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New HBO Documentary Examines the Life and Legacy of Baseball Icon Willie Mays

One of the greatest baseball players of all time, Willie Mays, has always been discussed in mythological terms.

A new documentary on HBO will examine the life and legacy of the greatest Major League Baseball center fielder of all time. But it will also look into what’s been lost in his iconography.

This was the goal of director Nelson George in the new documentary, Say Hey, which premiered yesterday. The documentary also features an extensive interview with Mays, who is now 91.

Say Hey not only celebrates Mays’ charismatic playing style, but it delves into his status as a Black celebrity in the civil rights era, while also going into his formative influences.

An interview with PEOPLE reveals that George was inspired by a simple question he wrote down in his notebook: “Who was Willie Mays?” This question led to the title references and Mays’ famous catchphrase.

The answer to the question takes the viewer back to Birmingham, Alabama, Mays’ native hometown, where his father competed for industrial company teams and let Mays sit on the bench with him as a child. George said in the interview that Mays is a classic jock’s jock who loves the camaraderie of teammates and clubhouse banter.

Told in the film is that loyalty is at the top of Mays’ hierarchy of virtues. Additionally, the documentary shows Mays’ controversial, vocal defense of his Godson, Barry Bonds, despite accusations that Bonds used steroids all the while breaking baseball’s most prestigious record: the all-time home run record (762).

Bonds is a fascinating interview in the film as well.

“The number one word for Willie Mays was loyalty,” George said. “If you’re in with Willie, you’re in.”

That theme travels to the part in Mays’ life when he played in the minor leagues, where he endured racism like most Black players in the early days of professional baseball integration. Well-documented was the racist treatment of Jackie Robinson after he broke the MLB color barrier, but nearly every Black Major Leaguer was treated unfairly.

Cameras follow Mays to New York City where he starred with the Giants before they upped and moved to San Francisco in 1958. When moving to San Francisco, Mays was discriminated against.

Many civil rights activists were combating this issue amid these times. And to some, Mays wasn’t outspoken during these times. The film challenges that notion.

“Different people do things in different ways,” the film quotes Mays saying decades ago in response to Robinson’s criticism. “Everyone must do his own job in his own way. And in my heart, my way is just as important as Jackie Robinson’s way.”


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