We’ve just had an interesting exchange with Who2 reader Martin Bennett about the birth name of baseball legend Willie Mays. We had it listed as William Howard Mays, Jr., but Mr. Bennett wrote:
Willie Mays was my boyhood hero and remains my all-time fave, so I’m writing this kind of in defense of him. You have his real first name as William… [but] he was actually named Willie (Howard Mays Jr.), not William.
Upon further review, we think Mr. Bennett is right.
There does seem to be some modest amount of uncertainty about the topic. Mays was born in 1931 to Alabama teenagers, and there’s apparently no formal record of his birth.
His father’s name was William Howard Mays — he was born in 1912 and supposedly named for President William Howard Taft — so there’s some assumption or argument that as a “junior,” Willie must also have been William Howard Mays, Jr.
But most sources do list him as Willie Howard Mays, Jr. One of the few we found that commented directly on his birth name was the 2005 book Willie Mays: A Biography by Mary Kay Linge. She makes this note: “Many sources list his name as William Howard Mays, Jr. However, Mays’ own autobiographies never use this name, only ‘Willie Mays.'”
Also, we see that his Baseball Hall of Fame plaque reads “Willie Howard Mays, Jr.,” and that carries weight with us.
The Hall is careful about names: For instance, Ernie Banks is listed as “Ernest Banks,” and Richie Ashburn is “Don Richard Ashburn (Richie).” Surely they tried to get Mays right — and surely he had the chance to suggest “William” if that was his real name.
We’ve written to the San Francisco Giants front office to ask for their help, and we’ll continue to research the topic. But for now we’re going with Mr. Bennett (and the Hall of Fame): we’ve changed Willie Mays’s birth name to “Willie Howard Mays, Jr.”