You didn’t go one-on-one with one-armed Gary Mays, who faced down runners, future stars and racism to carve out a legend for himself
EDITOR’S NOTE | “Characters” is a WestVirginiaVille series profiling West Virginia characters, living and dead, worth knowing about. As I thought about which “character” to begin with, I kept returning to Gary Mays, who I profiled in this July 24, 2016 story for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. I felt fortunate to write about this larger-than-life spirit. In the weeks of our encounters, he’d call me and start talking. I’d get off the phone a half-hour to an hour later. I had other things to get to—but Gary was talking. It was a delight to come to know this remarkable human being and the life he lived, the racism he confronted, and the challenges he overcame.
By Douglas John Imbrogno | WestVirginiaVille.com
This is a long-ish story about a one-armed guy from No. 1 Holler in rural Burnwell, West Virginia. He was 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 says.
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 stories are supposed to be out-of-fashion in this short-attention-span age. But the story of Garret ‘Gary’ Mays’ can’t be told in tweets or a few paragraphs. That’s 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 once you get him on the phone from his home in Ft. Washington, Maryland. Fact-checking follow-ups 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.
“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.”
Then, there’s the GoFundMe campaign to shoot a documentary and to pay for publishing that book about his colorful life, which 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,” on July 28, 2016, 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?
What about the 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, when he was a home-run-hitting catcher with a rifle for an arm?
Or how about in 1955 when 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 when he was 5-years-old, in Burnwell, on the other side of the mountain where basketball legend 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.”
“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.’”
His mother later 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.
“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.’”
He dealt with it. He loved baseball and would make homemade balls out of rolled-up rags, newspaper and black electrical tape. His Uncle Elijah was a pitcher and his Uncle Charles was a catcher on the segregated sandlot baseball teams of the day. They would bring home a precious thing: an actual stitched baseball.
Elijah would pitch, throwing heat. Charles would catch. Mays would crouch along with his uncle behind the catcher’s glove as balls slammed into his uncle’s mitt. “He just got the fear out of me,” Mays said. “He made sure I wasn’t afraid of the ball.”
By eighth grade, Mays learned to handle another ball. He got so good at basketball playing for the old Cabell Junior High School on Charleston’s West Side that he made all-state.
By 1950, he moved to Washington. D.C., for good to live with his mother. He started ninth grade at the city’s Armstrong Technical High School, a mecca for black ballplayers in the city’s still-segregated schools. He made the junior varsity team. But he was good enough to scrimmage with the varsity squad.
“And I was stealing the ball from all the varsity guys,” Mays said with a chuckle. “Mr. Charles Baltimore, my coach, he said, ‘Damn, that’s a one-armed bandit!’ That’s how I got that name.”
The newly-christened Bandit ended up being named team captain his senior year as a momentous game approached. His date with a soon-to-be legend nicknamed “Rabbit” was approaching.
The year was 1954, and segregation was still the law and custom of the land. A tidal wave was coming in May of that year with the Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka case, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.
But the wave had not yet hit. So, Armstrong High School was to meet Springarn High School for the basketball title in Division II, home to D.C.’s black teams. (Division 1 was for white teams).
The problem for Armstrong was that the undefeated Springarn had a lucky rabbit. Or rather Elgin “Rabbit” Baylor, who was averaging 37.5 points per game. In two regular season bouts, Baylor — who was friends with Mays from pickup games around the city — had helped to wallop Armstrong High, amassing 44 and 45 points in the games.
What to do?
Both Baylor and Mays were already high school sports icons in Washington, D.C., so things got interesting. Baltimore came up with a “box-in-one” defense. This amounted to four of the Armstrong players jamming things up in the shooting lane, while Bandit went one-on-one with Rabbit everywhere he went.
“Coach said: ‘Look, when he goes to the bathroom, I want you to go with him.’” Mays recalled. “I said, ‘What you mean?’ He said, ‘I want you to be that close to him!’”
