Gary Mays playing for the College of Idaho in 1955
Gary Mays playing for the College of Idaho in 1955 Credit: Courtesy of Gary Mays

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I got to spend a morning last week with Gary Mays. He’s my hero.

Mays, 75, has had a rough year. He’s been in and out of Washington Hospital Center for months, and our time together came on the fifth day of his most recent stay. He’s dealing with prostate cancer, and had been admitted this time for respiratory difficulties and kidney stones.

From all I’ve learned about Gary over the years, I shouldn’t have been surprised how strong he looked, even in his hospital bed and with all his ailments. So as I always do when we hook up, the whole time I was there I made him tell stories about himself to me, his temporary roommate, and any nurse or medical staffer who walked in. I’ve never met anybody who can tell tales better than Gary. And he’s got a scrapbook to back up every one of ’em.

So in the hospital room, I got to hear all over again about the 1954 basketball playoffs of the Interhigh League, the District’s public schools league. That’s when Mays, playing for Armstrong Tech, temporarily reduced Elgin Baylor to mortal status. Baylor had a godlike reputation on local playgrounds at that time, and his Spingarn High squad was undefeated. Mays changed that, leading his team to an upset win in the tournament for Interhigh’s Division 2, a confederation for the city’s five “colored” schools. (Division 1 was for D.C.’s nine white schools.)

The separate tournaments, which were held two months before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, were the last officially segregated schoolboy hoop competitions ever held in this city. Mays said his coach had designed a special box-and-one defense just to deal with Baylor, who had scored 44 and 45 points in the two regular season Armstrong/Spingarn matchups that year. Mays was the one assigned to hound him. Baylor only had 18 points that night. Armstrong notched a win that the white press ignored but black folks of Mays’ generation still talk about.

And Mays told us about playing catcher for Armstrong’s baseball squad. Gary was recognized as the best player in the city at a time when the game was huge here. He’d been written up by Ebony magazine for his baseball skills during his junior year at Armstrong. A report in the Washington Daily News after his senior season said he’d hit .375, hadn’t made a single error, and that “no one has stolen a base on him all season.” He wasn’t invited to the All-High, All-Prep all-star game played at Griffith Stadium, however, because only white players were eligible. He got to play alongside white players at the Washington Senators home stadium a year later, when he was unanimously named MVP of the Daily News’ annual tryout camp for local baseball prospects. The newspaper’s write-up of the two-day camp said Mays hit the only home run of the camp-ending scrimmage and threw out the one runner who tried to steal on him. No pro scouts offered Mays a contract then, however.

And I got Gary to talk about getting on a train headed for Caldwell, Idaho, to join two of his running partners on the D.C. playgrounds —Baylor and Dunbar High’s Warren Williams—where they played basketball for the College of Idaho. With the bumper crop of black D.C. talent, that school with an almost all-white student body of 500, smack in the middle of the whitest part of the country, went undefeated in its conference for the 1954—1955 season, the first time in school history that had happened. The Caldwell newspaper talked up the “Globetrotter like” ballhandling routine Baylor and Mays put on for the crowds at halftimes of home games.

For reasons that were never explained in the Caldwell newspaper and Mays isn’t sure of all these years later, the College of Idaho administration fired the hoops coach and broke up the basketball program after the D.C. kids’ first season there.

After the Idaho team was disbanded, Mays got a personal letter from Abe Saperstein, the founder and owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, inviting him to join the team. But he pleaded homesickness, and he and Williams came back to D.C. After the one year at Idaho, Baylor went on to take Seattle University to the NCAA Final Four

No NCAA programs recruited from D.C.’s black schools during the two-tiered, segregated era. The only college that had showed any interest in Baylor despite his deification around these parts was Virginia Union, a historically black school in Richmond, Va. So the train trips Baylor, Williams, and Mays took out of D.C. to Idaho have an almost spiritual quality to anybody who cares about this city’s sports history. By the time Baylor had finished up at Seattle, the District was recognized as the most fertile recruiting ground in the nation. It helped that Baylor had a Hall of Fame run in the NBA with the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers, retiring in 1970 with a career scoring average of 27.1 points per game. Only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, both at 30.1 ppg, have higher averages.

Baylor’s dominance on a national stage only enlarged Mays’ reputation around his hometown. All local jocks of a certain age know him as the guy who had shut Baylor down.

And they know he’d done that, and all his other athletic exploits, despite having just one arm.

In 1940, when Mays was five years old and running around his grandmother’s house, he accidentally knocked a shotgun off a bench. When the firearm hit the floor, Mays left arm was blown off just below the shoulder.

“People asked me how I did things, how I was a catcher with one arm,” Mays told me last week, laughing. “I’d have been a catcher with two arms if I had ’em.”

A 1955 Jet magazine profile of Mays explained how he tossed out base stealers by tossing the ball in the air as he got out of his catcher’s crouch, flipped off his glove, and caught the ball in the middle of his throwing motion.

I’d heard the legend of the schoolboy known as the “One-Armed Bandit” for years before I found Mays in Fort Washington, Md. We’d talked on the phone, and he agreed to come by my house and pick me up. As I got in his car, I noticed he was talking on his cell phone and drinking a soda while driving—and, once more, he’s got just the one arm. “Put on your seat belt,” was the first thing he said to me.

His hero status in my eyes was only enhanced by what I saw when I went to pick him up at work for a lunch date in the summer of 2002. At the time he was installing security systems in the sewers around Henderson Hall, a Defense Department facility in Arlington, as part of a post-9/11 government contract he’d won for his small firm. It had to have been more than 90 degrees around here that afternoon, and with all the humidity Washington has to offer. When I showed up, Mays, then 67 years old, was in the parking lot lugging around the biggest manhole cover I’d ever seen—probably a couple hundred pounds of iron—with that one golden arm.

And while I was making him talk about himself at Washington Hospital Center, Mays even told me the wound often helped him out. “Elgin didn’t like my nub,” he said from his hospital bed. “So I kept rubbing it against him.”

His hospital roommate last week, a much younger man, was being treated for complications from diabetes, and had just had half his foot removed. I’ve looked at Gary Mays as a role model since I met him, and I’m not alone. As I was leaving, the roommate said he’s better off without the foot.

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