A Maryland city and its complicated history with Willie Mays (2024)

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — On June 23, 1950, a 19-year-old Negro Leagues standout named Willie Mays skipped his high school prom and boarded a train for Maryland. The next day, in the former slave-trading stronghold of Hagerstown, Mays would make his debut in affiliated professional baseball. He batted sixth and played center field for the visiting Trenton Giants, the first of nearly 3,000 times he would patrol center field in a Giants uniform.

Three years after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball, Mays became the first Black player to appear in the Class B Interstate League, four levels below the majors. But much of the country remained entrenched in Jim Crow laws and mentalities. Throughout the Giants’ weekend series at Municipal Stadium against the Hagerstown Braves, Mays stayed in a separate hotel away from his White teammates and endured racial epithets from fans.

“It didn’t take me long to realize that Hagerstown was the only city in our league below the Mason-Dixon Line,” Mays wrote in his 1988 autobiography, “Say Hey.” “When I walked onto the field for the first time, I heard someone shout, ‘Who’s that n----- walking on the field?’ But I didn’t let it bother me.”

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Seventy-four years ago this month, an enduring connection was forged between arguably the greatest baseball player of all time and a small city 70 miles northwest of D.C. Mays, who died last week at 93, never forgot Hagerstown, both for its role in launching his Giants career and for the way it treated him. Over subsequent decades, he recounted his experiences there in books, documentaries, interviews and even his 1979 Hall of Fame induction speech.

The city did not forget Mays, either. Though he never played for a local team, multiple iterations of Hagerstown’s baseball franchises have had Mays’s No. 24 jersey retired since 2004.

The most recent of those franchises is the Hagerstown Flying Boxcars, an expansion team in the independent Atlantic League that plays in a ballpark a mile from where Mays took the field. On Tuesday, in their first home game since Mays died, the Flying Boxcars presented a video tribute and held a moment of silence in his honor.

“He’s probably one of the top five greatest players of all time, so it’s always been a source of pride in our community that Willie Mays played his first game in Hagerstown Municipal Stadium,” Flying Boxcars General Manager David Blenckstone said. “He’s always held a special historical place in the history of minor league baseball in Hagerstown.”

But to some, Mays’s experience in Hagerstown remains an overlooked aspect of the city’s history. The hotel in the redlined Jonathan Street neighborhood where Mays once stayed is now a church parking lot. Municipal Stadium was demolished in 2022. Meritus Park, a new downtown stadium that opened last month, does not yet feature any permanent tributes to Mays.

Tekesha Martinez, who is serving as Hagerstown’s first Black mayor, said Mays’s history with the city is “not well celebrated, told [or] known within Hagerstown or our county.”

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“All I know is bits and pieces of the story,” Martinez said. “Had I known there was someone like Willie Mays that walked on Jonathan Street, that played in our city … I would have felt more proud about being from Hagerstown as a Black woman.”

Mays grew up in Jim Crow Alabama, yet the racism and segregation he encountered in Hagerstown left a lasting impression. When he played in nearby D.C. and Baltimore, there were no restrictions on where he was allowed to stay. “But here in Hagerstown, located midway between those cities, I couldn’t stay with the rest of the team,” he wrote in his autobiography.

The Giants made attempts to support Mays. A group of White teammates sneaked into his room at the Harmon Hotel and slept on the floor to keep him company. His manager, Chick Genovese, ate with him at the city’s segregated restaurants.

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Still, his stint with the Giants was Mays’s first experience as the only Black player on his team. When Mays played in the Negro Leagues with the Birmingham Black Barons, he and his teammates confronted racism together. In Hagerstown, he went through it alone.

“It was the first time I had been off by myself somewhere, for even when I was on the road with the Barons in a segregated situation, at least all of us were segregated at the same time in the same place,” Mays wrote.

The legacy of Mays’s experience in Hagerstown lingered not just for the baseball star but for the city. In 2004, the Hagerstown Suns, the city’s since-defunct minor league franchise, invited Mays to return. When he accepted, it became an opportunity — 54 years later — for Hagerstown to make amends.

“I thought it was important for the community to have that moment — a second chance with Willie Mays, as it were,” said Kurt Landes, the former Suns general manager who organized Mays’s visit. “Certainly everyone was aware that his first time in the community wasn’t received positively. … So this was a chance for the community to be excited to host him again [and] excited to have an opportunity to redeem themselves. Everyone felt it was a little bit of a homecoming.”

On Aug. 9, 2004, a 73-year-old Mays was the guest of honor in a city that once jeered him. He filled the ballroom of a downtown hotel, where some attendees paid as much as $1,000 for an autograph and a private meet-and-greet, according to an account in the Hagerstown Herald-Mail. As Landes introduced him to thunderous applause, Mays began to cry.

Later that day, Mays returned to Municipal Stadium, ahead of a game between the Suns and the Asheville Tourists. He met with players, threw out the ceremonial first pitch and received a standing ovation.

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“He returned under much different circ*mstances than when he was here in 1950,” said Dan Spedden, a longtime Hagerstown baseball fan who attended the ceremonies. “He was very gracious about it. … He covered it well in his book, the way he was treated here in 1950, but when he came back in ’04, I didn’t see any of that animosity or anything. He was just happy to be here and happy that he was so well received.”

While many fans left that day with autographed memorabilia, Landes held on to a unique memento. After learning that Mays loved homemade chili, Landes and his wife filled a slow cooker with the family’s recipe and brought it to the ballpark. Mays enjoyed three heaping bowls, and Landes kept Mays’s spoon as a souvenir.

“I put it in a frame, and it was in my basem*nt,” said Landes, the president and general manager of the Class AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs. “And then my wife and I, whenever we made chili from there on, we called it Willie Chili.”

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Shortly before Mays’s visit, then-mayor William Breichner announced that the city would rededicate a street that ran along Municipal Stadium in Mays’s honor. But nine months later, the city council voted to preserve the old name, East Memorial Boulevard, after a group of veterans argued the street should stand as a commemoration of their service.

Some saw the incident as a reemergence of Hagerstown’s past.

“Willie Mays is a veteran,” said Spedden, who is president of the Hagerstown/Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Maybe the stain of that segregation has not exactly faded away. There’s still some of it lingering in a lot of people, and it came out in a way that I was appalled by and embarrassed by.”

A few years before he died, Mays said he had reconciled his history with Hagerstown.

“They wanted to try making up for the sadness I felt all those years earlier,” Mays wrote in a 2020 follow-up memoir, “24.” “The way I figured it, I couldn’t hold it against the whole town. I wasn’t hurt by the town in 1950. I was hurt by the people. It was good that I went back.”

A Maryland city and its complicated history with Willie Mays (2024)
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