Mays took the cue. He also added some psych-out mojo to the mix when he got close to Baylor. “I took my nub and rubbed it right in the crack of his butt. And he was no good after that. He didn’t like that!” May said, cackling with amusement.
With about 25 seconds in the game and Armstrong up 48-47, Baylor got the ball. Mays had, so far, held him to 18 points. Baylor was pissed, said Mays. The fans in the packed gym were on their feet.
“It’s you and me,” Baylor told Mays, meeting him just past half court.
Mays knew Baylor had a habit of flicking his head. He watched for it. “When he did that I threw sweat from my nub in his eye, stole the ball, and went down his right side and made a layup and we beat ‘em 50-47,” he said.
Mays said a sportswriter who wasn’t even in the gym that night wrote that a couple of other Armstrong players had made the steal and the score based on what he had been told. “I never got the right ink. The guy that wrote the article wasn’t even in the game. ESPN got it straight,” Mays said.
He was referring to a Feb. 28, 2011, profile by ESPN writer Patrick Hruby, a high-profile attempt to tell the tale of a remarkable, trailblazing black athlete who never got to a major league career in either sport at which he excelled.
Although he came close.
A lot of it had to do with Mays’ one arm. Or as Hruby writes in an immortal line: “Granted, an overstuffed anaconda of a right arm to shame Hulk Hogan …”
Mays’ first love was always baseball. At age 13, he shagged balls and was a bat boy for the sandlot team the Georgetown Panthers in D.C., eventually landing a spot on the team. He also made the Armstrong High School baseball team.
Center field was his sweet spot. But at some point, out of need, a coach called him into home base to fill in as a catcher.
A one-armed baseball catcher is a hard thing to envision, much less describe. But the base runners who tried to steal on him certainly knew how the process worked, usually to their dismay.
Preston Estes, a childhood friend from Mays’ Charleston days, gave it a go:
“If there was a runner on base that was attempting to steal — which very few were successful at — he would catch the ball, toss the ball in the air, put the glove under his nub on his left side and catch the ball as it came down.”
“A lot of us were amazed at the abilities he had. We were just sort of mesmerized. Couldn’t keep our eyes off of him, to tell you the truth.”
Then, he would throw.
“No one was hardly ever successful in stealing on him,” Estes said. “It was phenomenal. A lot of us were amazed at the abilities he had. We were just sort of mesmerized. Couldn’t keep our eyes off of him, to tell you the truth.”
For all his tale-telling, Mays is a pretty self-effacing guy. But he readily admits that players did not want to try to steal on him on his heyday. Sure, he had one arm. But about that arm: “Look, if you got a shotgun you have no problem. I had a cannon,” he said.
Mays was one of the top baseball prep players in D.C. his senior year, batting .375, yielding zero stolen bases and no errors, according to a Washington Daily News story. The Bandit had also earned profiles in Jet and Ebony magazines.
The Daily News story on Mays came out in 1955, a year after he had graduated. The newspaper was reporting on its two-day Baseball Talent Hunt, which attracted major league scouts and hundreds of boys, ages 16 to 21, with dreams of the big leagues.
The headline on the story: “One Armed Gary Mays Voted Outstanding in Camp.”
The story reported that Mays threw out one runner and a few minutes later lofted a 350-foot home run drive over the center fielder’s head. (This was not an unusual occurrence for Mays, who had stroked multiple one-arm home runs in games several times.)
The scouts unanimously voted Mays the outstanding player of the camp. The article made a point to note that “the scouts weren’t being just sympathetic because of May’s handicap.”
But the story went on to say that “it is unlikely, however, that any of the scouts will ask him to sign a contract as he remains a catcher,” because Mays “would be at a disadvantage with pitched balls thrown at him in the dirt.”
To this day, Mays scoffs at the statement. He could dig balls out of the dirt, he said.
“Racism is something. I get filled up when I hear all this stuff because I lived it. When you live racism, it’s terrible. We wasted a lot of time on racism.”
