Willie Mays is perhaps the greatest all-around baseball player of all time and gets the documentary treatment in Say Hey, Willie Mays!
How long should a documentary about the Hall of Fame outfielder be? This is one of the questions that I have asked myself repeatedly since watching the film. He is one of the best players to ever play the game. What he was able to do in the outfield are things that certainly elevate players into legends. This doesn’t even begin to take into account his skills at the plate: .301 BA, 660 home runs, and a member of the 3,000 career hit club. Mays played in 24 All-Star Games, won two MVP Awards, and twelve Gold Glove Awards as a centerfielder or outfielder. How Mays wasn’t a unanimous Hall of Fame selection in 1979 is beyond me. In his first year on the ballot, Mays earned 409 of 432 votes. He was the only player inducted by the BBWAA that year as Duke Snider fell a few votes shy.
As a baseball fan, it’s great to see Mays getting the documentary treatment while he’s still alive. He’s certainly long overdue in this department. This new documentary features exclusive interviews with Mays and his family. Archival clips from previous interviews are also included. Fans might learn something from watching the film that the might not have known before. Instead of coming up with the New York Giants, Willie Mays could have been a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. What prevented this was a scout commenting on his inability to hit the curveball. The Giants signed him and the rest is history. But still, can you imagine how much baseball history could have changed with Mays playing for the Dodgers? It’s quite the what-if since Duke Snider was the regular center fielder. Which player would have moved positions?
Nelson George covers the entire lifespan of Mays–from his childhood all the way through present day. Mays had an impact both on the field and off. He went from the Birmingham Black Barons to playing for the New York Giants. Because of playing in New York, it allowed for access to the New York talk shows at a time when Black faces might not have been on TV all that much. By the time the 1950s came around, Major League Baseball teams signed the biggest Negro League stars and practically forced them to fold. I can’t stress TV enough because TV was still a new medium at the start of the 1950s but the New York teams commanded a strong presence.
As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, the Giants moved to San Francisco right as the Civil Rights movement began to peak. In terms of his career numbers, the Bay area did not do Mays any favors with the wind impacting home runs. Mays dealt with racism but did not speak out in the same way that Jackie Robinson did. There’s probably another documentary in its own right when it comes to the Black baseball players during the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
The interviews in the film–family, players, broadcasters, and biographer–add another layer to Mays as a person. What was it like to play alongside Mays and hang out off the field? A few Hall of Fame teammates discuss their relationship with Mays. However, Juan Marichal played for the Giants so the film doesn’t really have a pitcher who can describe what it was like to face off against him at the plate. Barry Bonds is in the film and while he’ll probably never get inducted into the Hall of Fame, he is the godson of Willie Mays and speaks about his relationship. Mays is perhaps one of the biggest reasons why Bonds went from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the San Francisco Giants.
If Mays had come around later, Say Hey, Willie Mays! would probably be a multi-part documentary. But as things stand, the film runs about 99 minutes. Fans learn plenty about the Hall of Fame great but a documentary on Willie Mays should be longer.
DIRECTOR: Nelson George
FEATURING: Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Michael Mays, Reggie Jackson, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Vin Scully, Jon Miller, Bob Costas, John Shea
Say Hey, Willie Mays! will air Tuesday, November 8 at 9 PM ET/PT on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max. Grade: 3.5/5
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