It has been said “Don’t ever look back because someone might be gaining on you.” In the case of Black people in America there was never a need for White folks to look back.” We have yet to gain on them!
For example; in 1969 the income for White households doubled that of Black households. In 2011 when people measured the progress of blacks in America, the first thing they pointed to was a Black President in the White House.
The real measure of success in America has always been financial success. In 2011 the average White household still doubles that of a Black house hold (1969 and 2009 Census).
In February 2011 I coordinated and hosted a series of Black History Moments in Sports at the historical and World famous Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, DC. Much of the series was spend honoring unsung heroes in the Black Community.
In February 1926 the legendary and great writer/poet Carter G. Woodson gave us Black History Week and in 1976 Black History Week evolved into Black History Month. This disproves the myth of White folks giving us the shortest month of the year. The month of February and the annual tribute was a Black man’s idea!
The most popular tribute at Ben’s Chili Bowl was the one paid to Gary Mays who as a young child had his left arm blown off by an accidental blast from a shotgun, he was 5 years old.
Gary attending a tribute and sharing a laugh with Michael Wilbon at a tribute to him
Gary moved to Washington, DC from West Virginia at the age of twelve. His story of growing up on the tough streets and playgrounds of Washington, DC should be on a movie screen.
He had a double whammy growing up he was a black male child and had one arm. Gary grew up in NW DC in a neighborhood where it would have been a challenge for a two armed kid.
The bullies that he encountered would make today’s bullies look like choir boys. Thanks to a knockout punch in his powerful right arm and hand allowed him to take names and kicked ass.
The powerful punch was developed early thanks to his uncle Charles Aubrey who was a semi-pro baseball catcher in West Virginia. During backyard catch games Gary was on the receiving end of his uncle’s many fast balls thrown high and sometimes low and in the dirt. This daily drill helped to prepare him as young kid to be a one of a kind athlete.
When Gary left for D.C. to live with his mother, one of his Uncle Charles’ teammates gave him a parting gift, it was a baseball glove. The rest is baseball history and what legends are made of today.
Once he had arrived in DC he started playing organized baseball at the age of thirteen with young men years older on a team called the Georgetown Panthers.
Gary picked Armstrong Technical High school to take his athletic skills to the next level. He was already a playground legend and still his baseball coach Major Robinson was a skeptic. He didn’t think Gary could make his team. But it didn’t take him long to make a believer out of Coach Robinson.
He was not only a feared catch but was a power hitter his bat was just as feared as his throwing arm.
I first heard of Gary through my older brother the late Robert Alfred Bell better known as Bobby. My brother played second-base on the Armstrong team.
We grew up with my grandmother and Bobby would come home and tell stories about the feats of his one armed teammate. I thought he was making these stories up until I saw “The One Arm Bandit” with my own eyes.
I was a student at Brown Middle school in the early 50s when Gary and Elgin Baylor were the talk of the town.
Brown Middle School is located at 24th and Benning Road in NE DC. It sits on a hill like no other school system in America. There are three other schools located within a stone’s throw of each other. First there is Spingarn High School the home of NBA Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing, next is Charles Young Elementary, and directly behind it sits Phelps Vocational High School and at the end of the street there is Brown Middle School.
The basketball court that sits directly across from Brown is the site of some memorable playground basketball games that included the likes of Gary, Elgin, Bing, John Thompson, Willie Wood, Willie Jones, etc. Elgin and Dave are in the NBA Hall of Fame and Willie Wood is in the NFL Hall of Fame. The late Len Ford of Armstrong is the other student/athlete in the NFL Hall of Fame.
The DC Public School system is the only public school system in America that can lay claim of having four student/athletes in the NFL and NBA Hall of Fames.
Directly across the street from Spingarn is historical Langston Golf Course where I got to see Heavyweight Boxing Champion Joe Louis and legendary golfer Charlie Sifford up close and personal.
This unique school setting allowed me to watch my brother and Gary play at least twice a year.
