In 1940, Beck Shepherd, owner of East Ninth Shoe Shine Parlor, was rounding up players for his semi-pro “blackball” team, the Chattanooga Choo Choos. Though the club wasn’t part of the newly reformed Negro American League, and lasted only six years, Shepherd was the first team owner to let the “Say Hey” Kid play ball on a professional field.
William Howard Mays, known better as “Willie” to his high school classmates and millions of baseball fanatics throughout history, first stepped onto a professional baseball field at Engel Stadium.
Willie Mays: High School
Born in Whitfield, Alabama, on May 6, 1931, William Howard Mays grew up a gifted athlete. At his high school in Fairfield, Alabama, he was the football team’s quarterback and an all-state basketball player. But Mays harbored a love for baseball – a love his father fanned and his mother feared.
As a medal-winning sprinter herself, she knew the potential pain her son faced pinning his hopes and dreams on a life as an athlete in a world divided by color. Instead of baseball, she urged her son to focus on school but his father pushed him to excel on the playing field.
The pair divorced over the issue.
When she died at only 34 years of age, Willie’s father was free to openly encourage his son’s pursuit of his dreams.
Mays continued to focus on baseball, watching the Birmingham Black Barons play and practicing hour-after-hour around his house.
Willie Mays Comes to Chattanooga
So during the summers of 1945 and 1946, while Mays was completing his 9th and 10th grade school years, his father would drive him to Chattanooga to play professional baseball for Shepard’s Chattanooga Choo Choos.
The Chattanooga Lookouts’ Class AA ball club was the last stop for rising athletes bound for the majors, and Mays must have known this was his chance to draw some big league attention while he was still in high school.
So Willie and his father drove from Fairfield to Chattanooga many times during the summers of 1945 and 1946 – Mays’ freshman and sophomore years in high school – so Mays could take to the field potentially playing in front of big league scouts in town to recruit the Lookouts.
He honored his mother’s wishes not to play professional baseball before graduating high school, and he never signed a contract with the Choo Choos.
“Yes, I discovered Willie,” Shepherd said years later. “I saw him go get some hard hit balls and saw him get rid of them. Even then, he was a natural ballplayer – a great ballplayer. I said to myself right then – get this boy on your Choo Choos and you’ve got it made. He’s the best.”
The Choo Choos Shut Down While Mays Moves Up
During the middle of the 1946 season, Beck Shepherd went broke and the Chattanooga Choo Choos folded – only in existence for a handful of years and failing to draw a large enough crowd to pay the bills.
With a payroll of $3,300 per month, Shepherd knew it would be expensive to maintain the team. He blamed the end of the club on a string of bad weather through the 1946 season that followed the team across the country, canceling games, preventing ticket sales, and losing business.
Shepherd lost $17,000 before going completely broke and disbanding the team.
The Chattanooga Lookouts & 100 Years of Scenic City Baseball
Steve Martini is the author of: The Chattanooga Lookouts & 100 Years of Scenic City Baseball