Review by Dan Skip Allen
There are many things about Say Hey, Willie Mays! that can also be said about his baseball career. He is considered one of the best of all time. I would say the title of the best of all time goes to Ted Williams but it all depends on who you talk to regarding who is actually the best of all time. His record and stats speak for themselves.
Willie wasn't an outspoken guy, but when he had to step up in Alabama on the Black Barrons or when he was with the Giants in New York and later San Francisco, he became the unspoken leader of the teams. He mostly let his bat, glove, and legs do the talking for him. That is all he needed to get the respect he deserved, especially since Brooklyn/Los Angeles, the Dodgers got Jackie Robinson. He had to show the fans he was as good, if not better, than Robinson. The two teams were huge rivals and often met for the National League Pennant. That fueled their rivalry quite a bit.
Even though Willie was a great player on the field, his business off the field was kept relatively quiet. He kept to himself in his lovely home overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. When he wanted to do charitable things, he often kept them to himself or signed autographs and took pictures with the youths around the ballpark before games. This wasn't enough for the country at large, though, because the Black community was going through segregation and race wars. Celebrities like Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, and other activists wanted Willie to get involved, but that wasn't his bag. He always did things his own way.
The film gets to the heart of this complicated man who had his ups and downs in life but never or rarely showed how tired or exhausted he was from playing ball all the time. John Shea, his autobiographer, had a lot of good anecdotes to share in the movie, as did his godson Barry Bonds, NBC and MLB baseball announcer (and all-around baseball historian) Bob Costas, and some of his ex-teammates — Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, and Reggie Jackson — whom he befriended and took under his wing in that era.
The filmmaker Nelson George infused the documentary with a few things that set it apart from other documentaries. The archival footage was pretty awesome. There was a lot of footage from when Mays played ball in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. There were a few animations and various things that broke up the monotony of the talking heads. There was a conscious effect to show a different side other than the baseball player. Even stuff about his nickname and the adjacent song was fun to find out about, which is the film's title.
Say Hey, Willie Mays! was not your average documentary. It got to the heart of a man many people didn't know about, and I learned about his motivations regarding charity and activism. He knew he wasn't doing things the way others would have wanted him to, but he banged his drum to his own beat. He was his own man. The talking heads and archival footage tell a story of a man that was revealed by his fans and those that truly know him. This was a fascinating film, and I was glad I had a chance to learn about this great man and baseball legend.
Say Hey, Willie Mays! streams on HBO Max beginning November 8.