Mike Bianchi: Willie Mays had huge impact on white kids, too

Mike Bianchi, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in Baseball

ORLANDO, Fla. — Willie Mays started his professional baseball career as a young phenom in the Negro Leagues and naturally went on to become a role model for millions of Black Americans, but I want to tell you a little story about how Mays also became to hero to a couple of white kids in the mid-1960s.

When Mays died on Tuesday, one of the first people I heard from was my old friend — retired Sentinel sports columnist Brian Schmitz, who grew up a Willie Mays fanatic in the heart of snowy white Iowa. As a 7-year-old boy in the 1960s, Schmitz became a fervent fan of the electrifying “Say Hey Kid” and started drawing pictures of his idol, putting together scrapbooks filled with Mays memorabilia and emulating him in sandlot baseball games. From Little League baseball to senior league softball, Schmitz has always worn Mays’ famous No. 24.

When Brian was 8 years old, it was well-known in his Iowa neighborhood that he revered Mays. Imagine how shocked the little boy must have been when a white adult neighbor from across the street said to him one day, “Why are you a fan of that [racial slur]? You need to be rooting for Mickey Mantle!” The little boy ran home and told his father, who said, “There’s nothing you can do about people like that.”

“I was taught a valuable lesson that day about racism,” Schmitz says now. “From that day forward, I knew that I didn’t want to be like those people who hated Willie Mays.”

As for those seven or eight Mays scrapbooks Schmitz compiled throughout his life, he recently mailed them to another former Sentinel employee — longtime advertising executive Doug David. As a kid, David’s aunt was related through marriage to former San Francisco Giants owner Horace Stoneham. One summer when he was 12, David spent two months in San Francisco attending Giants games, sitting in the owner’s box and once even meeting Mays in Stoneham’s office.

During the 39 years he worked at the Sentinel, David would have a barbecue every year on Mays’ birthday (May 6) where he would serve hotdogs, peanuts and Cracker Jack to fellow newspaper employees.


David has been battling cancer on and off over the last few years and Schmitz mailed him the scrapbooks last summer during an especially grueling stretch of radiation therapy.

Hearing the stories from these two old friends talking about their lifelong love affair with Willie Mays makes you understand the powerful, positive influence athletes can have on the youth of America.

“When I heard Willie Mays died, I felt like I lost a member of my family,” David says.

Adds Schmitz: “It’s pretty amazing the influence a Black man had on the lives of two white kids who grew up in the 1960s.”

RIP, Say Hey Kid.

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