“Willie Mays and the Say Hey Kid”: A Rankin-Bass Special from 1972

Happy birthday, Willie Mays (b. 1931)! Known as the “Say Hey Kid”, Mays spent almost the entirety of his career (1951-72) playing for the (first New York, then San Francisco) Giants, framed by two years with the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro Leagues at the beginning (1948-50), and one year playing for the Mets at the end (1972-73).

I am the farthest thing from a sports fan, but when I was seven or eight years old I at least made an effort to appear like one just to be sociable. And that was around the time (1972) when Rankin-Bass (rather randomly it seems in retrospect) made an hour long animated TV special called Willie Mays and the Say Hey Kid. The plot was very Angels in the Outfield. Paul Frees played an Angel named Casey who strikes a deal with Willie (playing himself), stipulating that he will win the pennant if he agrees to be the godfather of an orphan girl. I remember the show plain as day, and recall enthusiastically talking about it with my friends afterwards. In retrospect it seems like a fairly inexplicable item of programming, quite a bit unlike most other Rankin-Bass fare. Was it done as a tribute, i.e. did they know he was about to retire? The closest thing it resembled among other Saturday morning shows was the animated Harlem Globetrotters show, which ran 1970 through 1972. The show aired on the ABC Saturday Superstar Movie and appears to have been a bit of an experiment — one not repeated. But entertaining and educational nonetheless!