Willie Mays doesn't hold back in a new HBO documentary about his life

Willie Mays represents so much, for so many.

He brought a certain joy and whimsy to the game of baseball, which during Mays’ heyday in the mid-20th century was the dominant sport in America. He was a true sports superstar embraced by all parts of America at a time when many black Americans were still suffering the terrible indignities of Jim Crow.

And as revealed in Say Hey Willie Mays! a new HBO documentary debuting on November 8, about none other Jackie Robinson Mays can be considered what is called, in modern parlance, a “sale.”

“Willie is personable and has a great talent,” the film quotes Robinson as saying of Mays in the late 1960s. “But he never matured. He continues to ignore the most important issue of our time. He has never had decent guidance in these matters and probably continues to look only to his security as a big star. Too bad he never participated. He doesn’t realize that he wouldn’t be where he is today without the battles that others have fought. He thinks it’s none of his business. But it is.”

The film serves as a helpful reminder that the raging debate over the proper role of activism in sports is not new. Robinson believed that Mays should play an important role in the civil rights movement, like so many athletes of the 1960s, such as Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Mohammed AliI did. Say Hey examines Robinson’s criticism and contextualizes Robinson’s words—and Mace’s time.

Setting the stage for those who came later

Mays entered the majors in 1951, just four years after Robinson integrated baseball. While Robinson helped gain access to professional baseball, Mays, through his effervescence on and off the field, helped black Americans take another step toward acceptance. His appearances in lilac and white entertainment enterprises such as The Donna Reed Show, bewitched or on The Ed Sullivan Show, were crucial because they proved that white America was ready to embrace a black cultural figure in its living room—at least on television.

In the film, it is claimed that Mace does not necessarily take the vocal position. His exploits on the field, such as Vic Wertz’s legendary over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series, spoke volumes and set the stage for Russell, Ali and others to take black empowerment to a new level.

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Mays the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Willie rode with me on Air Force One a few years ago,” Obama said at the White House ceremony that day. “I told him then what I’m going to tell all of you now – it’s because of giants like Willie that someone like me can even think about running for president.”

“Some marched and protested, some won gold medals and World Series,” Willie Mays’ son, Michael, says in the film. “This happened in the 1960s. These people made it impossible to be dismissed, ignored. They brought the light.

And no one shone brighter than Mace.

Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan

Mays turned baseball into a true national pastime. He began his career in New York, with the Giants, then came west with the club, in San Francisco, after the 1957 season. Mays’ place in the west broadened the two-rib appeal of the game.

The film also explores how he mentored Latin American players on the Giants, paving the way for waves of Latin American players to become comfortable in the United States and thrive in Major League Baseball. Mays played Winter Ball in Cuba and Puerto Rico in the early 1950s. Orlando Cepeda served as a batsman for Mays’ team in Puerto Rico. “After watching Willie play, I wanted to be a ballplayer,” said Cepeda, the future Hall of Famer who joined the Giants in 1958. Say Hey. The Giants also signed Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou and Ozzy Virgil Sr

Now 91, Mace is still a delightful screen presence. At one point he talked about how his manager, Alvin Dark, had named him captain of the Giants. “What I said, that’s what they did,” Mace says in his high-pitched voice. “If they didn’t, they didn’t play.”

This year’s World Series, which the Houston Astros won on Saturday night, marked the first time in more than 70 years that no American-born black player played in the Fall Classic. Before the series, manager of the Astros Dusty Baker, said a confidant of Mays, who became the third black manager to win a World Series title USA today he was “ashamed of the game.”

The spotlight on Mays comes at an opportune time. Say Hey serves as a reminder of baseball’s prominence in black culture—”to me, it’s a precursor to Michael Jordan,” says the film’s director, Nelson George—and why restoring that connection is so worth it.

Read more: The only reason to root for the Houston Astros in the World Series

Willie and Barry

Say Hey goes into the relationship between Mace and his godson Barry Bonds. The controversial San Francisco outfielder holds baseball’s all-time home run record, but has until now been denied induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame because of his links to performance-enhancing drug (PED) use (Bonds has denied knowingly taking steroids). Bonds’ career received renewed attention this fall when the New York Yankees hit the sack Aaron Judge became the first non-PED player to hit more than 61 home runs in a season. Judge finished with 62, and for many fans and pundits, Judge now holds the “authentic” or “pure” single-season home run record, not Bonds, who hit 73 home runs in 2001.

Bonds has a clear affection for his godfather and we see an unfamiliar side of him Say Hey. He looks vulnerable, insightful and, dare I say it, even extremely likable. (Bonds earned a dark media reputation in his playing days). It’s not entirely surprising to see Bonds transform into a smiling child when talking about his godfather. Mace has always had that effect on people. Also, it’s human nature to like to talk about people you adore.

However, the film fails to take the PED issue head on. Bonds is not seen dealing with his own alleged PED use, which is relevant to the documentary since the film spends so much time on the Mace-Bonds dynamic. (Mays was friends and teammates with Bonds’ father, the late Bobby Bonds, an All-Star in his own right.) And while the film makes it clear that Mays supports his godson’s Hall of Fame bid, Mays doesn’t discuss his own views on Bonds and steroids.

Why did Mays support Bonds’ Hall of Fame candidacy despite Bonds’ connections to steroids? Does Mace think Bonds knowingly cheated? Why or why not? These questions remain unanswered.

“Whatever private discussions [Bonds and Mays] we had, we weren’t aware of it,” says George. “It wasn’t something I wanted to push him on.” Given Mace’s age — he was 89 at the time of their interview — George was reluctant to push him too hard on something so complicated and uncomfortable. “I sat there across from him and I went, this guy’s been giving interviews longer than I’ve been alive,” George says. “So I’m not cheating on him.” The things he wanted to talk about, he would talk about. The things he didn’t want to talk about, he didn’t.”

(Mays did not respond to an interview request sent through an HBO spokesperson by TIME.)

A key re-introduction

Although this lack of commentary on Bonds’ past leaves the viewer wanting more, it is not a fatal flaw for Say Hey. Such an in-depth testimony to Mace’s influence while he is still with us is useful, informative and very entertaining.

“I hope the paper allows a starting point to conceptualize it, because what’s happened is, in the black community, basketball and football have been the dominant sports for the last 25-30 years, maybe more,” says George. “So we’re thinking about LeBron vs. Jordan. But if you do a Mount Rushmore of a great American athlete, he’s in the top five. I’m very grateful that the Doctor is at least bringing him back into the dialogue. Because he deserves it.”

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Write to Sean Gregory c [email protected].

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