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Shalom, Willie Mays (for SF MAGAZINE)

By Robin Dorman (

It is generally not known among baseball historians that Willie Mays almost paid a visit to Camp Shalom for girls in New York’s Adirondacks during the summer of 1966. The girls were asked to choose “a prominent person in their field” to come to the campsite--situated on an icy, tempestuous lake, enemy of the backstroke--and illuminate the spirit of beauty and mystery in the universe. The camp owner, Sylvia, a woman of deep intellect and an imperious, crusty exterior, naturally thought her girls would invite I. B. Singer, Irving Howe, Elizabeth Hardwick, or even Betty Friedan.

While athletics had their place at the camp (“If you don't win, don't come home,” Sylvia warned one swimmer before competition), intellectual pursuits were exalted. Before camp opened, reading assignments were issued in preparation for the weekly book club meetings. There was the New York Times Sunday social hall gathering with the peremptory command “Boys like girls who read the New York Times” posted everywhere around the camp. Lectures covered everything from the history of the labor movement to Martin Buber’s I and Thou. So it came as quite a blow to Sylvia when the girls chose for the camp visit the San Francisco Giants’ Willie Mays, who earlier in the summer had shattered Mel Ott's National League record of 511 career homers.

...As he spoke, I looked with wonder at his hands: large, strong, expressive hands; hands that made the most mysterious and beautiful catches. Within me stirred a maelstrom of awakening, a flooding of memories: how Willie was as much a part of summer camp as rounds of “Row row row your boat,” Franny and Zooey, and huge campfires out under a black mountain sky suffused with stars as fat as home plate.