JIM THIELMAN: Willie And Ted As Teammates Would Have Been Delicious

As the 1950s neared, a Southern-born baseball scout reported from Birmingham that Willie Mays was not “a Red Sox type” of player.

To the Irish management in Boston, it meant Mays was not white.

If any team had the best chance of signing black players in Birmingham after World War II, it was the Red Sox. The white Birmingham Barons were a Red Sox minor league affiliate. Mays was 17 when he played in the same ballpark for the Black Barons.

Signing Mays would have meant that, for a decade, the greatest player in baseball history would have teamed with Ted Williams, the greatest hitter in baseball history.

And Boston would not have gone from 1918 to 2004 without winning a World Series.

It would have been interesting off the field, too. For one thing, Mays and Williams led the major leagues in unannounced, unpublicized visits to children’s hospitals.

Vitriolic Ted castigated sports writers, fans and mocked his own teammates for their inept attempts at fly fishing.

Willie, New York Giants’ manager Leo Durocher said, had “a contagious happiness.” At the ’55 All-Star Game, Mays chided Henry Aaron, “You’re taking the game too seriously. Have fun, boy, have fun.” Despite the advice, Hank remained somber.

Mays had a complaisant demeanor and a subrosa approach to race.

Williams was, author David Halberstam quoted announcer Curt Gowdy, “the least bigoted man of his time.” Unknown to many even today, Williams never mentioned his sliver of Latino heritage. He knew the revelation would not help him.

Mays felt that entertaining fans and comporting himself would keep open the door for other Black players, and benefit the game he cherished. Mays said he didn’t love being a baseball player; he loved playing baseball.

Williams caught hell from Boston owner Tom Yawkey because he was always giving tips to opposing players. Williams bristled and told Yawkey, “C’mon. The more hitters we have in this game, the better it is for the game.”

Williams acknowledged his debt to Yawkey in his brief Hall of Fame speech in 1966 but followed that with a glorious example of how brilliant he was.

“Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel, not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better than someone else,” he said, before dropping a surprise on the museum steps in Cooperstown.

“And I hope that someday the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way can be added as a symbol of the great Negro players that are not here, only because they were not given a chance.”

Williams played the 1938 season for the Minneapolis Millers when they were a Boston farm club. He hit .366.

Mays played 35 games for the Millers when they were a Giants’ affiliate in 1951. He was hitting .477 when the Giants promoted him.

Murray Olderman was a sports writer and cartoonist whose life warranted a long New York Times obituary when he died at 98 in 2020.

Olderman saw what was coming for Mays when he drew the below during his brief (Minneapolis was too cold) tenure at the Tribune.

When Mays was promoted, Giants’ vice-president Horace Stoneham paid to publish this masterfully crafted piece of public relations in the Minneapolis Tribune.

Both Olderman’s cartoon and Stoneham’s letter received national attention.

Neither embarrassed Boston management.

The Red Sox were the last major league team to promote a Black player to its roster. That was in 1959.

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