erik lundegaard

Thursday December 22, 2022

Movie Review: Say Hey, Willie Mays! (2022)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I wanted to like it more. I wanted to love it like I love Willie Mays. But “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” isn’t exactly the Willie Mays of sports documentaries.

What does it mean to be the Willie Mays of something? It means you’re the best:

Early on in this doc, one of the talking heads says it’s “hard to quantify” how big a star Mays was, but Peanuts might not have been a bad place to start. Peanuts was huge. And Mays kept getting mentioned in it.

 

But the doc doesn’t reference Mays’ appearances in Peanuts. Not once. That kind of stunned me. When I was growing up in the 1970s, there was a thing called “The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie,” an hour-long cartoon on Saturday mornings featuring different storylines usually associated with ABC shows: cartoon versions of the Brady kids, Nanny and Professor, and the Banana Splits. But there was one movie based on a real person. It was called “Willie Mays and the Say-Hey Kid.” I remember it was supposed to air in January 1973 but was preempted by coverage of the U.S.-Vietnam peace accords—and I got mad. Then my father got mad at me for getting mad. He lectured me on the importance of the end of the Vietnam War. And all the while I’m thinking, “But it’s Willie Mays.

The point is, “Willie Mays and the Say-Hey Kid” isn’t mentioned in “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” either. Neither is Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Free” (“Hey Mr. football man, what do you do about ... Willie Mays?”), or Joe Henry’s “Our Song” (“I saw Willie Mays/At a Scottsdale Home Depot…”). They do show us clips of Willie in various ’60s sitcoms—“The Donna Reed Show” and “Bewitched”—and on Ed Sullivan. I liked that. At the same time, if you do a little research, you see Don Drysdale showed up four times on “The Donna Reed Show” and played himself on episodes of “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Brady Bunch.” Duke Snider played himself on “Father Knows Best,” while Sandy Koufax turned up on “Dennis the Menace.” And which 1960s sitcom character didn’t get a tryout with Leo Durocher? That was a plot point for Herman Munster, Jethro Clampett and Mr. Ed. 

The point is, even here, Mays got short shrift.

Endless dreams
Alright, I’m going to get a little petty. Well, pettier.

The first sentence of the doc is spoken by Dr. Todd Boyd, a talking head in the film. It’s an overview of the subject for anyone who might need it:

Willie Mays is arguably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, player in the history of Major League Baseball.

I was immediately deflated. It’s the word “arguably.” I’ve long not liked it. I’ve long stated not liking it. It’s college-speak for “I think.” It’s such a nothing word. What isn’t arguable these days? And in the above it’s almost an insult. If you remove the qualification about the greatest, then Dr. Body is saying Willie Mays is arguably one of the greatest players in the history of Major League Baseball, which, I’m sorry, that’s not arguable. That’s a fact.

The doc has lots of little cuts like this. Another talking head, Dr. Harry Edwards, lists Mays’ accomplishments, including “12 Golden Gloves.” Then he adds, “But unless you know and follow the game, you don’t really get a full appreciation of how great he was.” Right. And unless you know and follow the game, you might say “Golden Gloves,” which is boxing, rather than “Gold Gloves,” which is baseball.

I wondered why they didn’t talk more about Henry Aaron. I wondered where James S. Hirsch was. We also got nothing on Mays and Mantle being banished by MLB for getting jobs as greeters in Atlantic City in the late 1970s.

I loved Barry Bonds in this. That was startling. Bonds lights up like a kid when talking about his godfather. If he’d lit up like that on the ballfield he might’ve been as beloved as his godfather. He might be in the Hall right now. 

The doc unintentionally raises an interesting question: Can someone be great and not have a great story to tell? 

What is Willie Mays’ story? Being raised in the Deep South during the worst days of Jim Crow. Then early, blistering success on the diamond. He became beloved in a country still in deep denial about its racism, then wound up behind the times. The doc keeps justifying his silence when Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were putting it out on the line. They allude to Mays’ private work rather than his public noise. He made sure other Black and Latino ballplayers were looked after and knew the score. I guess I would’ve liked this underlined more.

Why was he so beloved? That’s a good question. What was that magic? It couldn’t just be that he was great. It feels more than that. He was so beloved after just two months with the the Minneapolis Millers that when he was called up to the New York Giants it made the local paper. I mean, it made the front page of the local paper. The Minneapolis Tribune placed it above the story on Pres. Truman mulling a run for reelection. Several days later, Giants owner Horace Stoneham actually took out an ad in the paper apologizing to the baseball fans of Minneapolis. Yes, Mays was hitting .479 in Minneapolis. But was it just that? Or was it his energy and ebullience, his talent and grace? And do you need that kind of inroad into the hearts of people before you get to an Ali? 

Forgive me if I get this wrong, but I believe Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP in the early 1960s, once chided Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his pre-Birmingham accomplishments. “What have you actually integrated, Martin?” he asked, and Dr. King responded, “Well, I may have integrated a few hearts.”

Imagine the number of hearts Willie Mays integrated. 

His and yours and mine
Maybe I’m putting too much on him. But that’s what we’ve always done. Back to Joe Henry:

But that was him
I'm almost sure
The greatest centerfielder of all time
Stooped by the burden of endless dreams
His and yours and mine

The doc begins and ends with a question, “Are you Willie Mays, the greatest baseball player of all time?” without telling you its context. Famous white ballplayers (not to mention Muhammad Ali) were all about being the greatest. Ted Williams had a determination to be known as the greatest hitter of all time; in retirement, Joe DiMaggio insisted on being called the greatest living ballplayer. Mays insisted on nothing, and dismisses the question. He ain’t about that.

But he was the greatest baseball player of all time. Inarguably.

Posted at 09:53 AM on Thursday December 22, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 2022  
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