By John Hanson
Special to GUIDON
As Americans recognize Black History Month, several remarkable people readily spring to mind.
There are Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Jesse Owens and the Tuskegee Airmen to name a few. All of them made significant contributions in their own way to advance freedom and civil rights in America.
As the United States military marks its own observances throughout the month of February, it is only fitting that we remember the African American service members who have made an indelible mark on America.
In 1952, at the age of 21, a young man from Westfield, a little town on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, was drafted into the Army at the height of the Korean War and reported for duty at Fort Eustis, Virginia.
Friends and family called him Willie, but in due time, the world and millions of fans would know him as the “Say Hey Kid,” — the best baseball player of all time.
But first, a little backstory.
Willie loved to play baseball. He was just 16 when he signed his first professional contract.
Cosigned by his father due to his young age, Willie received a $4,000 signing bonus and a salary of $250 a month — a lot of money at that time.
Mixed-race baseball teams were virtually nonexistent then, but when a player is the best of the best, one tends to get noticed — and Willie did.
In 1947, Willie excelled, playing for a minor-league team called the Chattanooga Choo-Choos, essentially a farm team for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League, and he helped take the team to the Negro League World Series.
It wasn’t long until major league baseball franchises were sending scouts to watch him play with offers of more than three times his original salary.
After a short stint in the minor leagues with the class AAA Minneapolis Millers of the American Association, Willie hit the majors, playing for the New York Giants in 1951.
Willie continued to improve his game that year, earning himself the 1951 Rookie of the Year Award and a trip to the World Series, where the Giants unfortunately lost to the New York Yankees, but it was another important step in the young man’s journey to stardom.
Then came the Korean War.
For many famous Americans pressed into military service, their talents were usually used doing what they did best — entertaining the troops.
During World War II, Col. Glenn Miller, famed big-band musician, arranger, composer and bandleader in the swing era, played musical gigs for the troops.
Sgt. Elvis Presley, the proclaimed “King of rock ’n’ roll” spent his Army enlistment singing for the troops in Germany and getting his adoring fans all shook up over a pair of blue suede shoes.
But it was Mays who came to Fort Eustis and continued to improve his game for what would follow after he took off his green Army uniform.
For the next couple of years, he played baseball for the Army and spent his time as an athletic instructor, sharing his tips and tricks of baseball with his fellow Soldiers.
Although his baseball career was delayed when the Army drafted him in 1952, causing him to miss the majority of the 1952 season and the entirety of the 1953 campaign, Mays never expressed regret for his military service saying, “I will make the best of it.”
In interviews later in life, Mays told reporters that he believes that if not for the years he missed while in the Army, he would have been the one to break Babe Ruth’s all-time home-run record, not Hank Aaron.
Many fans and baseball experts tend to agree.
Although a prodigy in his own right, Willie Mays was always looking for new techniques to better his game.
It was during his two years at Fort Eustis that Mays learned his signature basket catch from fellow Fort Eustis Soldier and outfielder Al Fortunato.
Mays went on to refine and perfect the maneuver into what became his famous over-the-shoulder basket catch which he put to good use in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series — the game which brought the New York Giants victory over the Cleveland Indians.
It was a catch considered so spectacular and so well-known, it was simply referred to as “The Catch.”
Mays missed about 266 professional games due to military service.
After completing his military obligation, Mays spent 21 seasons playing for the Giants before finishing up with the Mets in 1973.
Mays wrapped up his career hitting over .300 10 times en route to a career .302 mark. He was a two-time National League Most Valuable Player (1954 and 1965) and a 20-time All-Star.
He led the league in home runs four times, finishing with 660 — then the second most ever.
In November 2015, Mays was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama during a ceremony at the White House.
From the unassuming kid who played baseball barefoot in rural Alabama, to Fort Eustis Army officer, to the “Say Hey Kid” and Baseball Hall of Fame great, that is the story of African-American baseball legend, Willie Howard Mays.
(Editor’s note: This article was originally published Feb. 15, 2018 on Army.mil. Hanson is with the 597th Transportation Brigade in Fort Eustis, Virginia.)