Mays received the Beacon of Life Award on Saturday at a luncheon that was the off-the-field showcase event of the Gillette Civil Rights Game Weekend. The two other principal honorees -- Billie Jean King for the Beacon of Change and Harry Belafonte, for the Beacon of Hope -- were known much more for their public, outspoken social activism.
Mays, on the other hand, made a conscious decision to play baseball, live the kind of life he was supposed to live and not become a commentator on the prejudice he repeatedly witnessed.
"I had to keep my mouth closed for such a long time," he said Saturday in accepting his award. "You have no idea what I had to go through."
As reported in the new Mays biography, "Willie Mays, the Life, the Legend," that silence was publicly criticized by no less a personage in the Civil Rights struggle than Jackie Robinson.
Robinson wanted Mays to use his preeminence in the game in a much more vocal way on behalf of Civil Rights. This was not the way Mays saw his role.
But there is no doubt that, as an African-American baseball pioneer coming to the Majors just four years after Robinson arrived, Mays was subjected to a wide and varied array of racial prejudice, from Jim Crow in the South to slights and slurs and institutionalized bigotry.
For most of his life, Mays has typically downplayed these sorts of issues. On this auspicious event in the cause of Civil Rights, Mays did not take pains to minimize the pain he had felt.
"You have no idea what they called me," he said. "But the more things they called me, the further the ball went."
The crowd at the Duke Energy Convention Center happily, heartily applauded that outcome. It was another instance of the good guys winning.
On the field itself, knockdown pitches were a way of life for Mays, particularly in the early years of his career. His superior reflexes allowed him to avoid the vast majority of the baseballs thrown in his immediate vicinity. The rest of his abilities -- mental and physical -- took over next.
The result was the same as the name-calling, Mays said. The more he was knocked down, the further he hit the ball.
Mays was a transcendent talent, perhaps the single greatest player in the game's history. His physical talents were close to unmatched, but he also had a gift for instant analysis of any situation that few others possessed. And he was a serious student of the game.
His seemingly impossible catch--and instantaneous throw--against Cleveland's Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series remains baseball's most famous defensive play. Playing in New York only increased his prominence, but it was not as though his level of play could be overstated. And his presence made the Giants' move to San Francisco more plausible -- giving the transcontinental shift a large dose of star power.
In the end, his greatness on the field defeated prejudice. He played with a kind of joy that had a touch of fierceness to it. He stretched the human possibilities of baseball right in front of everyone's eyes. Seeing him play, the objective response of the observer should have been admiration. You could not watch Mays and fully appreciate what he was doing, what he was accomplishing, and still be bigoted about it.
Without becoming a focal point or a spokesman, between the greatness he displayed for all to watch, and the scandal-free existence he lived, Mays did what he thought he could do on behalf of the cause of Civil Rights. His name is not as frequently mentioned as other African-American players in baseball's portion of the struggle for Civil Rights, but by being everything that Mays was, a contribution was made.
Rev. Bill Greason, a teammate of Mays' on the Birmingham Black Barons beginning in 1948 when Mays was 17, said that Mays had the kind of talent that stretched the imagination. He concluded his presentation of Mays by saying:
"We call him 'Buck.' All of you call him the 'Say Hey Kid.' Amen. Amen."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.