Willie Mays doc premieres on HBO, HBO Max

November 9th, 2022

NEW YORK -- Nearly 70 World Series have passed since made The Catch, maybe the greatest play in baseball history, in the 1954 Fall Classic. Now Mays' legendary career has come to life for a new generation of baseball fans.

The documentary "Say Hey, Willie Mays!" premiered tonight on HBO and HBO Max.

Directed by Nelson George, the documentary features black-and-white and color footage of Mays' career from the MLB archives, plus interviews with Mays, as well as many of his fellow baseball greats, from Barry Bonds and Reggie Jackson to Giants teammates Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda.

"I wanted nine guys on that field to play together," Mays says in the film. "Once we play together, we can win."

"Willie Mays is one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, full stop," George said at a screening of the film in New York City last month. "You've got Ali, you've got Jordan … well, Willie Mays is in that discussion. The film is partly a way to reintroduce him to this newer generation."

Mays, now 91 years old, hit 660 home runs in his Hall of Fame career and was one of MLB's first Black superstars, becoming an icon in both New York and San Francisco. On the field, Mays was a two-time NL MVP and a 24-time All-Star, and he led the Giants to the 1954 World Series title. Beyond that, he was a key figure in the integration of the sport and bringing Major League Baseball from the East Coast to the West Coast.

Mays' son, Michael, attended the premiere and spoke about how "Say Hey, Willie Mays!" brought his father's life to the screen.

"Dad's 91, so there are never enough stories about him for us. This is his time," Mays said.

"I thought they put [his story] in perspective in a way that hadn't been done before."

The filmmakers -- George and producers Colin Hanks and Sean Stuart -- worked with MLB and the Giants to interview Mays and acquire the footage of his playing days.

"The fact that we were actually able to get Willie to be a part of it was incredibly unique," Hanks said. "I'm of the younger generation that never got a chance to see Willie play. I think it's incredibly important for younger fans to learn what an absolute legend he was on the field."

"The footage that they have in those archives, wow," George said. "What I think was really great is, we were able to get a lot of great color footage. We were able to try to make Willie feel like a contemporary figure. We did obviously have great black-and-white, but I feel like the color footage we were able to get of the Giants and the Dodgers in that era really brings it to life for younger people."

Colin Hanks, Michael Mays, Bob Costas and Nelson George attend the film's premiere.

George -- and he wasn't the only one -- said the highlight of making the documentary was getting the chance to interview Mays.

"Talking to Willie -- you're sitting across from Willie Mays," George said. "I realized as we were talking that, 'Wow, I'm talking to this icon, but he could be my uncle or my grandfather.'"

George grew up watching Mays, and making the documentary helped him bring some of his childhood baseball memories back to life.

"I must have been about 12 years old," George recalled. "I was watching the Game of the Week on NBC, Reds against the Giants at Candlestick Park. Guy hits the ball up the gap in right-center field. Willie goes up, jumps over Bobby Bonds, catches the ball, crashes into the fence, comes down and holds onto the ball.

"I remember that vividly from when I was a kid. So the fact that I could talk to Willie about it was amazing. And then when I mentioned it to Barry Bonds -- Barry was in the ballpark when it happened. So it took a moment that was very important to me already, and it got so enriched, and got so much more nuance."

The documentary also goes back to Mays' early days, before he was a star with the Giants. The filmmakers went to Birmingham, Ala., where Mays played for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League in 1948. They even spoke to Mays' Negro Leagues teammate Bill Greason.

"You really get to understand where he came from and who he was, being down there in Birmingham," Stuart said.

From the day he debuted for the New York Giants on May 25, 1951, at age 20, Mays captivated the baseball world. He was a baseball player like the sport had never seen before. He made plays look easy that for other Major Leaguers were impossible.

"When you watch some of the footage, you think it's sped up, but he's running in regular time. Willie was so fast," George said. "Just those little bits of magic that he put in the game, we tried to capture that in the film."