Each generation of sports enthusiasts has its deities or quasi-deities. The majority of them have content video libraries devoted to explaining their impact as athletes and coaches, brand ambassadors and activists, innovators and leaders. With the blessing of the man himself, HBO Sports’ latest documentary, Say hello, Willie Mays!finally adds a definitive film that captures what made the Giants’ iconic outfielder more than just a ball player, even though that’s how he still prefers to define himself.
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Opening shot: The credits begin to roll as a black and white film of our subject appears on screen. He’s at home plate, kicking a baseball over the left field wall. This is followed by another highlight (this time in color) of the same player handling a ball in the outfield before gently returning it to the infield. In the colored frame, the camera rises from his feet to his torso, and we get a full glimpse of the player (Mays) in his road uniform with ‘SAN FRANCISCO’ emblazoned across his chest and the famous orange ‘SF’ interlocked on a black cap. In the following shot, as we see a photo of Mays wearing the New York Mets white-striped home uniform, we hear several voices describing Mays’ exploits and stardom on the court, which is then reflected in several clips of his piece and interspersed with that. other athletes like Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. A room (maybe a living room or office) appears and an orange leather recliner with the words “Say Hey!” and sewn “24” is centered. Mays and a woman (an assistant or a relative?) appear in the background and he eventually walks over to the recliner as more photos and videos are released. The audio shifted from a discussion of Mays’ on-court play to one about his approach to race and racism. Several clips of civil rights marches are also featured, perhaps in contrast to Mays’ own reluctance to make public statements on these issues – although we do see a photo of him shaking hands with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
The elder Mays, now decked out in a San Francisco Giants jacket and hat, takes his seat and we see more details about the room – plaques, photos, clocks custom made in his likeness. Now focused on the current moment, a distant voice (director Nelson George) poses a question to Mays: “Is Willie Mays the greatest baseball player of all time?”
A close-up of Mays’ face, with piercing gray eyes and perhaps a hint of cynicism at the question, clenches her jaw a little. Still, the film’s title credits appear before we get an answer, keeping audiences hooked.
The essential: For those old enough to have seen Mays as an active player, Say hello wanders down memory lane with more than just highlights of his genius on the pitch, but who he was away from the stadium. For two days in 2021, George sat down with the baseball icon, now 91, to talk about growing up in Alabama, coming of age in the last remnants of the Negro leagues as well as the madness of the baseball in New York in the 1950s, and eventually embracing San Francisco as its home as the Giants moved west. With archival footage – including a brilliant modern analytical look at Mays’ famous catch in the 1954 World Series – and interviews with former teammates and close confidants, Say Hey is a 90 minutes of tribute to the legend. Yet it’s also a sweet retort to those who demand athletes speak out on social issues, as George has found creative ways to explain Mays’ reluctance to do so both during his playing career and in the documentary itself.
What documents will this remind you of? : In a look back at someone’s life, there will be a chronological formula to follow, and few companies except Netflix have mastered the art like HBO. It will look like any single athlete documentary you’ve seen from them. And because it’s a throwback to the 1950s early 1970s icon, it’ll remind you of an old ESPN series, SportsCenturywhich featured dozens of stories about athletes from that era.
Yet the format is not as important as the substance of those presented. After all, Say hello features what could very well be the first extended encounter with Barry Bonds, seven-time National League MVP and baseball’s all-time leader, since his own retirement in 2007. Bobby Bonds was a teammate of Mays in the 1960s, and although Mays is Barry’s godfather, you’d be hard-pressed not to see Mays as Barry’s surrogate parent as well.
Our opinion : With such a robust life that continues to be lived, Say hello captures the dynamism of Mays’ career quite well. George explained how he chose to emphasize the theme of mentorship when interviewing Jugo Mobile, and that thread is quite apparent at every turn – from Mays’ brief but dazzling time at Birmingham in the Black Leagues until to what can be described as a Barry Bonds surrogate parent who remains today. Still, Say hello didn’t delve too deeply into Mays’ post-player career, which included a brief ban from baseball (along with the late Mickey Mantle) for taking a casino job in Atlantic City when he planned to stay coach for the New York Mets. And because Mays himself didn’t speak in the film’s discussion of race, the documentary feels somewhat incomplete.
There’s also a question as to whether the inclusion of Barry Bonds harms the subject of Mays. In the opinion of this writer, it is not at all a distraction since it is impossible to talk about the life of Mays without talking about the deep bond between the two men.
Sex and skin: None.
Farewell shot: How many times is the farewell shot reminiscent of the opening scene?!?!
We go back to George asking Mays “Is Willie Mays the greatest baseball player of all time?” and we get the answer. Sitting in his recliner, he says “nuh-uh. I do not do it. George launches the sequel: if not you, then who? Mays says “I don’t know. It’s not my job,” leaving that question for others to answer. Mays elaborates on this debate further, explaining that he was not motivated to play the game for the accolades and praise. As he speaks, we see another montage of highlights. The absolute final blow is the statue in his honor at Oracle Park in San Francisco. As the camera pans over the statue’s face, Mays says “not only did I play baseball for people, but they love what I did.” »
Sleeping Star: You’ll be delighted to see many of Mays’ former teammates and contemporaries, including Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal and Reggie Jackson. It’s virtually impossible to use the term “sleeper” with the looming presence of Barry Bonds. And you’ll have a wistful eye when the late Vin Scully, who passed away in 2021, makes a cameo appearance. Still, the breakout interviews come from Tito Fuentes, a longtime Mays teammate in San Francisco. Adding some levity, Fuentes colorfully talks about a mischievous trick Mays used to pull on him. Yet it also adds some context to the racial discussion around Mays with an account of a clubhouse dispute he had with Giants manager Alvin Dark, who was suspected of being bigoted towards the players of latin ball. Fuentes’ interviews proved that whether it’s the banter between the boys or the pain of discrimination, that hasn’t changed much over time in baseball.
Our call: SHARE IT! Mays has always had her flowers, especially those old enough to have seen her genius on the pitch. When you’re called “the greatest living player” five decades after your last at bat, you’ll never be short of admirers. Yet millions of Americans have largely understood it through the sepia-tinted or black-and-white highlights of the Silent and Boomer generations. Although there is an exhaustive biography of his life, people do not lis sports and their participants. (This author highly recommends James S. Hirsch’s 2010 biography Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend for more.) Mays wasn’t just a baseball player; it was a cultural experience. For those of us who haven’t witnessed his transcendence in real time, Say hello is a real visual time capsule.
Jason Clinkscales is the founder and editor of The whole game, and his work has been featured in Awful Announcing, The Week and Dime Magazine. A New York native, he is also a former media research analyst at television networks and advertising agencies.