The LuLac Edition #262, July 10th, 2007
I've told this story on the lecture circuit in the eighties. Now my lecture circuit was a bunch of sports banquets that Sunday Dispatch staff couldn't or wouldn't make. Writing a sports column for the paper at the time, I was the natural choice to give a talk. Like any speaker, I found that the best stories you told were true. Trouble was, I didn't have any real anecdotes in my arsenal until I had the opportunity to meet Willie Mays in Atlantic City in January of 1981. At that time, I was working on a book project on baseball that never got finished. But I was making the old college try. I accumulated interviews with some of the greats, Aaron, Rose, Mantle, Berra and a few others of note. Willie Mays was missing and on a lark, I wrote to the hotel in Atlantic City where he was a greeter. At that time, Willie was working at Bally's Park Place and Mickey Mantle was across the street at The Claridge. Much to my surprise, I got a response from the Hotel's Director of Promotions, Marie Lynch, telling me I'd have an interview with Willie Mays on Saturday afternoon January 24th at 3pm. That was the easy part, then I realized I had to get to Atlantic City to see the "Say Hey" kid. I told a good friend of mine, Frank Martin from Scranton that I had this chore to do for my column. Frank, always enthusiastic about baseball volunteered to go with me. The most loyal and devoted Mickey Mantle and New York Yankee fan of all, Frank nonetheless wanted to meet Willie. At the time, gambling was first taking hold in Atlantic City. Martz Trailways had buses daily going to A.C. and I found that this would be the most ecomincal way to go. We left out of Wilkes Barre, got $15.00 in quarters and a ticket to a buffet dinner at the hotel. Arriving at 10:45AM, I checked in with the promotions desk and was told Marie Lynch wanted to see me. Upon seeing me with my tape recorder, note pad and microphoine, Ms. Lynch looked terrified. "I am so sorry to tell you that Willie won't be able to make that 3pm interview today. Something has come up in the casino, I apologize. Can we offer you an alternate plan, Willie hasn't eaten breakfast, would you like to eat with him this morning?" she asked. I was stunned. Breakfast with Willie Mays! Even for a hard bitten Indians fan like me, I was trembling. Me, David Yonki from Pittston, Junction having breakfast with a boyhood hero I had seen on black and white TV. A hero that I looked away from in 1973 when he stumbled in the outfield for the New York Mets! "Of course we'd love to have brekfast with Willie Mays!" we both said simultaneously. We were escorted to the dining room and in a few miniutes Willie Mays appeared wearing a gold sportscoat, dark pants and white Bally's golf shirt. Willie and Frank ordered the sausage, eggs and biscuits. I had a job to do and ordered an orange juice. No food, no Coke, I wasn't going to be belching in front of the "Say Hey" kid. We talked about the players of the day, his days in San Francisco (had an adjustment problem at first but then grew to adopt San Fran as his hometown) and New York, (still missed his old haunts near the Polo Grounds) his toughest pitcher to face(Bob Purkey of all people of the Reds and Pirates) and the rivalry between the Dodgers and the Giants. (played every game like it was the seventh game of te World Series, because of the New York connection). After a while, Willie wanted to know about us. When we told him we were from a paper in Pennsylvania, he was impressed we journeyed to see him. Asking how we got there, I was fully prepared to tell him the limo brought us down and that we'd be going back in style. Frank beat me to the punch interjecting, "Oh Willie, did we get a deal, we came down on a gambling bus, had to sit near the john but it wasn't too bad. Got $15 dollars in quarters and a free ticket for a buffet (he pronounced it boo-fay) meal at the joint here tonight!" Willie immediately eyed us suspiciously. There was dead silence until Frank again unwittingly saved the day. Chomping on the eggs, Frank looked at Willie and said, "These eggs are pretty good Willie, haynna?" Willie Mays, known for his trademark high pitched voiced blurted out, "Say what?" Frank repeated that he thought the eggs were pretty good but Willie wanted to know about "haynna" I now had to defend the honor of Northeastern Pennsylvania's language and explained to Willie that "haynna" was a colloquialism indigenous to the region and even exagerrated that it came over with the Pilgrims in the 1600s. I told him it was a form of agreement, like, "don't you believe?" or "don't you concur?". Willie nodded thoughtfully and repeated the word a few times. We then finished up, Willie offered to pose for a few pictures which I stupidly refused (because I had this illusion I was Dick Young!) and signed two balls for me and my sidekick. We walked to the elevators at Bally's and looked at Willie as he got on one of them. He waved to us and as the door closed, we noticed to Willie's right was a harried looking chambermaid in a black and white uniform with her towell cart. We then heard Willie say to the woman, "Hey, nice day out there today for January, haynna?" As we spent our quarters, ate our meal and went home on the bus that night, I thought that for at least a brief time, Willie Mays, Hall of Fame baseball icon is using the word "haynna" in Atlantic City, and thinking it was the King's English. And tonight, as Willie Mays was honored in San Francisco at the All Star game, I couldn't help but crack a smile and thank providence for my encounter, (Martz bus, quarters and buffet meal notwithstanding,) with the "Say Hey" kid, Willie Mays.