Willie Mays encountered racism in Hagerstown as a member of the Trenton Giants

HAGERSTOWN, Md. – On June 23, 1950, Willie Mays, a 19-year-old Negro Leagues standout, skipped his high school prom and boarded a train for Maryland. The next day, Mays would make his debut in affiliated professional baseball in the former slave trade stronghold of Hagerstown. He batted sixth and played center field for the visiting Trenton Giants, the first of nearly 3,000 times he patrolled center field in a Giants uniform.

Three years after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball, Mays became the first black player to appear in the Class B Interstate League, four levels below the majors. But much of the country remained entrenched in Jim Crow laws and mentalities. During the Giants’ weekend series at Municipal Stadium against the Hagerstown Braves, Mays stayed in a separate hotel away from his White teammates and endured racial abuse from fans.

“It didn’t take me long to realize that Hagerstown was the only city in our class below the Mason-Dixon line,” Mays wrote in his 1988 autobiography, “Say Hey.” “When I first walked onto the field, I heard someone shout, ‘Who is that n—– walking on the field?’ But I didn’t let it bother me.”

Seventy-four years ago this month, a lasting connection was forged between perhaps the greatest baseball player of all time and a small town 70 miles northwest of D.C. Mays, who died last week at the age of 93, never forgot Hagerstown, both because of his role at the launch of his Giants career and for the way it treated him. In the decades that followed, he recounted his experiences there in books, documentaries, interviews and even in his 1979 Hall of Fame induction speech.

The city didn’t forget Mays either. Although he never played for a local team, Mays’ number 24 jersey has been retired by multiple iterations of the Hagerstown baseball franchises since 2004.

The most recent of those franchises is the Hagerstown Flying Boxcars, an expansion team in the independent Atlantic League that plays in a ballpark a mile from where Mays took the field. On Tuesday, during their first home game since Mays’ death, the Flying Boxcars presented a video tribute and held a moment of silence in his honor.

“He is probably one of the top five players of all time, so it has always been a source of pride in our community that Willie Mays played his first game at Hagerstown Municipal Stadium,” said Flying Boxcars General Manager David Blenckstone. “He has always held a special historic place in the history of minor league baseball in Hagerstown.”

But for some, Mays’ experience in Hagerstown remains an overlooked aspect of the city’s history. The hotel in the red-lined Jonathan Street neighborhood where Mays once stayed is now a church parking lot. The municipal stadium was demolished in 2022. Meritus Park, a new downtown stadium that opened last month, does not yet contain a permanent tribute to Mays.

Tekesha Martinez, who is Hagerstown’s first black mayor, said Mays’ history with the city “is not well celebrated, told (or) known within Hagerstown or our county.”

“All I know is bits and pieces of the story,” Martinez said. “If I had known there was someone like Willie Mays walking down Jonathan Street, playing in our city … I would have been more proud to be a black woman from Hagerstown.”

Mays grew up in Jim Crow Alabama, but the racism and segregation he encountered in Hagerstown left a lasting impression. When he played in nearby DC and Baltimore, there were no restrictions on where he could stay. “But here in Hagerstown, halfway between those towns, I couldn’t stay with the rest of the team,” he wrote in his autobiography.

The Giants made efforts to back Mays. A group of White teammates snuck into his room at the Harmon Hotel and slept on the floor to keep him company. His manager, Chick Genovese, ate with him at the city’s segregated restaurants.

Still, his stint with the Giants was Mays’ first experience as the only black player on his team. When Mays played in the Negro Leagues with the Birmingham Black Barons, he and his teammates faced racism together. In Hagerstown he experienced it alone.

“It was my first time going anywhere alone, because even if I was out with the Barons in a segregated situation, at least we were all separated in the same place at the same time,” Mays wrote.

The legacy of Mays’ experience in Hagerstown stuck not only with the baseball star, but also with the city. In 2004, the Hagerstown Suns, the city’s now-defunct minor league franchise, invited Mays to return. When he accepted, it became an opportunity for Hagerstown – 54 years later – to make amends.

“I thought it was important for the community to have that moment — a second chance with Willie Mays, so to speak,” said Kurt Landes, the former Suns general manager who organized Mays’ visit. “Everyone was certainly aware that his first time in the community was not received positively. … So this was an opportunity for the community to want to welcome him again (and) to have a chance to redeem itself. Everyone felt like coming home.”

On August 9, 2004, 73-year-old Mays was the guest of honor in a city that once laughed at him. He filled the ballroom of a downtown hotel, where, according to a report in the Hagerstown Herald-Mail, some attendees paid as much as $1,000 for an autograph and private meet-and-greet. As Landes introduced him to thunderous applause, Mays began to cry.

Later that day, Mays returned to Municipal Stadium prior to a game between the Suns and the Asheville Tourists. He met players, threw out the ceremonial first pitch and received a standing ovation.

“He returned under very different circumstances than when he was here in 1950,” said Dan Spedden, a longtime Hagerstown baseball fan who attended the ceremonies. “He was very gracious about it. … He described it well in his book, the way he was treated here in 1950, but when he came back in ’04, I didn’t see any of that hostility or anything. He was just happy to be here and happy to be so well received.”

While many fans left with autographed memorabilia that day, Landes kept a unique memento. After hearing Mays loved homemade chili, Landes and his wife filled a slow cooker with the family recipe and took it to the ballpark. Mays enjoyed three heaping bowls, and Landes kept Mays’ spoon as a souvenir.

“I put it in a frame and it sat in my basement,” said Landes, the president and general manager of the Class AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs. “And my wife and I, every time we made chili from then on, we called it Willie Chili.”

Shortly before Mays’ visit, then-Mayor William Breichner announced that the city would rededicate a street running past the Municipal Stadium in Mays’ honor. But nine months later, the City Council voted to keep the old name, East Memorial Boulevard, after a group of veterans argued that the street should commemorate their service.

Some saw the incident as a revival of Hagerstown’s past.

“Willie Mays is a veteran,” said Spedden, president of the Hagerstown/Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Maybe the stain of segregation has not completely disappeared yet. There’s still some of it in a lot of people, and it came out in a way that shocked and embarrassed me.

A few years before he died, Mays said he had reconciled his history with Hagerstown.

“They wanted to try to make up for the sadness I felt all those years earlier,” Mays wrote in a follow-up 2020 memoir, “24.” ‘The way I thought of it, I couldn’t blame the whole city. In 1950 I was not hurt by the city. I was hurt by the people. It was good that I went back.”