On this eve of Martin Luther King Day, GolfObservor.com’s Frank Hannigan reflects in this piece on a little-known pioneering effort of another important black man of Dr. King’s era — Willie Mays.
Although Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, Mays and Hank Aaron were the first true black superstars in baseball. To give you a snapshot of Mays’ greatness, he began his career as a 20 year-old in 1951 and played until he was a 42 year-old. During that span, he only had one season (as a 42 year old in 1973) in which he generated fewer runs for his team than an average National League hitter would have created using the same number of outs as Mays (“RCAA,” explained here). For his career, Mays generated an RCAA of 1008, which is 11th all-time among Major League ballplayers and second only to Mickey Mantle (who had an RCAA of 1099) among centerfielders in Major League Baseball history. A true five-tool player, Mays was also an extraordinary defensive player and a fine baserunner for most of his career. In short, anyone who knew anything about professional sports in that era knew about Willie Mays.
Mays was also an avid amateur golfer and, along with dozens of other baseball players, he had played in an off-season golf tournament in which the promoter had provided some prize money to entice the ballplayers. Under the rules of the United States Golf Association at the time, the USGA ruled that all the participants in the tournament had lost their amateur status, regardless, as Hannigan puts it, as to “whether or not they could break 100.”
Mays enjoyed playing in the annual Bing Crosby Pro-Am at Pebble Beach during the off-season, so losing his amateur status would have prevented him from playing in that tournament. As a result, shortly after the close of the 1972 baseball season, Mays showed up at the USGA’s offices in New York to arrange to reclaim his amateur status and Hannigan was the USGA Assistant Director who helped Mays do so. In reflecting on his short meeting with Mays, Hannigan concludes by observing that even Mays probably did not realize just how much of a pioneer that he was:
Mays was soon to join the Los Altos Country Club in the San Francisco Bay area, known to be a club that was favored by professional athletes including John Brodie and Bob Rosburg.
Although there are no precise records for such matters, it was my impression at that time that no other black person in America belonged to a member-owned club. This was more than an impression since we at the USGA knew the front office managers of every golf organization in the United States. It’s hard to imagine we would not have known of a black member of a private, member owned course.
So, until somebody tells me otherwise, I regard Mays as having been a pioneer. My guess is that he may not have known that.