Made by History

How Willie Mays Handled Being a Black Superstar in a Racist Era

7 minute read

“Shut up!” insisted Willie Mays, the baseball legend who died last Tuesday at age 93. “Just shut up!

It was the summer of 1964, and Mays had convened all of the Black and Latino players on the San Francisco Giants in a hotel room in Pittsburgh. A newspaper column had quoted their manager, Alvin Dark, making racist comments about their intellectual and cultural deficiencies. Some of Mays’ teammates, including star Orlando Cepeda, were threatening to boycott games. They wanted Dark fired.

Mays squashed the uprising. First, he explained, the Giants would probably fire Dark after the season, anyway. Second, if they lost the manager in mid-season, it would harm their chase for the pennant. Finally, if Dark got fired, “every place you go, some son of a bitch with a microphone or a camera or a pad and pencil’ll be asking you why you quit on your manager.” 

Mays reminded his teammates that earlier that season, when Dark appointed him team captain, the media had accused the manager of deflecting from another controversial interview about his views on race. It had put Mays in an impossible position: he deserved the captaincy based on his status, but critics could say that he got it because he was Black. That sour experience flavored his response to this crisis. 

“Don’t let the rednecks make a hero out of him,” Mays told his teammates.

Read More: Remembering How Willie Mays Inspired

The episode reflected the burdens that he carried. Mays was part of the pioneer generation of Black ballplayers that followed Jackie Robinson into Major League Baseball, although unlike Robinson, he was no crusader. While he tried to sidestep politics, he was a Black athlete in the era of the civil rights movement. He was thrust into racial controversy, whether he liked it or not. 

Raised in Jim Crow Alabama, Mays began his career in the Negro Leagues, with the Birmingham Black Barons. When he joined the New York Giants in 1951, baseball fans marveled at how he ran, caught, and threw with power and grace. He soon won Rookie of the Year. In 1954, he was named Most Valuable Player while leading the Giants to a World Series title, highlighted by a famous over-the-shoulder catch in Game One. 

Although Mays infused major league baseball with cool — witness his slick “basket catch” on fly balls — the press treated him with patriarchal affection. The columnist Jimmy Cannon called him a “joyous boy.” His nickname was the “Say Hey Kid.” This image as a wide-eyed innocent defused cultural anxieties about Black anger, power, violence, or sex. Mays made it easy for white fans to cheer a Black athlete.

Yet, even his popularity couldn't save Mays from the prejudices and taboos that plagued Black Americans in the 1950s. Early in his career, for example, readers complained when a Sports Illustrated cover showed him touching the white actress Laraine Day. When the Giants moved to purportedly liberal San Francisco in 1958, he struggled to buy a house in a white neighborhood.

And then, in 1964, Dark told Stan Isaacs of Newsday: “We have trouble because we have so many Negro and Spanish-speaking players on this team. They are just not able to perform up to the white ball player when it comes to mental alertness.” Though he considered Mays an exception, “you can’t make most Negro and Spanish players have the pride in their team that you can get from white players.”

By quieting the clamor among the offended Giants, Mays was not acting as a flunky for his white manager. Rather, he was a professional, and he was a pragmatist. He tried to manage the situation to preserve the interests of the players, including himself. 

As the story developed, however, it revealed how the press shaped conversations about race in sports. In the process, Mays got manipulated.   

The Dark controversy peaked during the Giants’ visit to New York City in early August, for a two-game series against the Mets. Rumors circulated that the Giants would fire the white, Louisiana-born manager. But most sportswriters — who supported Dark — pointed to his record of starting Black and Latino players. They blamed Isaacs for misquoting him. Only Black writers and a few young, liberal white reporters defended Isaacs.

While insisting upon his egalitarianism during a press conference at Shea Stadium, Dark touted how he promoted Mays to captain. The next day, after a closed-door meeting with the team, he handed the lineup card to Mays, who had an awful cold and planned to rest. But if Mays sat out, he risked the press saying that he put the final nail in the manager’s coffin. So he penciled his name into the lineup. 

Joe Reichler, an Associated Press reporter sympathetic to Dark, claimed that Mays said, “I shouldn’t be playing, but I’m only doing it to help the manager.” Remarkably, he hit two home runs. Headlines proclaimed: “Mays Backs Dark with Two Homers," "Mays Backs up Giant Skipper,” and “Mays: A Vote for Dark.”

Other sportswriters asked Mays if it was true. Did he play to support Dark? “I don’t want to answer that,” snapped back the superstar. After taking a shower, in front of fewer writers, he declared, “I never said anything like that.” 

In fact, Mays rejected any press-appointed role, either as the manager’s savior or as an activist crusader. “Who do you think I’m playing for?” he asked one writer. He tapped himself on the chest and said, “Me.” He was not being selfish. He sought the path that led to professional recognition, team victory, and financial reward — the privileges of any pro athlete, regardless of race. Yet he knew that Black players got held to different standards, and if it embittered him, it also shaped an outlook of resigned realism.

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

As Mays hoped, Dark survived the season. Then, as he predicted, the Giants fired the manager after a fourth place finish. But Mays resented how Dark, in league with the press, had exploited his words and deeds. For the rest of the 1964 season, he never uttered a single word to his manager.

When Mays retired from professional baseball in 1973, he had amassed eye-popping statistics — 660 home runs, 1909 RBIs, and a .301 lifetime batting average. Even late in his career, he inspired the nostalgia of writers and fans, who recalled him gliding across center field in the Polo Grounds, all smiles and gusto.

As the Dark affair suggested, though, the real Willie Mays was more complicated. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, more sportswriters were characterizing him as surly and defensive, reflecting both his evolving personality and changing press sensibilities. In this same period, Black critics, including Jackie Robinson, faulted Mays for failing to speak out against racial injustice.

But the superstar avoided publicly airing his feelings. He sought to bridge America’s racial chasm in a quieter way, by fostering goodwill. The Dark controversy revealed the pros and cons of that approach: he defused a public relations bomb, but it cost him control over the narrative about his racist manager.

When Mays died on June 18, it predictably and justifiably inspired tributes to one of baseball’s all-time greats. But while celebrating his legendary career, it’s imperative to acknowledge how the press used him to tell a story about race in America. Mays had his own story. 

Aram Goudsouzian is the Bizot Family professor of history at the University of Memphis. He published an in-depth analysis of the Alvin Dark controversy in the June 2024 issue of Journalism History.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Aram Goudsouzian / Made by History at