Home State Wide The day Willie Mays made two boys from Hattiesburg feel like a million bucks

The day Willie Mays made two boys from Hattiesburg feel like a million bucks


This was the summer of 1962. We were in Texas to visit grandparents and to see our first Major League baseball game. I was 9, and brother Bobby was 8. Willie Mays, the best baseball player on the planet, was 31 and in his prime.

This was before the Astrodome and the Astros. The brand new Houston expansion team, then called the Colt 45s, played their games at Colt Stadium, adjacent to where the Astrodome was being built. Our maternal grandfather – Papa we called him – worked on the heavy machinery used to build the Dome. I remember him laughing and telling us, “Boys, can you believe they really think they are going to grow grass inside that place?”

Rick Cleveland

Back then, we couldn’t believe they were going to play baseball inside. But the Astrodome opening was still three years away. We were much more excited to see the likes of Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal and our daddy’s pal, Jim Davenport, play in modest Colt Stadium. It was formerly a minor league facility, built on what was formerly a swamp, that held only about 25,000, but seemed like a baseball palace to us and like home to a million well-fed mosquitoes. We’ll get to that.

Dad and “Peanut” Davenport were friends from Davenport’s days at then-Mississippi Southern College. “Nuts,” as Dad called him, was from Siluria, Alabama, near Birmingham, but came to Southern when he wasn’t recruited by either Alabama or Auburn. At Southern, Davenport quarterbacked the football team to consecutive victories over Alabama and also to a victory over Georgia. For the Giants, he was a slick-fielding, clutch-hitting third baseman, who years later would be their manager. He and Mays, from the coal-mining community of Westfield, Alabama, also near Birmingham, had become close friends. They would remain so for life.

In retrospect, that summer trip to Houston also served as a study in race relations for us two young boys from then-strictly segregated Hattiesburg. Mays and Davenport were clearly close friends who ate together, played together and enjoyed one another’s company, something we did not see in our hometown back then. They made it seem as natural as it is.

Our experience began early that afternoon at the historic, old Rice Hotel in downtown Houston, where the Giants stayed. We got there just as most of the Giants were finishing lunch in the coffee shop. Dad re-introduced us to Davenport, who then introduced us to many of his teammates. The day is mostly a blissful blur, but some things I well remember from 62 years ago:

  • Shaking hands with Willie “Stretch” McCovey, the slugging first baseman, whose huge right hand swallowed not only my hand but also my arm nearly up to my elbow. McCovey was another Alabama guy, from Mobile. He could not have been nicer.
  • Meeting Mays, who was dwarfed by McCovey, and who told us, “Any friend of Nuts is a friend of mine.” He sat back down in his chair and lifted Bobby up on one knee and me on his other. “You fellas play ball?” he asked, and he seemed genuinely interested. We were dumbstruck. Mays told us he had played semi-pro ball in Hattiesburg and Laurel as a young teen. 
  • Going to the ballpark that night where Davenport had set us up with tickets just behind the Giants dugout on the first base side. That’s not all. He had us down on the field for batting practice before the game. Mays and Cepeda took turns hitting balls deep into left field seats. I had never heard the crack of a bat sound so loud, so violent. 
  • Going down into the visitors’ clubhouse before the game. Funny, what I remember most about that are the card games and the huge box of chewing tobacco that sat right by the door at the entrance to the dugout and the field. 
  • The mosquitoes. I have never seen mosquitoes that big before or since. In the stands, attendants with bug spray marched up and down the aisles just as the soft drink and peanut vendors did.
  • The game itself. The score is long forgotten, but Houston led for most of the game until the Giants came from behind. In the ninth inning, the Giants trailed by a run but loaded the bases against a rookie relief pitcher. Cepeda, nicknamed The Baby Bull, came to the plate and the count went to three balls and a strike. This was back before ballplayers seriously lifted weights, but Cepeda, from Puerto Rico, was broad-shouldered and barrel-chested with chiseled arms. My daddy pointed to the bleachers beyond the left field fence and said, “No place to put him. Boys, you see those pink seats out there in left? That’s where this next pitch is gonna land.”

Yes, and on the day Willie Mays made us feel like a million dollars and Jim Davenport provided us a memory for life, Cepeda made our dad look like a genius.

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