By Jon Weisman
It’s often been told how the Dodgers let Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente slip through their grasp, but while it’s no secret, the tale of how Willie Mays could have been a Dodger is less well known. Here’s Jackie Robinson’s version, as written by Frank Finch in the June 6, 1965 edition of the Times:
Jackie Robinson, here to telecast the game for ABC, was telling friends about the time he first was given a “chance” to break the color barrier in baseball. “Sam Jethroe and I worked out with the Boston Red Sox in 1945 while we were with the Kansas City Monarchs. They took our names and phone numbers, but we never heard from them. I signed with Mr. (Branch) Rickey later that year.”
Jackie says the Dodgers blew a chance to land Willie Mays when he was a 16-year-old phenom with the Birmingham Black Barons. “The Dodger players were much impressed with Mays when we played an exhibition game with the Barons,” said Jackie. “The front office in Brooklyn was contracted, but Wid Mathews, Mr. Rickey’s assistant, turned down Willie because Wid said he couldn’t hit a curve ball.”
More is written about Matthews at the SABR Baseball Biography Project. The game against Mays would have taken place shortly after Robinson broke in with the Dodgers in 1947. Mays, of course, broke in with the Giants in 1951.
Below, here’s a snapshot of Mays with Tommy Lasorda while the pair were playing in Cuba.
Two new “Scorpions”
Willie Mays, outfielder who has brought the “Almendares” (old Cuban League team that represented the Almendares district of Habana) to replace Williams marching ahead. He appears with another defensive player(?) in the blue jersey, Tom Lasorda, who was left of the payroll of Marianao (another Cuban baseball team that represented the Marianao district in Habana) despite that he has four wins and two losses. His lack of control was the reason for his release from the Marianao team. In 51 2/3 innings, he’s given up 54 walks.