Tuesday, March 25, 2008


In May 1954, seven years before I was born, I sat on the steps of the United States Supreme Court, all jiggly and goose-bumpy, after the justices handed down their decision holding state-mandated segregation in public schools unconstitutional (that's me, with my cousin, on the right). Even at the tender young age of pre-pre-pre-viability, I was fortunate enough to be part of the NAACP's legal team that argued Brown v. Board of Education. Don't get me wrong -- Thurgood Marshall deserves some of the credit he's received over the years for building the legal strategy that resulted in this historic decision. But let's not forget that I was out there in the woods with him, arguing cases in small towns throughout the Deep South. There was that one time when I was in Yadkinville, North Carolina, where I had traveled to argue a case on behalf of teen-age African-American boy who had been sentenced to death by a local jury for a crime he didn't commit (the white woman he allegedly killed would later confess to her minister, who told the local sheriff, who told the local barber, who told the local operator that she made the whole thing up to get back at ole' Jesse Staples, who stood her up at the Sadie Hawkins dance during her sophomore year in high school). I'd come into town to take this case because nobody else would, something I was used to doing on behalf of people who needed their day in court but couldn't afford a fancy lawyer. So this judge -- and this is true just like the sun rises in South and sets after dark -- says to me, he says, "You looka here, Mr. Ivers . . . we don't really appreciate colored lawyers from the North comin' down here lookin' to agitate our ways and all. So if you don't mind, I'm gonna have ole' Lowell here drive you to the county line and wish you well. For your own good."

Sure enough, Lowell drove me to the county line and dropped me one foot over it, just far enough so that I was now the problem of Hillsborough County. But Lowell said something to me I'll never forget . . . he said, "Sir, I think the work you're doing on behalf of African-Americans down here is noble, and something that history will recognize you for one day. But you can't tell anybody I told you that 'cause they'll take my job and my hide and . . .

BAM! A shot rang out, and I dropped straight to the ground, and then crawled over to an abandoned Confederate war ship that had been abandoned, Praise the Lord, not five feet from where Lowell dropped me. I managed to get there safely, even as the gunfire, which was now coming from all directions, got more intense. RAT-A-TAT-TAT! RAT-A-TAT-TAT! I tucked myself behind an old yard arm, pulling my son, Herschel, who hadn't been born yet to the woman I decided not to marry, to safety.

Then . . . silence. The threat had passed, and Herschel and I hiked the 275 miles back to Washington, D.C., just in time to get something to eat at the old Friendly's down near what is now Metro Center before it closed, which, in those days, was early or late, depending on what time it was.

* * * * * * * * * *

A few months later, I made what, to this day, is considered the greatest catch by a center fielder
in the history of Major League Baseball (on the left, running with my back to the ball in the deepest part of the Polo Grounds, so named for Ralph Lauren, who even though he was only a year or two old, bought the naming rights to the Giants stadium for bupkis). In those days, though, I went by the name Willie Mays, a name given to me on the playgrounds of San Francisco, where I learned to play baseball in the 1930s and 40s. My parents renamed me Willie Mays so that I'd have a better chance of gaining admission to Harvard, Columbia or Yale, which placed a quota on the number of Jews it admitted each year, but, like all elite schools in the pre-civil rights era, aggressively recruited African-Americans. Our family name was Brandeis, and my father, Louis, believed that advertising our ethnicity would hurt my chances to succeed where he hadn't. "Schlomo," he used to tell me, "being only a Supreme Court justice brought shame to our family. I want something more for you. I want you to be Chief Justice." So he changed my name and, knowing the advantage that black skin had for an ambitious young man in America, made me an African-American. What he didn't know was that his decision to bridge that racial and religious divide would make me the greatest center fielder of all-time, and the most beloved athlete ever to play in New York, more so than Joe Namath or Joe Pepitone or Joe Torre or Brad Park or Mickey Mantle or Lawrence Taylor or Willis Reed.

* * * * * * * * * *

In the early 1960s, I converted back to Caucasianism and moved to Great Britain. Bored to tears playing in the local production of "My Fair Lady," I accepted the invitation of a couple of lads I met down at the local pub to join their band. After a few years of playing rough bars on the Liverpool docks and the underground clubs in Hamburg, where I met, married and then divorced my second wife one night, we made a couple of good records and caught the attention of an American promoter, who brought us to the States to appear on the Ed Sullivan show and play a few gigs in Washington, D.C. I remember the excitement I felt walking on the tarmac at JFK Airport in New York (that's me, the goofy-looking one in the back behind John Lennon), thinking I had finally made it, that . . . finally I would impress my father, whose heart I had broken by not becoming a rabbi, and my mother, who had not spoken to me since I gave up the home run to Bill Mazeroski in the 1960 World Series to blow the World Series for the Yankees. But, rather than being thrilled for me, they were forlorn, with looks of disappointment that had settled deep into the crevices of their weathered faces.

"All this, and for what," my father asked. "To become a Beatle?"

* * * * * * * * * *

That episode, which happened when I was three, humbled me for many decades and put me into a funk that would last for thirty more years. Then, on September 5th, 1995, I played in my 2,130th consecutive major league baseball game for the Baltimore Orioles, tying my old teammate from the 1927 New York Yankees, Lou Gehrig. I hit two home runs that night, and, after the second one, my teammates pushed onto the field for a curtain call. I don't know what came over me, but I started shaking hands with fans on the first base line, and before you know it, I took a lap around the entire field, high fiving everyone with arms long enough to reach down over the walls. That night is considered by many baseball fans, quite justly, as the night that saved baseball. I couldn't agree more.

I would do it again, weaving through the sniper fire a second time. I had crossed the Commander-in-Chief threshold once, back during my service as team captain of my college intramural softball team, and I was prepared to do it again. Baseball was and is bigger than just one person, unless that person is me.

* * * * * * * * * *

I was going to write some more, but a friend of mine I spoke with earlier today pointed out that these brief snapshots of my life don't bear any relationship to the person he's known for 35 years. "You didn't play with Lou Gerhig in 1927," he said. "Neither of your parents was religious, much less a rabbi. You were never black. You didn't play with the Beatles. You didn't argue Brown v. Board of Education, and you didn't avoid sniper fire running a celebratory lap after hitting a home run in Camden Yards because you never played one game in the major leagues, much less 2,162 consecutive ones. If you ever decide to run for public office, you'll get fried for making statements like that."

Mea culpa (French for, "I fucked up."). So I misspoke. So what? Haven't you ever confused people, places and events that you've written and spoken about for . . .

. . . oops! Phone's ringing . . . . gotta answer it.

1 comment:

Carlos said...