CHARACTERS: Recalling the Amazing One-Armed Bandit

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The life of a journalist is often filled with mundane daily tasks– get the calendar edited, rewrite a press release and add some live quotes, track down a source who isn’t returning e-mails. Then, you get to talk to Gary Mays. Gary, a West Virginia native, had his left arm shot off at age 5. What happened next was the stuff of legend and lore, complicated by the racism that maybe defused the possibility of a pro sports career. He was a true original and an appropriate first entry into a  WestVirginiaVille collection of ‘Characters’ born in the Mountain State. Gary Mays died at age 82 on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. See Dave McKenna’s touching tribute. Below is a July 2016 profile of Mays I wrote for the Gazette-Mail when Gary was in full-on anecdote mode.

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Douglas Imbrogno | The Charleston Gazette-Mail | July 24, 2016

Listen, this is a long-ish story about a one-armed guy from No. 1 Holler in rural Kanawha County. A guy who was once recruited by the Harlem Globetrotters and turned them down.

This is a guy who — in a legendary high school game — once flicked sweat from his stump into the eyes of future NBA great Elgin Baylor, stole the ball and swept past him to put the game away.

That’s how the story of that game goes, and Gary Mays — aka The One Arm Bandit — is sticking to it, even if the official account of that long-ago night got the game-ending steal and layup all wrong, he said.

And don’t even talk about him being handicapped.

“People see you with one arm and they say, ‘He’s handicapped.’ Well, they don’t know if I’m handicapped or not!” Mays said.

Long-ish newspaper stories are supposed to be out of fashion in this short-attention-span age. But Gary Mays’ story can’t be told in tweets or a few paragraphs.

Partly, because he is an 81-year-old man of many, many words. In fact, you can hardly get him to stop telling story after story after story once you get him on the phone from his home in Ft. Washington, Maryland. Fact-checking follow-up calls turn into another avalanche of anecdotes.

Maybe you’ll read about some of those stories when he finishes the autobiography he’s writing, “The Amazing Gary Mays,” which also happens to be the title of a folk song someone released about him.

And the GoFundMe campaign ( to shoot a documentary and pay for that book’s publishing about his colorful life could use a lot more donations if his story is ever to reach a wider audience.

Meanwhile, local readers can get a flavor of the man in person. He is featured in “The Block Speaker Series: A Personal Perspective of African American Life,” starting 6 p.m. Thursday at the West Virginia Culture Center Archives, sponsored by the West Virginia Center for African-American Art & Culture.

But for right now — what story to start with?

Maybe that day in 1954 when the Bandit put the kibosh on Rabbit, as Elgin Baylor was known, whose already legendary prowess was shut down by a one-armed nuisance?

Or maybe Mays’ career as a high school and sandlot baseball folk wonder, as a home-run-hitting baseball catcher with a rifle for an arm? Or how in 1955 he rocked a major league baseball tryout but didn’t earn a contract, most probably because his skin was the wrong color?

Perhaps the best place to start is that day at age 5, in Burnwell, on the other side of the mountain where Jerry West was born in Chelyan, when young Garrett Mays lost his left arm.

That was, after all, what was to transform the boy into The One Arm Bandit.

“I was born in 1935 in the middle of the Depression without a father,” Mays said. “It was hell.”

His mother moved to Washington, D.C., and remarried. Mays lived with his grandmother in Burnwell. His uncles worked in the mines.

The skinny black kid played with the white kids. He was tight with two of them, the brothers Billy and Boo Hudson.

“You know, man, I lived in No. 1 Holler at Burnwell, and I didn’t know what color I was until I got ready to go to school,” Mays said.

“That was the most disappointing thing that ever happened to me in my life is when I turned 5 in September 1940 and I had to go to school. Boo went up to the white school, and I went to the black school.”

There was no segregation in No. 1 Holler, he said. “We didn’t know anything about it because Billy and Boo, we did everything together.”

The boys had a great time that Halloween. Then, election day rolled around. A local man with a car was supposed to come by to take his grandma to vote. Mays was told to keep an eye out for him.

But one of his uncles had borrowed a friend’s new pump-action Winchester to go squirrel hunting. The uncle returned with the gun and some squirrels, which Mays was eager to check out.

“My uncle laid the gun down on the bench on the back porch and the shells rolled off and dropped in the water and my uncle’s friend Rufus Harris ran down the steps and shook the porch,” Mays said. “The gun fell over and shot my arm off. It hit right in my elbow.”

The man who had come to ferry his grandma to vote happened to be out front.

“God was with me because if he hadn’t been there in front of the house, I might have died,” Mays said.

They drove the boy to a doctor in Mahan, applied a tourniquet to the bloody stump, then hustled him to Charleston General Hospital.

“A red-headed white lady was crying like a baby, and I passed out,” he recalled. “The only thing I remember is waking up the next day. And I had one arm. And I said, ‘Well, I can deal with this, I guess.’” … | READ ON


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