John Shearer: Willie Mays Played For Chattanooga In 1948

  • Wednesday, June 19, 2024
  • John Shearer
Willie Mays, bottom right, with Chattanooga Choo Choos
Willie Mays, bottom right, with Chattanooga Choo Choos

If you were a 16-year-old blossoming athlete in Chattanooga and were focusing on a sport, chances are you would still be playing at some junior level and would be a typical teenager hanging out with friends. Right?

That was not true for the great Willie Mays, though. He was playing in Chattanooga for the black semi-professional team, the Choo Choos, at Engel Stadium way back in 1948 right before and after he turned 17.

As the death on Tuesday of this 93-year-old Hall of Famer and former Giant player – and genuine giant around the game – was announced and his amazing career is now being remembered, a look at his life shows that he had a small connection to Chattanooga.

It was in the Scenic City that he first played baseball for a men’s team. But, in contrast to the rest of his highly visible career, his connections here seem a little shrouded in mystery. Some sources say he played for the Choo Choos – a semipro league team in the Negro Southern League -- in 1945 and 1946, and one story following a 1996 interview with him says it was 1947. I actually used that 1947 date when I wrote an entry in a small book I put together 20-plus years ago called “Chattanooga Trivia.”

But it turns out it must have been 1948, or at least that was a year he was here formally. With the help of online newspaper searches, which I used through the Tennessee Electronic Library, information not available a few years ago, I found three references to him playing that year. And nothing was found from the other years.

And it must have just been for part of that 1948 year, according to the 1996 Chattanooga Times article written by Larry W. Fleming.

As he told Mr. Fleming after the writer had secured an interview though the player’s agent, Carl Kiesler, “I was just there for about a month or so. As I remember, we had a lot of rain and didn’t play many games. I remember sitting around the Martin Hotel on Ninth Street. I got homesick and went home.”

The Martin Hotel was in what is now the grassy area in front of the Bessie Smith Hall off the since-renamed M.L. King Jr. Boulevard.

He had played for owner Beck Shepherd, who had reportedly discovered him in a field and knew a ball player or athlete when he saw one.

Of the few references I found to that 1948 season, one was from the April 20, 1948, Times, regarding a game against Newark, N.J., in Macon. In front of a packed house, the two teams fought to a 1-1 tie over 12 innings before the game was called. Former Negro League star pitcher Bill Hubert pitched a good game for the Choo Choos, but Mr. Mays did well, too. As the article said, “Willie Mays, 16-year-old centerfielder from Birmingham, was the hitting and fielding star for the Chattanooga team.”

On May 30 of that year – after he had turned 17 on May 6 – he starred again in a doubleheader against the Birmingham Clowns at Engel Stadium in front of 1,198 paid fans. The article said he hit a double and triple in the first game to continue his extra-base hitting. He was also listed as playing shortstop that day instead of his usual centerfield.

One connection Engel Stadium had to the New York Polo Grounds – where he made his famous catch in the 1954 World Series – was that they both had deep centerfields.

One other article found from 1948 was regarding a double header the Choo Choos were playing against the Memphis Blue Sox in the Bluff City June 13. It said Mr. Mays went 5-for-7 in both games combined. The Choo Choos team would soon head for a tour of the Midwest – including to Detroit, Dayton and South Bend – in those days when they were almost like an entertainment troupe instead of a formal baseball team with a strict schedule.

The team also apparently played, or at least practiced, at Lincoln Park, the historically black park behind Erlanger Medical Center.

Mr. Mays evidently left the team sometime that year and went on to play for the Birmingham Black Barons beginning later in 1948 in his hometown after playing at Fairfield High School, where he was also a football quarterback and standout basketball player. The Black Barons likely played in Chattanooga as well, but on those times he was the visitor.

And, after minor league stops in Newark and Minneapolis after he signed a contract and helped break the color barrier, he went on to play for the New York Giants and later the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets.

It was a pioneering career for a black man in America that is being remembered fondly as the Juneteenth holiday is being celebrated, and as a Major League Baseball game honoring the Negro Leagues is being staged at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field Thursday.

I enjoyed learning from some of his obituaries such additional facts as that he might have had more home runs than Hank Aaron if he did not play in windy San Francisco, and that he initially had trouble being able to buy a home in a former white area of the California town. I also learned he was called the “Say Hey Kid” because he did not know a lot of names when he arrived in the big leagues and would say “Say Hey” to get people’s attention.

He also reportedly would play stickball with young boys up in Harlem who would knock on his first-floor apartment window in his days with the New York Giants.

This smiling man who had an upbeat and jazzy song called “Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)” recorded about him by the Treniers in the 1950s was evidently a great ambassador for the game and subtly helped reduce racism without ever getting too political.

I remember watching him on the “Larry King Live” show on CNN around the 1990s and after several fans had called in, he told Mr. King he was amazed people were still celebrating him and holding him in esteem several decades after his playing career. He said they were plaudits he had been blessed with for decades.

Mr. Mays in the 1996 Times interview said he had come to Chattanooga in part because his father – who worked at a steel mill and was also a skilled ballplayer -- thought he could get better playing with older players. His mother in that marriage that ended in divorce had also been a sprinter, so he got athletic genes from both sides of his family.

Owner Shepherd’s son, Harold Shepherd, who died in 2012, said in the 1996 story that he was a ballboy on that team and that he hung out some with Mr. Mays due to their similar age and the fact the elder Shepherd didn’t want the older players being bad influences on them.

He said they went to movies, and Mr. Mays also recalled in the interview being taken up on Lookout Mountain where one could see all over the city. It was a view he would later replicate from the skyscrapers of Manhattan and in a proverbial sense as such a natural player above most others.

On Oct. 17, 1955, after he had become a major league star and had already made his famous catch, he returned to Chattanooga and Engel Stadium one cold Sunday night for a post-season exhibition game among black all-stars, including Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Monte Irvin. He got a hit, but his most memorable swing of the bat that day came on a noisy strike. As the Times said, “Willie Mays thrilled the fans as he cleared the left field fence with plenty to spare down the line, just barely foul.”

The younger Mr. Shepherd said in 1996 that he knew Mr. Mays was going to be a great one.

“We knew he’d make it,” he said. “He was that good. Clearly, he was the best player on our team. There were players older and more experienced, but they couldn’t do what Willie could do.”

He added that he was glad his family was a small part of getting that successful career started.

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1948 article mentions Willie Mays’ exploits with Chattanooga team
1948 article mentions Willie Mays’ exploits with Chattanooga team
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