Nelson George felt like a rookie ballplayer being hazed by a veteran.
Even though George is an established filmmaker and journalist — and 65 years old — Willie Mays always has had a way of testing people’s mettle en route to earning his trust.
George found that out on the first of two days of interviews with Mays, now 91, for his new HBO documentary, “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” It premieres on Tuesday.
“On Day One, he definitely tested me, dude,” George told Newsday with a laugh. “He asked me at one point: ‘How long have you been doing this?’ [and] questioning my credentials.”
Nelson thought to himself, “Oh, man, this is going to be rough.”
Then he switched gears, treating Mays more like an uncle and less like an icon, making things less formal. Finally, Mays opened up.
“I had to be hazed, and once we kind of broke the ice, on that next day we came back, he was great,” Nelson said.
Mays long has been a reluctant interview subject, and George said this was the first time he agreed to a formal sitdown for an authorized documentary.
Even though Mays still is sharp and engaging, George had to pick his spots.
“I couldn’t rely on him to be the Michael Jordan of this,” George said, referring to Jordan’s role in “The Last Dance” on ESPN. “He’s just too old to remember all the details. Also, there is the energy [level], and his hearing is not great.”
But after a year’s setback because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nelson was glad Mays was able to speak for himself, along with interview subjects that include his godson, Barry Bonds, and Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal.
George is old enough to recall Mays in his later years with the Giants in San Francisco and his final years with the Mets in the early 1970s.
One of his goals was not only to feed the nostalgia of senior citizens such as himself but to educate younger ones.
“People think of the ’60s and they think about [Muhammad] Ali, but before Ali’s emergence, Willie Mays is probably the nation’s number one athlete,” Nelson said.
“He was bigger than Bill Russell, bigger than Wilt Chamberlain, bigger than Jim Brown, because he was playing baseball, and baseball at that point was still the number one sport in America.
“And he played the glamour position [of centerfield], and he played it with flair. And so not only does he have those numbers that are so impressive, but just from the eye test of watching him play, he had a charisma.”
One strategy for drawing in a broad audience was to find as much color footage as possible, thus bringing the era to life. Some of it came from the garage of a collector in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Part of our mission is trying to visually reconnect him, and sometimes for younger viewers, black-and-white seems like it’s another planet,” George said.
George grew up in Brooklyn on what he described as a street full of Blacks and Puerto Ricans who were captivated by the Giants of Mays’ era, a team loaded with Black and Latin-American stars. The film covers Mays’ role as a mentor and protector of many of those players, in part because of his strong relationship with manager Alvin Dark from their days together in New York.
Dark made Mays the Giants’ captain, and Mays tried to broker peace in 1964 after Dark was quoted in Newsday disparaging his Black and Hispanic players. It was one of many examples of the arc of Mays’ career covering notable trends in baseball history.
He began in the Negro Leagues, was part of baseball’s move to the West Coast, was what Nelson called “a father figure” to many early Latin players and eventually was a mentor to both Bobby Bonds and his son Barry, baseball’s all-time leader in career and single-season home runs.
“So his career covers a lot of different significant turning points in baseball history,” George said.
Most of Mays’ contemporaries are gone now. The Yankees’ Mickey Mantle, the New York centerfielder with whom he often was compared, was born 5 1⁄2 months after Mays but died in 1995.
Mays played 23 seasons in the major leagues. He was a Rookie of the Year, a two-time Most Valuable Player and a 24-time All-Star. He led the National League in home runs four times, hit 660 career homers, compiled a .302 career batting average and had 3,283 hits. He made arguably the greatest catch in baseball history in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series at the Polo Grounds, a back-to-the-plate running grab of Vic Wertz’s drive about 425 feet from home plate.
Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1979 and was named to MLB’s All-Century Team in 1999.
“Willie Mays, he’s become kind of mythic,” George said. “Everyone knows Willie Mays. It’s a name. It’s part of the culture. It’s really helpful that we put some flesh and bones on him as a human being.”
In the process, George said, he wanted to “certify the belief that he’s the greatest baseball player maybe of all time,” but also to put his cultural significance into context.
“He was one of the most beloved sports figures in American history at a time when the civil rights movement was really taking wing,” George said.
“Willie in his own way as a presence, as a hero to generations of young white baseball fans, was another important force in changing America.’’