“They knocked me down, I got up, I hit it farther,” were words spoken earlier this month by Hall of Famer and legendary centerfielder Willie Mays at an awards luncheon.
Willie Howard Mays Jr. received Major League Baseball’s Beacon Award on Saturday, May 15, 2010, twenty-one years after he was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame as perhaps the game’s greatest ever centerfielder.
Beacon awards were also presented to tennis star Billy Jean King and entertainer Harry Belafonte, a long-time civil rights activist, during the annual Civil Rights weekend ceremonies. The awards are recognition for their recipients’ lifetime activity toward racial equality.
Mays played Major League Baseball from 1951 to 1973, winning the sport’s National League Most Valuable Player Award twice (1954 and 1965), and setting records for his position.
King achieved a record-setting career in tennis, capturing 20 Wimbledon titles, 39 Grand Slam event championships, and a highly publicized exhibition victory over male rival Bobby Riggs in 1973 in a match hyped as the “Battle of the Sexes”.
Belafonte, claiming close friendships with Martin Luther King Jr. and baseball’s black and white barrier buster Jackie Robinson, said baseball was always a passion of his while he worked for civil rights.
Mays’ statement was made in response to how he handled racial prejudice when he played the game in which he became known as the “Say-Hey Kid” because “Say-Hey” was part of his normal greeting to reporters, fans, and players alike. But, he said at the luncheon, he was also called other things, names of unflattering meaning. “But the more they called me, the farther the ball went”, he said, claiming that’s how he fought the racial beast.
His batting responses earned him records for home runs (third), total bases (6,066), hits (3,283), and runs batted in (1,903) at the time he was voted into the Hall of Fame. With outstanding ability for every phase of the game, Mays also was first in putouts by an outfielder (7,095), first to hit 300 home runs as well as steal 300 bases, and led the National League in those categories in four seasons.
Winning the batting title (average) once (.345), Mays also led his league in slugging percentage in five seasons. He played in a record 24 All-Star games, and won 12 straight Gold Gloves (1956 to 1968) as the league’s outstanding centerfielder.
Mays left his awards ceremony audience with no doubt as to how he felt about his experiences playing Major League Baseball. Everything he was challenged to do “was worth it to me,” Mays said. “It’s worth it. Believe me when I tell you that.”
The Civil Rights Game played on May 15 between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds featured just one black player in the starting lineups, Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips.
Major League Baseball officials spoke to the lack of active black players in today’s game during the weekend events. They are focused on rejuvenating interest in baseball among young black communities, they said.