Two men shaking hands stand staring at the camera
Baseball player Willie Mays, who played with the San Francisco Giants, and Rich Robinson. Photo courtesy of Rich Robinson.

Imagine banning the greatest baseball player from a hotel or diner because of the color of his skin.

Even in San Francisco, Willie Mays faced housing discrimination. In 21st century America, that dystopian past may be a harbinger for the nation if the MAGA authoritarian right comes back to power.

The indignities suffered by Willie Mays and his fellow Black players are well chronicled. But the effect Mays had on our culture and politics cannot be overstated. Mays, who lived in Atherton most of his adult life and died earlier this month at the age of 93, was an icon who changed attitudes simply by playing baseball better than everyone else.

In doing so, a whole generation of white kids pretended to be a Black man when they stepped on the baseball diamond. Admittedly, I was one of those youngsters. It is hard to be prejudiced when you grow up wanting to be Willie Mays. You didn’t want to simply play like Mays, you wanted to be him.

Mays didn’t grandstand his politics, though he included among his friends former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He was not a publicly active civil rights advocate; he left the talking of equality to others. Mays simply played baseball and inspired several generations of baseball players. He quietly, and by his deeds, showed that a person of color was capable of not only being admired, but loved.

In addition to his playing, Mays appeared on television shows including “What’s My Line” and “Bewitched.” Songs were written with and about him, “Centerfield” by John Fogerty being one. Even non-baseball fans knew of the great Willie Mays.

The only argument ever to occur was whether Willie Mays was the best ballplayer ever. The irony is that pundits now call him the best five tool player ever. You can simply say Mays was the best.

I met Willie once and got to tell him, like many others, how much he meant to me growing up. He thanked me as tears welled up in his eyes. He gracefully posed for a picture.

The 9-year-old boy in me remembered the day he got a Willie Mays bat on Bat Day. Mays hit a home run to win the game against the Cincinnati Reds, a city that in the beginning of his career wouldn’t let him stay in a “white” hotel. A day I’ve never forgotten.

Mays lived long enough to be welcomed by white people into any hotel he wished to stay. He is lauded in Birmingham, Alabama, a city that was the epitome of racism in America, where he grew up. Now there are murals and streets named after him and the bigots who taunted him in his youth live in infamy.

Willie Mays changed the game of baseball and in doing so he changed America. We can never forget his legacy and never let the racists take us back to that ugly past.

San José Spotlight columnist Rich Robinson is a political consultant, attorney and author of “The Shadow Candidate.” His columns appear every fourth Wednesday of the month.

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