The story of Willie Mays's rookie year with the Negro American League's Birmingham Black Barons, the Last Negro World Series, and the making of a baseball legend
Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays is one of baseball's endearing greats, a tremendously talented and charismatic center fielder who hit 660 career homeruns, collected 3,283 hits, knocked in 1,903 runs, won 12 Gold Glove Awards and appeared in 24 All-Star games. But before Mays was the "Say Hey Kid", he was just a boy. Willie's Boys is the story of his remarkable 1948 rookie season with the Negro American League's Birmingham Black Barons, who took a risk on a raw but gifted 16-year-old and gave him the experience, confidence, and connections to escape Birmingham's segregation, navigate baseball's institutional racism, and sign with the New York Giants. Willie's Boys offers a character-rich narrative of the apprenticeship Mays had at the hands of a diverse group of savvy veterans who taught him the ways of the game and the world.
- Sheds new light on the virtually unknown beginnings of a baseball great, not available in other books
- Captures the first incredible steps of a baseball superstar in his first season with the Negro League's Birmingham Black Barons
- Introduces the veteran group of Negro League players, including Piper Davis, who gave Mays an incredible apprenticeship season
- Illuminates the Negro League's last days, drawing on in-depth research and interviews with remaining players
- Explores the heated rivalry between Mays's Black Barons and Buck O'Neil's Kansas City Monarchs , culminating in the last Negro League World Series
- Breaks new historical ground on what led the New York Giants to acquire Mays, and why he didn't sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, or Boston Red Sox
Packed with stories and insights, Willie's Boys takes you inside an important part of baseball history and the development of one of the all-time greats ever to play the game.
Amazon-Exclusive Interview with Author John Klima
Willie and I spoke a few times. In each case, I told him, “You’re big league career belongs to you,” and that I hoped he could help me fill in some of the long-lost pieces of the puzzle from his Negro League career with the Birmingham Black Barons. For instance, he helped me put together a key game against the Kansas City Monarchs involving his good friend, Jimmy Zapp. He also paid me a high compliment when he told me of the Negro Leagues that, “You know this stuff better than I do.”
Willie Mays, CF, Birmingham Black Barons, 1949
(Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library)
It is true that the Red Sox were one of the first major league teams to know about Mays, but they were not the first major league team from Boston to really have a good feel for him. The Red Sox had a strong presence in Birmingham because the Birmingham Barons, the white Southern Association minor league team (Boston’s Double-A team) played in Rickwood Field. What you will learn in Willie’s Boys is just how close the Red Sox really were to getting Willie Mays, and how he slipped right under their noses. What other teams knew about Willie Mays?
The Chicago White Sox, the Boston Braves and the Cleveland Indians all had excellent information on Mays, though they wouldn’t sign him. The details are in the book, but my conclusion is that the Mays deal is one of the three most important player transactions in baseball history. What was life like for Negro League baseball players?
It was nothing like the creature comforts major league baseball players experience today. Those players practically lived in the bus, played multiple games daily, and had to know where it was safe to travel. It was a hard life, but the players who experienced it received an education that nothing else could ever give them. You’ll also get a good feel for what it was like to attend a Negro League baseball game at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field in the late 1940s. You’ll experience the rivalries that existed on and off the field, including the one between the Birmingham Black Barons and the Kansas City Monarchs. You’ll get a feel for facing hard pitching and good hitters, for scouting these players, and for the personalities that weren’t always what they were cracked up to be. How good was the quality of Negro League baseball?
“Negro League baseball” should be defined as the Negro American League and the Negro National League, a two-league system that existed until 1948, culminating in the last Negro League World Series Willie’s Boys describes. These players, usually only 16 to a team, played multiple positions and were the cream of the crop. There were far more talented players at the top level of Negro League baseball who were talented enough to appear in the major leagues than actually played in the major leagues. These were the top black players of the time. There were countless lower-level segregated travel teams that often played under the same name as one of the black major league teams, though these were often not affiliated with the host team and were percentage teams from which the top teams used to acquire many players. In your book, you say Alabama produced more Negro League baseball players than anywhere else. Why?
Largely because Birmingham was a rich source of baseball talent for generations. What North Beach in San Francisco was for white players – an area that produced players like Joe DiMaggio – Birmingham was for black players. The Birmingham Industrial League was loaded with talent. These forgotten teams, like ACIPCO and the T.C.I. 24th street Red Sox, sent forth talented players by the dozens. Black players would come from all over the South to get a factory job and play ball in Birmingham. The Black Barons drew their talent from there. Mays’s father and grandfather were both industrial league players. On the book jacket, it says Willie Mays is “The baseball legend that might have never been.” Why?
Because Willie was lucky to be talented enough to navigate the segregation that existed in Birmingham and also the discrimination that existed in white professional baseball. In Willie’s Boys, you’ll discover one of the greatest stories in baseball history. What does the title, Willie’s Boys? mean?
It’s a phrase that reflects the camaraderie that existed on this team. When you read the book, you’ll be on the bus right next to the guys. Who were some of Willie’s boys?
You’ll meet a team that each guy considered to be the most special team he ever played on, in terms of talent and of personalities meshing. Anyone who has been around any sport at any level knows that sports are primarily individual driven. It’s so rare to have a group of individuals together who genuinely care about one another as much as they care about themselves. Willie Mays was the teenager on this team. Piper Davis is a central character in Willie’s Boys. Willie grew up playing with shortstop Artie Wilson. Right-handed pitcher Bill Greason, who later pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals, was a fellow rookie on this team. Players like Alonzo Perry, Jehosie Heard, Pepper Bassett, Bill Powell, Jimmy Newberry were extremely talented players. Even the ball boy on this team is a player a lot of baseball fans will remember.
Piper Davis, 2B
Pepper Bassett, C
Artie Wilson, SS
I spent two years engrossed in exhaustive research for Willie’s Boys, canvassing the country in search of former players, long-lost documents and scouting reports, archived materials and period newspapers. I placed a special emphasis on African-American periodicals, which is something that has generally been grossly overlooked in baseball narrative history. I did the majority of my research in Birmingham, Memphis and Kansas. What was the most rewarding part of the experience of writing Willie’s Boys?
One of the things I am most proud of is the wide cross-section of readers who have picked this book up. With a lot of baseball books, you get baseball readers and that’s all. This book is for baseball readers, but it is also for history readers of various subjects. This story is larger than sports. The integration period of major league baseball was not as smooth and painless as it’s commonly assumed. There was a lot of heartache and triumph in this period that occurred outside of what Jackie Robinson went through. I’m proud that this book is a very clear portrait of a very difficult time that baseball would prefer to illustrate with rose-colored glasses. I’m proud of what Jonathan Eig called “hard nosed research and reporting” and for David Maraniss to have complimented me for “digging deep.” I’m proud people who have bought this book have also bought books that include subjects ranging from World War II, jazz, African-American history, historical fiction, political biographies, policy books, and books about Alabama history. I owe it all to Willie. Only a baseball player, and only a truly dominating major league player, could have allowed me to reach so many readers.
—Robert C. Cottrell, California State Univ., Chico (Library Journal, December 2009)