HAGERSTOWN -- Leaf through any baseball history book worth its salt, and there will be a picture of him. It'll probably be the one in which he has his back to the camera, poised to make a logic-defying basket grab in front of the enormous Polo Grounds wall during the 1954 World Series.

"The Catch," as it is known, is fundamental evidence in the argument that Willie Mays was the finest all-around player in baseball history. His illustrious 22-year career -- which included four World Series, two MVPs and a Hall-of-Fame induction -- had countless storybook qualities.

The first game of his professional career wasn't one of them.

On Monday night, Mays returned to Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium -- birthplace of his play-for-pay days, and, according to his 1988 autobiography, "Say Hey," site of the worst racial treatment he received in his career.

Fifty-four years later, Hagerstown apologized to Mays.

If his tears were any indication, "The Say Hey Kid" accepted.

"In 1950 when I was here, it was such a sad moment," the 73-year-old Mays said while addressing the crowd before the Hagerstown Suns-Asheville Tourists Class A contest. "But everything works out. I had the same situation in San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis. ... I have no regrets of coming back."

Some history: In June of 1950, three years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Brooklyn, a 19-year-old Mays made his debut with the Trenton Giants at Municipal Stadium. As the first black player in the Interstate League, his first game was against the Hagerstown Braves.

It wasn't a warm welcome for the future National League Rookie of the Year. The Hagerstown crowd directed racial comments at Mays.

In response to the slurs, the youngster cranked a couple of home runs -- one of which he swears landed on a house behind the stadium -- as the rude fans sat on their hands during the three-game series.

"I only had three games here and in those three games, I killed you guys," Mays said during a pregame reception at the Clarion Hotel.

Perhaps the poor treatment was just a sign of the times, when black ballplayers weren't prevalent and segregation was. Even so, said Hagerstown Mayor Bill Breichner, "There was no excuse for that to happen to any individual."

This time, Hagerstown went all out for Mays, planning a festive reunion that probably wouldn't have occurred if the Suns weren't affiliated with the San Francisco Giants.

"It's probably long overdue," said 32-year-old Hagerstown native Bill LeDane.

A crowded reception greeted Mays at the Clarion. When he was introduced by Suns General Manager Kurt Landes, a green curtain parted and Mays emerged, tipping his Giants cap before sitting down to hearty applause.

Mays then spoke, telling the audience he was glad he returned, so he could see what the town was all about. "Before I start crying," he said, "I better pass for awhile," motioning to Landes.

Mays then lifted his glasses and dabbed tears as the fans rose again.

There was gushiness galore. All eyes were on the man who could have provided DNA for baseball's "five-tool player."

During down moments at the reception, grown men blurted, "You're the greatest," setting off standing ovations each time. Mays, no doubt a veteran recipient of such praise, sat and smiled.

Mays engaged in plenty of amusing banter with others. When Mayor Breichner said he thought Mays should have brought a body guard, such as his record-breaking Godson, Barry Bonds, the old ballplayer cracked, "Gotta get a new ballpark, man," referring to 74-year-old Municipal Stadium.

Another time, a gentleman informed an unknowing Mays that he was on deck when teammate Bobby Thompson hit "The Shot Heard Around the World" to win the 1951 pennant.

"People probably know more about me than I know about myself," Mays responded.

Before heading to the ballpark, Landes announced that the Suns would retire Mays' No. 24 jersey (even though he wore No. 12 with Trenton) and that Memorial Boulevard, which runs next to Municipal Stadium, would be dedicated as Willie Mays Way.

At the stadium, reprinted photographs of "The Catch" were toted by nearly everyone. Mays arrived in a white Buick, and the anxious crowd cheered when he opened the door to step out.

"I didn't really think I would get the ovation I received today," Mays said. "It's wonderful."

Moments later, still wearing his suit jacket, Mays fired a strike for the game's ceremonial first pitch.

Just inside the gate to the field, the mayor's wife, Gann Breichner, talked about how this was the best day of her husband's career. She said she knew Mays would return to Hagerstown if he was approached correctly. "He's a man with a big heart," she said.

Outside the stadium, Hagerstown native Sean Guy proudly displayed his Mays memorabilia: Wrapped in a plastic folder, he carried a copy of the Hagerstown-Trenton game program from the legendary player's 1950 visit. Guy, owner of an antique market, bought it from a friend for $15.

A Mays autograph was on his agenda all evening.

"I think it's a great thing that (Mays) could come back and we could handle it as gracefully as we did," Guy said of his hometown. "He said he got treated bad everywhere he went, so it wasn't just Hagerstown. But it's bad being first on the list."

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