A few years ago a writer for SFGate noticed that, according to the baseball-reference.com Negro league pages, Willie Mays played for the San Francisco Sea Lions of the West Coast Baseball Association in 1946.
No, not that Willie Mays. It was…his dad. “Nickname: ‘Cat’. According to the site…he was born in 1910 and died in 1999, making him 35 when he briefly played in San Francisco—12 plate appearances and 2 2/3 innings on the mound.”
So the writer—John Shea—asked Willie Mays about his dad playing in San Francisco in the 1940s, when Mays was in high school:
“Could be. I don't know,” he said. “I never heard my dad say anything about playing out here. The only thing I knew about was him playing in Birmingham on the steel mill team.”
There was indeed a player named Mays on the 1946 San Francisco Sea Lions. Check out this page from a score card for a West Coast Association game between the Sea Lions and the Oakland Larks:
So, was “Tat” Mays the same person as Willie Mays, Sr., a.k.a. “Cat” (or Kit Kat)? It does seem plausible that “Tat” might have been some garbled version of “Cat.”
Willie Mays does not remember his father playing on the West Coast. If he’d gone out there for only a short time and come back quickly, that might make sense.
But Tat Mays, it turns out, was a pretty well-established figure in California baseball. I’ve been able to find him playing on the West Coast every summer from 1941 through 1949 (with the exception of 1948), playing (and sometimes managing) for the Bakersfield Colored Cubs in 1941, Boilermakers Local No. 26 in 1942 and 1943 (a.k.a. the “Negro Boilermakers,” a union-based team that challenged for the black championship of Northern California), Oakland Monarchs in 1944, Pierce’s Giants (of Oakland) in 1945, San Francisco Sea Lions in 1946, and California Tigers in 1947 and 1949.
Moreover...before settling in the Bay Area, Mays played baseball from about 1935 through 1940 for the Van Dyke Colored House of David, a team named after the type of beards they wore. (Seriously.) The Van Dykes were based in Sioux City, Iowa, but barnstormed through the whole western United States. As early as 1935, the first year I can find Mays with the team, there are references to his “age and experience,” so he might have played baseball for some years before that. In 1941 Mays and a couple of Van Dykes teammates played basketball for the Bakersfield Colored Athletic Club, then moved on to play baseball for the Bakersfield Colored Cubs.
It seems, then, that Tat Mays of the ’46 Sea Lions could not possibly have been Willie Mays’s dad, as Willie would certainly have known if his father had spent a decade and a half barnstorming through the western United States. Tat Mays was also known as “Pee Wee” and “Double Duty” (he was a pitcher/catcher in the 1930s). And I’ve found two possible given names for him—Chet (which might just be a version/misunderstanding of his nickname “Tat”) and (believe it or not) Willie.
In other words, there might have been three black ballplayers named Willie Mays in the 1940s: Willie Mays, his dad, and Tat Mays.
Tat’s primary position was pitcher, but he was an all-around utility player who pinch-hit frequently. In 1935 he was described as “reputedly one of the most versatile men in all baseball, catching one game and pitching the next, if need be” (Albany, Oregon, Democrat-Herald, August 21, 1935, p. 8). Twelve years later the Medford (Oregon) Mail Tribune described Tat Mays as a “switch hitter who can play most any position” (May 28, 1947, p. 4). By the late 1930s and 1940s third base seems to have replaced catcher as his primary position other than pitcher.
Here he is sliding into second for the California Tigers at the 1947 Oakland Tribune Semi-Pro Tournament:
(Oakland Tribune, July 21, 1947, p. 6)
And here he is a few days earlier at the tournament draw:
I’ve been unable to pin Willie and/or Chet Mays down in any official records, but there is an interesting further clue about his career: in the late 30s and 40s he was several times said to have once played for the Kansas City Monarchs. By coincidence, I am currently researching the 1937 Negro American League—and it so happens that for a month that year the Monarchs featured an outfielder from Houston named David Mays. Moreover, in both 1935 and 1936 the Houston Black Buffaloes had an outfielder named Mays, who seems very likely to be the guy who went up to the Monarchs in ‘37.
