Get our free newsletter
Last week, Gary Mays was offered a left arm by the state of Maryland. When he was just 5 years old, he lost the one he was born with to a shotgun blast. That was 61 years ago.
On Friday, Mays told his buddies at the Wiltberger Street social club he’s frequented for several decades that he might finally be getting a new wing. They laughedjust as he expected they would. His longtime pals think that the happy, humble Mays has no more use for another arm than they do.
“The One-Armed Bandit don’t need another arm,” George Washington tells me with a howl. “Just ask Elgin.” Washington, a Riggs Park resident who has known Mays since junior high, is referring to Elgin Baylor, D.C.’s finest basketball export ever. The comment gets knowing nods and guffaws from everybody in the clubhouse. Everybody, that is, but Mays, who just seems embarrassed to be mentioned alongside the almost mythical Rabbit.
He should be used to that by now. Many folks of a certain age and race in this town regard Mays, now 66, as one of the greatest all-around athletes ever to call the city home. Much of his renown came from the night in 1954 when his Armstrong Tech team beat the undefeatedand allegedly unbeatableSpingarn squad in what turned out to be the last Metro City Series Tournament, the city championships for “colored” high schools. Spingarn was led by Baylor, who was a legend on local blacktops the likes of which the city hadn’t seen before and hasn’t seen since. (One sign of his local eminence: The real name of D.C.-born R&B chart-topper Ginuwine is Elgin Baylor Lumpkin.)
In his senior season at Spingarn, Baylor broke every schoolboy scoring record that mattered, tallying 37.5 points per game and notching 70 points in one memorable contest. In two regular season matchups against Armstrong, both blowouts, Baylor scored 45 and 44 points, respectively. But the day of the playoff game, Armstrong coach Charles Baltimore called a team meeting to tell his players that if they were going to lose to Spingarn yet again, Baylor wasn’t going to be the one to beat them. On the blackboard, he quickly scrawled a box-and-one defense, a rather gimmicky scheme in which four players clog up the lane with a zone and the fifth shadows the opposition’s top scorer all over the court.
Mays, Armstrong’s senior captain, was assigned to shadow Baylor.
“Coach told me that if Elgin goes to the bathroom, I’m to follow him in,” Mays recalls.
Mays was also already something of a celebrity by the time of his famous matchup with Baylor. He’d been profiled before the 1953-1954 school year by Ebony and Jet magazines, both of which hailed the handsome rising senior as a multisport starhe also played catcher on Armstrong’s baseball teamand an inspiration to teammates and opponents for doing it all with just one arm. Mays had lost his arm on Election Day 1940, when an older relative’s shotgun fell off a bench and discharged as the youngster chased a cat around the back porch of his grandmother’s house in West Virginia, where he was living at the time. The shot severed his left arm a few inches below the shoulder.
Mays, who never met his father, moved to D.C. to live with his mother when he was 12, but life inside her Capitol Hill home was never stable. So he spent almost his entire childhood outdoors playing sports and learned everything he needed on the ballfields. “On the playgrounds, nobody would choose me until I beat them,” Mays says. “So I had to beat them.”
In their final tilt, it was Mays, not Baylor, who lived up to the star billing. In front of a standing-room-only crowd at Spingarn, Mays held Baylor to 18 points, less than half his season’s average, leading to a 50-47 Armstrong win.
The Daily News, the only one of the three D.C. daily newspapers that devoted any resources to covering black prep sports, credited the win to Mays’ “hustling and expert shooting”an opinion seconded by fans and even opposing players: Mays was awarded an honorary Spingarn letter jacket after the season. But Mays, who was a pal of Baylor’s for years before their big game, has a more modest take: His left arm, or what was left of it, is what really shut Baylor down. “Elgin didn’t like my nub,” he says with a chuckle, “so I just rubbed it up against his butt all night, and he couldn’t handle it.”
Following basketball season, Mays put on his cleats and got back to the game he and his pals at the social club say was his best. “Gary had gifts from God,” says Nathaniel “Nappy” Washington, Mays’ longtime baseball coach, now 93 (and no relation to George). “Nobody who ever saw him catch or swing called him handicapped.”
Mays had been playing baseball in adult sandlot leagues with Nappy Washington’s teams since he was just 13. His teammates on the barnstorming squads had discovered that they could make mad money on the side because of his apparent disability.
