Md. city's tribute to Mays fouls out

Hagerstown: Hard feelings old and new quash the move to name something, anything, for the famed ballplayer.

May 05, 2005|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Jason Song | JoAnna Daemmrich and Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Willie Mays played one game in Hagerstown 55 years ago. Efforts to honor him today are straining relationships in the old-fashioned, working-class community in Western Maryland.

The local newspaper has been flooded with angry letters. The mayor has been cornered on the streets. An African-American candidate is so upset by the outcry, and by getting two letters she describes as threatening, that she now has a bodyguard.

This week City Councilman Lewis C. Metzner withdrew a compromise plan to name the field at Municipal Stadium for Mays, saying that what was intended to be a gesture of reconciliation had instead stirred anew old divisions in the city.

"I was surprised by the amount of opposition to the naming of the field," Metzner said Tuesday night, in announcing that Hagerstown would drop all attempts to honor the Hall of Famer. "It is clear that there is no public support for naming anything in honor of Willie Mays at this time, and I therefore will no longer support this endeavor."

"It is with a sad heart," he concluded, "that I acknowledge that some of my attempts to heal some very old and deep wounds in this community have indeed had the opposite effect."

Hagerstown has been roiled for weeks by controversy over paying tribute to Mays, who made his minor league debut here in 1950 to catcalls and racial jeers. The debate has intensified with a city election looming May 17.

Mayor William M. Breichner, a soft-spoken 73-year-old, sparked the uproar by making a personal promise to Mays last summer to name a city street in his honor. When the Giants' legendary center fielder returned to Hagerstown in August, the mayor publicly apologized and offered to make amends with a lasting tribute.

But Breichner's choice of a street - Memorial Boulevard - offended local veterans, who argued that it is the only tribute to them in town. Rebuffed by veterans groups, the mayor gave up early last month. Two weeks ago, Metzner came up with the idea of naming the ball field - but not the stadium itself - after Mays. Both men assumed it would be an easy sell.

However, to their dismay, the stadium plan prompted a new round of protests. Letter writers and callers to the Herald-Mail argued that Mays did not deserve any recognition in town.

One May 3 caller said: "Don't name anything after Willie Mays, and throw anybody out of office that wants to name anything after him. The only thing he did for the city of Hagerstown was badmouth it."

Another May 3 caller said: "I was just wondering if our mayor is just trying to get the black votes. He keeps wanting to name something after Willie Mays, and he didn't do anything for us except to give us a bad name in his book."

In a brief telephone interview yesterday from his home in Atherton, Calif., Mays said he is not offended that the town twice turned down plans to honor him. "I thought it was over and done with," he said.

Mays, who says he has long since gotten over past insults, said it should be left up to local citizens to decide what to name their streets or ballpark.

But the unceremonious end has left Hagerstown in an embarrassing position and drawn national media attention. It also has led to bruised feelings in town, particularly in the African-American community, which makes up 10 percent of the city population of 36,687.

"Everyone I talk to says how the clock of Hagerstown is turning backwards," said Del. Joanne C. Benson, a Prince George's County Democrat who grew up in the city and still takes an interest in its politics. "I thought we were beyond this."

Alesia Parson, an African-American candidate for City Council, said she has received two letters she found threatening. She said yesterday that she could not provide them to The Sun because she no longer had them.

Benson, who has seen the letters, called them deeply unsettling. "It really gives me heartburn," she said.

Parson, 40, a community activist and senior at Frostburg State University, said the letters arrived after she won the March 8 Democratic primary by just one vote. They came in the midst of the Mays street-name flap, she said, and have left her unable to campaign effectively. Worried, she has also retained an armed security guard.

"As much as I fear no man, I'm not an idiot," she said. "I'm not going to put myself out there and go door-to-door campaigning."

To Parson, Benson and some others, the opposition to honoring Mays reflects lingering racial tensions in a once-depressed city that recently has been undergoing an economic revival. The mayor, too, has said he believes "part of it was because of [Mays'] race."

Breichner, a Democrat who faces a tight race for re-election, said yesterday that he is disappointed in the reaction in his hometown. The mayor said all he wanted to do was put Hagerstown in a better light than it has been in Mays' biographies.

"I don't know. It was a phenomenon that I find very hard to explain," Breichner said.

At least one veteran, Ron Hovis, who fought in the Korean War, initially said it might be a good idea to rename Municipal Stadium after Mays, noting that the current name is ordinary. But once the proposal was put forward, Hovis said the city should not honor Mays.

"Every black person was treated poorly in 1950," Hovis said yesterday. "If we're going to use that as a criteria, let's name streets after every black person that was insulted."

While Hovis and others say the mayor was trying to make a politically correct move, outsiders following the controversy said it backfired on Hagerstown.

Carl O. Snowden, an Annapolis civil rights activist, called it "a national disgrace."

"Shame on them," he said. "They should be honored to have Willie Mays' name associated with the stadium."

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