The appearances of Dave Mays with the Black Buffs and Monarchs don’t (as far as I can tell) actually conflict with Pee Wee / Tat Mays’s career with the Van Dykes during those years. All of Mays’s Van Dyke appearances in ’35 and ‘36 (all the ones I’ve found, that is) took place in the second half of each season. Dave Mays was done with the ’37 Monarchs by the end of May, and the appearances he made for the Black Buffs in ’35 and ’36 were in the first third of the season or so.
However, I don’t think they were the same person. For one thing, Pee Wee Mays was a pitcher-catcher-infielder, whereas Dave Mays was solely an outfielder. For another, Dave Mays played for a semipro team called the Morgan Liners of Houston in 1938, while Pee Wee Mays was still with the Van Dykes. I can’t demonstrate a direct conflict (evidence that they played in two different games on the same day), but in late June/early July they come close. On June 21, 1938, Mays pitched for the House of David up in Winnipeg:
(Winnipeg Tribune, June 22, 1938, p. 14)
A couple of weeks later, on July 3, “D. Mays” was mentioned as a center fielder for the Morgan Liners, playing in Shreveport, Louisiana:
(Shreveport Times, July 3, 1938, p. 16)
Meanwhile, on July 8 “Tack Mays” was playing third base for the House of David, still up in Winnipeg:
It seems rather unlikely that he zipped from Winnipeg to Shreveport and back to Winnipeg in a couple of weeks. I’m quite sure they were two different players.
1935 outfielder, Houston Black Buffaloes
1936 outfielder, Houston Black Buffaloes
1937 outfielder, Kansas City Monarchs
1938 outfielder, Houston Morgan Liners
Willie “Pee Wee” / “Tat” Mays (a.k.a. “Tack,” “Double Duty,” “Chet”)
1935 pitcher/utility, Van Dyke Colored House of David
1936 pitcher/utility, Van Dyke Colored House of David
1937 pitcher/utility, Van Dyke Colored House of David
1938 pitcher/utility, Van Dyke Colored House of David
1939 pitcher/utility, Van Dyke Colored House of David
1940 pitcher/utility, Van Dyke Colored House of David
1941 pitcher, Bakersfield Colored Cubs
1942 pitcher, Negro Boilermakers’ Local 26 (Oakland)
1943 pitcher, Negro Boilermakers’ Local 26 (Oakland)
1944 pitcher/utility/manager, Oakland Monarchs
1945 pitcher/utility/manager, Oakland Monarchs / pitcher/utility, Pierce’s Giants (Oakland)
1946 pitcher, San Francisco Sea Lions (West Coast Association)
1947 pitcher/utility/manager, California Tigers
1948-49 (winter season) pitcher/utility, California Tigers
That leaves the fact that Mays was touted as a former Kansas City Monarch on several occasions. That could have been hype, of course—or he might really have tried out for the Monarchs or played for them for a limited time that I haven’t yet run across.
Even if he was never a Monarch, though, he might still have been a Negro leaguer prior to his time in the West Coast Baseball Association. The 1937 St. Louis Stars, a charter member of the Negro American League, featured (at various times) a pitcher named Berry, a catcher named Bagby, a third baseman named Chism—and a catcher named Mays. These happen to correspond to four mainstays for the Van Dyke Colored House of David around that time: Cannonball Berry (pitcher, also known as Showboat Mike), Babe Bagby (one of the many rocking-chair catchers of the era), Jumping Joe Chism (third base) and, of course, Pee Wee (Double Duty) Mays, pitcher-catcher. This coincidence would seem to be a pretty good indication that at least this quartet of Van Dykes players had gone together to the St. Louis Stars—although, like the team itself, they evidently didn’t stick very long. (Chism stuck with the team the longest, for about three weeks in July and August.) Both Chism and Berry, like Mays, wound up on the West Coast in the 1940s.
Lastly, here’s a picture of Cannonball Berry—the only picture I’ve found of a Van Dykes player actually sporting a Van Dyke:
(Santa Cruz Evening News, September 12, 1935, p. 10)