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Review: Say Hey, Willie Mays!

Some thoughts on the new documentary exploring the life and career of one of the greatest to ever play the game

San Francisco Giants Photo by SPX/Diamond Images via Getty Images

“Say Hey, Willie Mays!”, the new HBO documentary, starts with a shot of Mays’s hands gripping a baseball bat.

His fingers writhe around each other like a knot of snakes and the viewer immediately understands that there is a whole film in this image. Three of his digits don’t even touch lumber: ring and pinky finger of his top hand rest oddly on the index finger of the bottom pointing back towards the catcher, while the thumb, fore and middle finger of his right hand strangles the top of the handle. His body poised for the next pitch, his hands are a clock, a pendulum swinging between relaxed and constricted, timing the pitcher’s motion, the release of the ball with when to grip, hold, strike.

The footage cuts to Mays’s full swing, pulling a ball to left, his long stride towards first as he watches it clear the fence. Another grainy, focused shot of Mays bending down to field a ball in the outfield grass, him casually snapping it back into the infield.

46 seconds in and I am satisfied because I have got to watch Willie Mays play baseball.

As someone who was not alive during his playing career, who never went to a game when his name was announced over the loudspeaker—there will never be enough footage of Willie Mays making a routine catch in center, or picking a bat before batting practice, or running out to his position between innings, or lifting an outside pitch towards right, or losing his hat on the way home, or even getting brushed back on a pitch, or swinging over the top of a curveball or sliding sloppily into second base.

I’d grin through an entire documentary of Mays on a ball field. I wouldn’t need game information or historical context—if there was just a single camera following him around the diamond, I’d be enthralled. If Peter Jackson gave Mays the Get Back-Beatles treatment, I’d consume those 9 hours of archival footage without blinking, and when the end credits roll, I’d ask for 9 more.

“Say Hey, Willie Mays!” is not that. So I’ll admit I was disappointed in the documentary a bit. It’s endlessly watchable for a San Francisco Giants fan and a baseball fan because of its subject—but it often felt too cursory, too burdened by getting everything that it skips across its topic’s surface. It never quite takes the plunge into deep specificity, or takes the time to pick the brain of one of the greatest athletes, as well as intellects, in the history of the sport.

“Say Hey” is a pretty straightforward survey of his life and career with guided by extensive input from cultural commentators and academics like Dr. Todd Boyd and Dr. Harry Edwards; ex-teammates from his Birmingham Black Barons days; retired ball players like Reggie Jackson and Dusty Baker; family members like his son, Michael and godson, Barry Bonds; announcers like Bob Costas and Jon Miller; and biographers like John Shea.

The roster of people ready to talk about Mays will always be stacked, and yet, it felt like at times the person who should be talking wasn’t—and that was the man himself.

I’ve heard Costas wax eloquent about the Catch before, I’ve listened to Miller on KNBR broadcasts tell Mays anecdotes, I’ve read Shea’s book—but actually getting to hear Willie Mays talk about baseball, diving into the nitty-gritty of certain plays or games throughout his career: I’ve never had enough of that.

There could’ve been a whole documentary of Mays talking about his role as on-field manager of the 1960’s San Francisco Giants. The era of M’s: Mays, McCovey and Marichal. The team that boasted the National League’s best record over the decade while finishing 2nd in the pennant race in five consecutive seasons.

The film touches on how Mays would conduct the corner outfielders with a flick of his wrist; or how he played peacemaker in a clubhouse of African-American and Latin all-stars under a racist manager like Al Dark while winning the National League pennant in 1962 and coming within 180 feet of beating the New York Yankees in game 7; or how he mentored younger black players coming up through the league; or changed his swing to adapt to Candlestick Park—but there was so much more to explore! There was no mention of the Johnny Roseboro incident or even the Giants-Dodgers rivalry blossoming in California, or the 16-inning Marichal-Spahn game that ended with a Mays’s home run; or his MVP season in 1965; or his decline after that year.

Thematically, the documentary is strongest when discussing Willie Mays’s role in the Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s.

As start athletes like Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe, Curt Flood, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Muhammad Ali use their stardom and platform to speak out against the trauma and injustices they’ve suffered because the color of their skin, Mays remained mostly silent, choosing to focus on playing baseball.

It’s this “silence” that leaves some uneasy, feeling that Mays is filling the role of a one-dimensional entertainer, focused on keeping his head down and enjoying his success while catering to the comfort of white club owners, managers and stars rather than challenging their privilege.

Mays eventually draws a scathing rebuke from Jackie Robinson for his apparent lack of outward or explicit support. Fair or unfair, Robinson, who broke barriers and his body to better the Black experience in the United States, is probably one of the only people in history who has earned the right to levy such criticism.

Whether it was warranted or not, the comments hurt Mays deeply, feeling that he is being true to how he was raised and who he is as a person. His skills are not necessarily the eloquence of an Ali to be broadcasted at a national level, but a more local, grassroots, literally street-level approach: Playing stickball with kids in Harlem, talking to youth at schools around the Bay Area, mentoring younger athletes, being a peacemaker in a clubhouse rife with tension between racist managers and ball players of color.

Mays always felt that he was a ball player first, and his role was to be the best ball player he can be. For most people, Mays’s best is the best of anyone who has ever put on a uniform, and to be a black person and to achieve what he did during that time period, Dr. Harry Edwards at the beginning of the film posits: maybe that’s enough.

San Diego Padres v. San Francisco Giants Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

All in all, I wanted “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” to be something it was never going to be: a Ken Burns miniseries with a Christopher Nolan budget. Or some kind of avant-garde French New Wave film essay in the vein of “John McEnroe: In The Realm of Perfection.”

Ironically, the part of the documentary I enjoyed the most is during the interview outtakes after the credits roll.

Interviewer: “Who’s the catcher on the Braves whose leg you broke?”

Willie: “Del Rice. Good guy.”

Interviewer: “Why’d you break his leg?”

Willie: “He got in the goddamn way! Whaddya mean, why’d I break his leg? I was sliding home. I told you better get the hell out of the way…”

I found myself wishing the whole documentary was like this: a loose and relaxed Mays with his personality on full display, talking shop about specific moments from his playing days. Chatting and getting salty about other players around the league, or how he approached someone like Bob Gibson at the plate, or his beef with Yogi Berra when he played for the Mets, or his favorite outfield to play in...

Realistically, extraneous circumstances may have played into how much game play footage they had access to. Mays is also nearly 92 years old and not in the best of health. (In the outtakes, he mentioned meeting Babe Ruth “a couple times on Long Island,” even though Ruth died in 1948 when Mays was still playing baseball for Birmingham so not quite sure when that would’ve happened…)

Still, it’s easy to see someone like Mays as set in stone (partly because he literally is) and it’s been half a century since he’s played the game professionally—but we don’t have to memorialize him just yet. He’s still around and laughing and ready to talk.