was sitting there across from him, and I go, this guy has been doing interviews longer than I’ve been alive,” says George. “So I’m not tricking him. The things he wanted to talk about, he’ll talk about. The things he didn’t want to talk about, he’s not talking about.”

(Mays did not reply to an interview request, sent through an HBO spokesperson, from TIME.)

A key reintroduction

While this absence of comment on Bonds’ past leaves the viewer wanting more, it’s no fatal flaw for Say Hey. Such a thorough testament to Mays’ influence, while he’s still with us, is useful, informative, and plenty entertaining.

“I’m hopeful that that the doc allows a point of entry for conceptualizing him, because what’s happened, in the Black community, basketball, and football have been the dominant sports now the last 25-30 years, maybe longer,” says George. “So we think about LeBron versus Jordan. But if you do a Mount Rushmore of a great American athletes, he’s in the top five. I’m very thankful that the doc at least reintroduces him back into the dialogue. Because he deserves it.”

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com