Baseball great Willie Mays is not offended that angry veterans blocked Hagerstown's attempt to make amends for the racial jeers he experienced at his 1950 minor league debut there by renaming a street in his honor.
Saying he has long since gotten over past insults, the Giants' legendary center fielder said yesterday that he understands why the blue-collar city in Western Maryland heeded veterans' objections to changing Memorial Boulevard to "Willie Mays Way."
"I think veterans who go to war and come back have the right to say what's on their mind," Mays, 73, said in a telephone interview from his home in Atherton, Calif., just south of San Francisco.
"I don't live there," he added. "They're the veterans who live there. If the veterans are saying a street shouldn't be in my name, that's fine."
Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner, who publicly apologized to the Hall of Famer on the city's behalf last summer and promised to a name a street after him, called Mays' remarks yesterday "very gracious."
Breichner scrapped his proposed street-name change last week in the face of a growing backlash. Yesterday, Breichner said he still hopes Hagerstown will make "some other, even more appropriate recognition," such as renaming its old-fashioned ballpark - or possibly using Mays' name as the marquee if it builds a stadium.
"I really appreciate his comments," the mayor said. "Mr. Mays is a very gracious individual, a true gentleman."
The street-name flap, which provoked two months' of petitions, letters and newspaper editorials, erupted after Breichner chose Memorial Boulevard for the Mays tribute. The mayor did so after the city of 36,687 rolled out the red carpet last August to welcome back Mays.
Hundreds of fans lined up to meet Mays at an elegant reception, and fans packed Municipal Stadium to give him a standing ovation.
Memorial Boulevard seemed a natural choice because the street starts at Municipal Stadium, the humble ballpark that is home to the minor-league Hagerstown Suns, where Mays played his first professional minor league game as a member of the visiting Trenton Giants. But the street also passes Rose Hill Cemetery, where many fallen soldiers are buried.
Upset veterans protested that the street is the only visible tribute to them in town and denounced the proposed name change as "a disgrace."
Veterans groups argued that Memorial Boulevard had been specifically designated as an honor to their service in 1934, when the city changed the name from Willow Lane.
Breichner, who is also 73, grew up in the racially segregated city, and said he wanted to put it in a better light than it has been in Mays' biographies. Mays has told interviewers that he was surprised as a 19-year-old from Birmingham, Ala., by the degree of racism he encountered in the more northern town.
Mays had just been signed by the New York Giants after graduating from high school in 1950 when he arrived in Hagerstown. He played his first game at the stadium to catcalls and racial jeers.
Not only was he heckled on the streets, Mays has told biographers, but he was forced to stay apart from his white teammates at a segregated hotel in the black section of town.
Speaking to the stadium crowd last summer, Mays said he had turned down earlier invitations to come back because he felt a lingering sadness.
"In 1950, when I was here, it was such a sad, you know, moment," he said, according to local news accounts. "But still, everything works out."
Mays is a veteran, too. He missed most of the 1952 season and all of the 1953 season while serving in the Army during the Korean War. In 1954, he returned, leading the Giants to the World Series, where he is remembered for a spectacular, over-the-shoulder catch at the Polo Grounds during the first game.
Yesterday, he said he would not want to be in the position of having caused any concerns with fellow veterans. "If they feel that way, that's the way it should be," he said.
By ending the proposed street-name change, Hagerstown was left in the uncomfortable position of having once again slighted Mays.
Chagrined after he and the City Council dropped the proposal April 12, the mayor said he believes some opposition arose "because of his [Mays'] race." Veterans disputed that, and argued the mayor was trying to appeal to African-American voters because he faces a tight race for a second term in the city election May 17.
Mays remained philosophical. After all, the man once famous as the "Say Hey Kid," who dominated baseball in the 1950s and 1960s, has a lifetime of tributes. His career spanned 22 seasons and included two Most Valuable Player awards and 660 home runs.
"That's the way the world goes," he said. "I was over what happened a long time ago.
"If they want to name a street, that's fine. If they want to name something else, that's fine. If they don't, that's fine, too."