Musings: Willie Mays and Boston

Willie Mays almost played for Boston.

But it was the Boston Braves, not the Red Sox, who had the inside track on him. The details are in a terrific book, Willie Mays: The Life and Legend, by James S. Hirsch, that was published several years ago. It is an authorized biography, and Hirsch is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times so we can trust in the accuracy of the events it discloses.

On a June night in 1949, Bill Maughn, a scout for the Braves who lived outside of Birmingham, Alabama, decided to take in a Birmingham Black Barons game. The Black Barons, a Negro League team, were not to be confused with the white Birmingham Barons, who played in the Southern Association and were a Red Sox minor league affiliate. Maughn was captivated by the exploits of the kid playing centerfield for the Black Barons. At one point an opposing player, with a runner on first, hit a ball into the gap in left center. The hit was fielded by the left fielder, but the kid in center came over yelling for the ball. The left fielder shovel-passed it to him and the kid threw a laser strike to third, nailing the runner. The kid was, of course, Willie Mays.

After the game Maughn sought out the Black Barons owner, only to be told that Mays was still in high school. The Braves chief scout had also seen Mays and Braves owner Lou Perini was prepared to offer $7500 for him. But major league rules prohibited teams from signing or even talking to anyone whose class had not graduated from high school. Mays’ class would not graduate until the end of May, 1950, almost a year away.

Maughn continued to track Willie’s progress, sending rave reports back to Boston. As Willie’s graduation approached, the Braves sent another scout to check him out, and on the day he was there, Mays was not at his best, going one for eight in a doubleheader. The second scout concluded that he’d never be able to hit big league pitching. Maughn protested that he’d only seen Willie play one day, but the negative report went back to Boston, and the Braves never made an offer.

Maughn, dismayed that his year of bird-dogging had been for naught, ran into New York Giants scout Ed Montague a short time later. Montague said he was going to Birmingham to watch the Black Barons’ first baseman. Maughn said forget the guy on first - check out the kid in center. The rest is history. Mays signed with the Giants, and in less than a year he was in playing in New York and was the talk of the baseball world.

The Red Sox did eventually get wind of Mays and sent veteran scout George Digby to look at him. Digby pronounced him, “The best prospect I have ever seen.” But the Sox had already signed a player from the Black Barons, Piper Davis (about whom more in another Musing), and were not about to sign another, so they took a pass.

What if Mays had signed with the Braves instead of the Giants?

Certainly the Braves, with the biggest drawing card in baseball, would have been able to hang on in Boston for a few more years (they left for Milwaukee in the spring of 1953). In 1954 another phenom from Alabama came up with the Braves. His name was Henry Aaron.

Can you imagine Willie Mays and Hank Aaron in the same lineup? In Boston? They were roughly the same age and could have played together for years. The Braves would never have had to move. Together, Mays and Aaron had 1415 home runs and 4300 runs batted in. Eddie Mathews came up with the Braves in 1952. Add his 503 home runs and 1426 runs batted in to the mix and you have, by far, the most powerful middle of the batting order in baseball history. People would have flocked to Braves Field to see them in action. They’d have been THE baseball attraction in Boston.

And what of the Red Sox? They were just entering a prolonged drought on the field and at the gate that would not end until the Impossible Dream season of 1967. With Ted Williams on the team they managed to attract a million fans a year, but once he retired in 1960, attendance fell off drastically. It reached its nadir on October 1, 1964 when the total attendance at a Red Sox vs. Cleveland Indians game was 306. 306! That’s not enough to fill the small triangle of seats in the centerfield bleachers that is covered over during day games to provide a background for hitters. It was the smallest crowd in Red Sox history. Think of how bad it would have been if everyone was getting a baseball fix in Braves Field, just a mile up Commonwealth Avenue from Fenway Park, watching Mays and Aaron. The Red Sox, second division bottom feeders in those days, would have been left in the dust.

Maybe (gulp) it would have been the Red Sox who would have had to relocate. That would have meant that, as a Red Sox guy through and through, and even though I was just a kid, I’d have had to pull up stakes and go with them. G’bye, Mom. So long, Dad. I’m off to Milwaukee with Willie Tasby and the rest of my heroes. Do you know what the worst of it would have been? I don’t even like bratwurst.