“People would talk about stealing bases as soon as they saw the one-armed catcher,” Mays says. “So the first time a guy would get on base, I’d try to throw the ball over the center fielder’s head, just as far and wild as I could. And then we’d start betting.” And then the stealing would end. (Mays’ pals at the social club also claim that they’ve never lost a bet that he can get his shoes on and tied, or put on a wristwatch, faster than anybody else in the bar.)
He played things straight while wearing Armstrong’s uniform, however. During his senior year, Mays was named one of three finalists for the city’s MVP in baseball. The Daily News story about the nominations said that the Armstrong catcher hit .375 for the year and didn’t make an error, and that “no one has stolen a base on him all season.” The article also mentioned, very matter-of-factly, that “the award would be conferred at the All-High, All Prep Game at Griffith Stadium,” but only if Mays didn’t win. The reason, which in a pre-Brown vs. Board of Education mindset didn’t even rate explanation, was that black kids weren’t allowed to play in the all-star game; the other two MVP nominees were white kids from all-white schools. “I heard that I won the vote, but I never got anything. I don’t think they gave the award to anybody,” Mays says.
Upon getting his Armstrong diploma, Mays followed Baylor and another star athlete from the District, Warren Williams from Dunbar High, to the College of Idaho in Caldwell, 20 miles east of the Oregon border. Mays admits that he never felt like college material, academically speaking, but thought it would be fun to join Baylor, who had his own GPA deficiencies, in the middle of nowhere. The D.C. contingent hit the Great Northwest like a tsunami. In their one and only basketball season at the Caldwell campus, Baylor, Williams, and Mays led the Coyotes to the first undefeated season in Northwest Conference history. Though Baylor was clearly the star, Mays was a fan favorite and was hailed in the local paper for performing a “Globetrotter-like” dribbling and shooting routine with his old rival from Spingarn for the home crowds during halftimes.
The C of I administration didn’t take to the highflying outsiders, however. The basketball coach was fired after the 1954-1955 season as part of a campaign to de-emphasize athletics, and the D.C. clique split up after just one year. Baylor went off to the University of Seattle and continued along the road to NBA transcendence: His career scoring average of 27.5 points per game in his 12 years with the Lakers ranks as the third-highest in league history, behind only those of guys named Jordan and Chamberlain.
Mays got letters from Abe Saperstein, the legendary coach and founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, asking him if he’d be interested in joining the squad. At the time, a spot on the Globetrotters’ roster was a far higher-profile and higher-paying gig than playing in the NBA. But Mays didn’t want to put up with the travel, so instead he came back to D.C. to take a swing at a baseball career.
He figured he’d get his shot in June 1955, after the Daily News’ annual tryout weekend at Griffith Stadium. In a two-day camp that brought together several hundred prospective players and scouts from most big-league squads, Mays, who was listed in the program simply as a catcher who “bats right, throws right,” stood out. He hit the only home run of the intracamp scrimmage and threw out the one runner who tried to steal on him. In the same stadium where he wasn’t allowed to play in an all-star game just a year earlier, the scouts unanimously named Mays the camp’s MVP.
But none of the scouts offered Mays a contract.
“That was frustrating. Very frustrating,” he says. “I never got a whiff.”
He watched as friends and fellow campers were signed and shipped off to the minors: Chuck Hinton, another catcher at the tryouts, went on to an 11-year career with the Senators, Angels, and Indians. (Hinton, now also 66, retired last year as Howard University’s baseball coach and as a counselor at the Marie Reed Recreation Center in Adams Morgan.)
Mays kept hope for his baseball career alive for another decade, traveling around the mid-Atlantic region with sandlot squads for next to no pay. He gave up the ghost in the mid-’60s. That’s when he felt handicapped for the first time in his life.
“Nobody would hire me,” he says. “I’d do anything, but I couldn’t get work.”
So Mays created most of the jobs he’s had over the years. He drove a cab and ran a numbers gamean under-the-table progenitor of the legalized lotterybefore coming up with the money to open his own liquor store. These days, he operates a small contracting firm called Specialized Services. Most of his off-hours are spent in his Fort Washington home, where he’s raising the two kids that he had at a rather advanced age. He tells me his daughter recently made the honor roll in her seventh-grade class, and that his son, a first-grader, did the same.
Mays is far more at ease talking about the accomplishments of his offspring than about his own athletic prowess. Asked why he doesn’t like to reminisce about himself, given how divine some of his own glory days seem, Mays says, “I have a theory: People who always talk about what they did never really did anything. So I don’t like to talk too much.” Dave McKenna