Saying `No way' to the Say Hey Kid

Hagerstown: A promise to rename Memorial Boulevard `Willie Mays Way' is dropped after veterans object.

April 22, 2005|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN - It was 1950 when baseball great Willie Mays made his minor league debut at the humble ballpark here to catcalls and racial jeers. He hit two doubles and a home run. Almost no one applauded.

Years passed, and this blue-collar town in Western Maryland wanted to make amends with the Giants' legendary center fielder. When a reluctant Mays returned last summer, after turning down earlier invitations, Mayor William M. Breichner publicly apologized to the 73-year-old Hall of Famer and promised to name a street in his honor.

Unfortunately, the street the mayor picked - Memorial Boulevard - proved more sacred to some townspeople than the national pastime.

Scores of war veterans protested that Memorial Boulevard is the only tribute to them in town. Insulted veterans groups circulated petitions; old-timers wrote angry letters to City Hall. Faced with a growing backlash, Breichner and the City Council rejected last week the plan to rename the street "Willie Mays Way."

"It was just supposed to be a way to honor Mr. Mays and thank him for coming back to town," Breichner said in an interview. "We certainly did not intend to offend any veterans."

Memorial Boulevard seemed a natural choice because it starts at Municipal Stadium, the little ballpark where Mays played as a member of the visiting Trenton Giants and which is home to the minor-league Hagerstown Suns. But the busy street also passes Rose Hill Cemetery, where many fallen soldiers from the Civil War are buried. Its proximity to the cemetery, local veterans say, is the reason the street's name was first changed, in 1934, from Willow Lane.

"Around this town, it's about the only thing that's named for veterans," said John Heckman, first vice commander of Amvets Post 10. His friend, Joe Mills, a 61-year-old Vietnam veteran, called the mayor's proposal "a disgrace."

"People went over and fought and died for our country," said Mills, sitting at lunch at the smoky Amvet post, not far from the stadium. "To name it after a ballplayer who played one game here is ridiculous."

Mays in the military

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 to the ball field, leading the Giants to the World Series, making a spectacular, over-the-shoulder catch in the first game.

The unceremonious end to what was meant to be a gesture of reconciliation comes less than a year after Hagerstown (pop. 36,687) rolled out the red carpet to welcome back Mays.

Hundreds of fans lined up to meet him at an elegant reception in late August; some paid $1,000 to privately get his autograph. Cheering crowds packed Municipal Stadium and gave him a standing ovation. Visibly moved, Mays told the fans, "In 1950, when I was here, it was such a sad, you know, moment. But still, everything works out," according to local news reports.

Now Hagerstown is in the uncomfortable position of once again having slighted Mays - something that has left bitter feelings and accusations of racial motivations a month before the May 17 municipal election.

Breichner, who is 73, like Mays, and grew up in the racially segregated city, said he believes the street-name flap reflects lingering racial divisions. After his proposal was dropped Tuesday night, Breichner told the Hagerstown Herald-Mail: "I think part of it was because of his race. I just feel bad about that."

Most opponents who signed petitions and protested at council hearings in recent months were white, according to participants. But veterans took offense at the mayor's remarks.

Ron Hovis, 70, a Korean War veteran, called it "nonsense" and pointed out that veteran groups had proposed alternatives, including renaming other streets or Municipal Stadium.

Hovis blamed Breichner, saying "he put the race issue in it," and claimed the mayor was making a politically correct move "to get black votes." Breichner, a Democrat, is locked in a tight race for a second term against Republican challenger Richard Trump and write-in candidate Robert E. Bruchey II, a former mayor.

"It was the wrong thing to do from the onset, and that has nothing to do with race," said Hovis. "That street was dedicated to veterans, and it had to stay that way."

A discouraged Breichner said he only wanted to put Hagerstown 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.

Racial slurs

Not only was he heckled and called racial slurs in Hagerstown, Mays has told biographers, but he had to stay apart from his white teammates at a blacks-only hotel.

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