Was it racism? Mays is matter of fact in his response: “Yeah, sure. It was part of this country.” In another profile about him, he sounded a more philosophical tone: “That is the way it was, and no one ever said life was fair.”
In the book he is writing, he has gotten to a section where he talks about the prejudice and racism of those days, which, of course, is still a burning topic in American life and daily news headlines.
“Racism is something,” he said. “I get filled up when I hear all this stuff because I lived it. When you live racism, it’s terrible. We wasted a lot of time on racism.”
Being the multi-sport guy he was, Mays tried to make a basketball career of it, too. After graduating from Armstrong, Mays followed Baylor — who had always been a friend, despite the nub-rubbing incident — along with some other notable D.C. players—Warren Williams and R.C. Owens—to play at the College of Idaho in Caldwell.
While Mays rode the bench a lot, the team went on to its first undefeated season in Northwest Conference history. The players went their separate ways when the coach was fired after the ’54-55 season amid questions about bringing academically unqualified players to the team.
Baylor went on to have a legendary career. Mays, who had little interest in academics, dropped out and headed back to D.C.
He got a couple letters from Abe Saperstein, legendary coach and founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, proposing that Mays join the world-traveling basketball clowns. He’d seen the Bandit play.
Mays didn’t pursue it. “I never liked clowning, no way,” he said. “I’d be that one-arm freak show.”
He kept playing sandlot baseball for many years. He ran numbers, an under-the-table illegal lottery; opened his own liquor store. He was a cab and limo driver for years in D.C., driving around many a political luminary. He founded his own construction company.
Most of the jobs he had was him making his own way, a one-armed guy with one whole lot of determination. “All my life I had to hustle,” he said.
Proving himself was something he used as a challenge to make some money. He’d bet people he could tie his shoes faster than you. Or put on his wristwatch faster than you: “Want to bet $20?”
“I don’t know how much money I’ve won off people trying to beat me putting a watch on. That was my hustle,” he said, chuckling.
His reputation on the court and field precedes him, though. You’ll find him listed at the top of the heap on the D.C. Basketball Blog’s list of the “D.C. Basketball’s Best 55 Schoolboy Players of All Time.”
Dave McKenna, a Washington City Paper writer, who has been a one-man story archivist and champion for the legend of his “hero and friend,” described Mays in one article as “one of the greatest all-around athletes ever to call the city home.”
An old friend and teammate from his Armstrong High days, George Williams, has his own up-close perspective.
“You had to see it to believe, man,” said Williams, a lifelong D.C. resident., who played basketball for both Armstrong and Spingarn and has known Mays for 70 years.
“He would just shut them up completely with what he could do on the basketball court.”
Williams said you had to understand the basketball scene in the nation’s capital during the 1950s, where the proving ground was the pickup games on the city’s playgrounds.
“The basketball in Washington was not played so much in the high school as it was on the playgrounds—because you had so many phenomenal players that did not go to high school,” he said.
The “One Arm Bandit” brought the crowds.
When word got out that Mays was playing on some playground, you had 400 to 500 people come to see him, recalled Williams. “They said, ‘Man, that one-armed guy is playing!’ After awhile, they were breathless. He would just shut them up completely with what he could do on the basketball court.”
The crowds are all gone now, but the memories are still strong. Google up McKenna’s stories on Mays in Washington City Paper and scan through the comments to hear the delighted recollections of D.C. residents who witnessed Mays on the court or the diamond.
Nowadays, Mays enjoys spending time with his two grown children and his wife as he attends daily to the book he is writing about his life as his black Labrador retriever, ‘Bandit Garrett Mays,’ lounges nearby or barks loud enough to interrupt a phone interview.
Mays credits his grandmother with the advice that set his head straight after he came home from that Charleston hospital so long ago as a one-armed boy.
“My grandmother told me: ‘You got one arm. But you don’t need but one arm,’” he recalled.“‘So make do with the one.’”
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