by Woody LaBounty
The most popular feature of the San Francisco Giants' cozy new home may not actually be inside the brick walls.
Before each game, the ocean of fans that flows into the front gate of Pacific Bell Park eddys around a magnificent bronze statue of baseball's greatest living player, Willie Mays.
The spot is a meeting place, an informal will-call site for friends. Of the many people that pose for photos in front of the statue, most appear stiffer than the inanimate Mays.
Willie is portrayed post-swing, smiling at another shot into the gap, leaning for a sprint around imaginary bases. In the broad, red brick "Willie Mays Plaza," the graceful monument has a perfect home.
The real Willie Mays had a more difficult time finding a home in 1957 San Francisco.
San Francisco had just tempted the Giants away from their New York birthplace and the team was preparing to move into cozy Seals Stadium for the 1958 season. The team's star center fielder also started his preparations, by house hunting with his wife, Marghuerite.
In November 1957, the couple looked at a new three-bedroom house in Sherwood Forest, a small neighborhood tucked between St. Francis Wood, Miraloma Park, and Mount Davidson. Built of brick and redwood on a quiet street, the living room of 175 Miraloma Drive featured views of the Pacific Ocean.
The asking price was $37,500, and Mays offered exactly that, in cash, to owner Walter A. Gnesdiloff. Mr. Gnesdiloff agreed.
Then the neighbors learned about it.
Gnesdiloff, a small-scale builder and contractor, soon announced that he would refuse Mays' offer because "neighborhood pressures made him fear he would lose work if he went through with the deal."
Some residents of the all-white neighborhood objected to the center fielder's skin color. Martin Gaewhiler of 148 Miraloma Drive put it baldly: "Certainly I objected. I happen to have quite a few pieces of property in that area and I stand to lose a lot if colored people move in."
The San Francisco Chronicle's front page headline on November 14, 1957, summed up the dispute: "Willie Mays Is Refused S.F. House--Negro." In the story, Mr. Gaewhiler demonstrated the type of pressure being put on the Gnesdiloff not to sell to Mays: "I certainly wouldn't like to have a colored family near me."
San Francisco mayor George Christopher stepped in, seeking to avoid a public-relations disaster so soon after winning the Giants from the city of New York. He offered to put Mays and his wife into an upstairs bedroom in his own home, which they gracefully refused.
The nonconfrontational Mays kept saying he wasn't mad at anyone, but Marghuerite Mays gave her opinion of the situation: "Down in Alabama where we come from you know your place, and that's something, at least. But up here it's all a lot of camouflage. They grin in your face, and then deceive you."
By the next day, after all the publicity, Gnesdiloff changed his mind again, and said he would sell to the ballplayer.
Reporters were at Gnesdiloff's house when the aforementioned Gaewhiler and his wife arrived in a temper. The newsmen overheard parts of the angry conversation that took place in a closed bedroom, including Gaewhiler shouting, "Do you realize how much money you'll lose?"
Gnesdiloff held firm this time and the San Francisco Examiner reported a cheerful resolution, complete with the seller planning to collect some autographs for friends.
The local office of the NAACP immediately lobbied for an ordinance to outlaw racial discrimination in the sale or rental of private dwellings. Eventually, such a law passed.
A year and a half after the sale, a bottle crashed through the front window of 175 Miraloma. The bottle contained a racial hate note. Marghuerite made it clear she wasn't happy in the new neighborhood. The couple soon sold the house and moved back to New York.
In 1963, Mays, now divorced, gave San Francisco another try, buying a house at 54 Mendosa Avenue in Forest Hill.
As opposed to the Miraloma Drive affair, Mays appeared welcome.* He hosted a block party with help from the Forest Hill homeowners association, and served neighborhood kids cake, ice cream, and potato chips. Each received an autographed photo of Willie.
* In October 2002, Roy K. Farber of Grand Junction, Colorado offered his memories of Willie Mays moving to Forest Hill in the 1960s:
I then lived two blocks away, up 9th Avenue, was about 12. All of us neighborhood kids were overjoyed: Willie Mays is going to be our neighbor! Not so our parents. It was another age: the white man and his Japanese wife across the street were shunned, much in the same way that anyone with developmental disabilities was then deemed a pariah. And although we children swarmed Willie's new home, and he was most gracious, the adults' disapproving undercurrent was unmistakable, vocal behind closed doors, cold stares coming from cars slowly driving up past his new home.
It made me feel ashamed at the time. Willie must have felt it. He lived there only a short time, moved quietly off. I always thought that it was because the adults were so terribly cold towards him.
A short journey through Internet sites located yours, concerning "Willie Mays on Miraloma Avenue." I wasn't familiar with what had transpired there, but wanted you to be aware that, "block party" or not, the racism in San Francisco's upper crust, when he moved into his Mendosa Avenue home, was something that, these 40 years later, I've not forgotten.
Bibliography: Christopher of San Francisco, George Dorsey, New York: Macmillan, 1962. San Francisco Chronicle, November 14, 15, 17, 1957; June 22, 1959; November 23, 1959; December 3, 1959; November 15, 1962; February 17, 1963. San Francisco Examiner, November 15, 1957.
More: Read Tom O'Toole's memory of getting a ride home from Willie Mays.
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Page launched August 2000; Updated 24 June 2009.