This historical hill and school system are an endangered species. In the near future this hill will be the home of the rich and famous with million dollar homes and condoms replacing the schools.
The golf course will become a country club for the residents who will definitely not look like us. They will dock their boats on the Anacostia River and travel by streetcar on Benning Road to work and back home.
There is no way in hell the city is building street car tracks for Black and poor high school students to share with rich White folks! “The Educational Hill” will disappear right before our very eyes and become the Residential Hill.
Gary said, “This has been in the plans for decades.”
When he became a high school senior he was built like a linebacker at 5-foot-11, 185-pound with an arm and wrist so powerful he threw would be base stealers out with ease.
The Washington Star, Daily News and the Times Herald ignored his great feats on the field of play. Despite the non-recognition he was still named as one of three finalists for the Paris Trophy, given to the city’s top prep baseball player. This was a statement in itself since the only thing preppy about Gary was he sometimes wore a sweater to school.
Gary won the sportsmanship award, but he didn’t win the city’s MVP award. He was not chosen for the MVP or selected to play at the whites-only, season-ending All-High, All-Prep Game at Griffith Stadium. Since he played in Division II athletics in the DC Public High Schools he was not eligible.
He was definitely worthy, according to the Washington Daily News, Gary batted .375, yielded zero stolen bases and didn’t make a single error. The paper noted that the recognition was earned and not based on “sympathy” it was his pure talent that got their attention.
In June 1954, The Washington Senators’ held their annual tryout camp, home to hundreds of hopeful young men and more than a dozen major league scouts. During those three days Gary was the best player in Griffith Stadium.
This is the same ballpark where he once wasn’t allowed to compete in a prep all-star game. In a camp-closing scrimmage, Gary threw out a base runner and hit the only home run, a 350-foot drive over the center-field fence. He was unanimously voted camp MVP.
He dominated a group of players that included future Washington Senator outfielder Chuck Hinton. Chuck went on to have a 11-year major league career. Gary did not receive a contract offer.
A Major League scout explained to the Daily News that Gary could never be an effective catcher because “he’s at a disadvantage on a ball thrown in the dirt.” This statement was just a smoke screen and use to cover up his racist and bias attitude for not offering Gary a contract.
Gary dismissed the racial overtones as, “That is the way it was and no one ever said Life was fair.”
It was Gary’s basketball coach Charlie Baltimore that gave him the tag “The One Arm Bandit.”
One day in practice Coach Baltimore got pissed off after Gary had stolen the ball for about the sixth time he screamed at no one in particular, “How in the hell do you guys keep letting that “One Arm Bandit steal the ball?” The name has been with him ever since.
In 1954 months before desegregation was outlawed in all public schools in America by the Supreme Court, Armstrong and Spingarn High School played each other for the Division II basketball title.
Gary and his teammates would face the greatest basketball player to ever touch a ball in the annals of DC basketball—Elgin “Rabbit” Baylor.
In one of the biggest games in Division II basketball history and against all odds Armstrong would meet undefeated Spingarn and “Basketball God”, Elgin Baylor for the title. The two teams had met twice during the regular season and Baylor had averaged close to 50 points in the two victories.
Armstrong Coach Charlie Baltimore knew he had no chance of beating Spingarn if he didn’t find a way to stop Elgin Baylor. Just before tip-off he called his Captain Gary Mays and teammates together.
He instructed everyone on the floor to play a zone defense with the exception of Gary. He was told to play Elgin Man to Man. Coach Baltimore said “I want you to stay with Elgin regardless of where he decides to go including the bathroom and once he gets there, you sit on the toilet paper!”
The final score Armstrong 50 Spingarn 47. Gary held Elgin to 18 points half of his regular season average on his home court, talking about against all odds!
Gary shoots over Spingarn defenders that including No. 23 the legendary Elgin Baylor
The defense Coach Baltimore devised was called a Box In One the same exact defense my high school Coach the late Dr. William Roundtree had asked me to play my senior year at Spingarn. Until I heard Gary’s story on why he was able to hold Elgin to 18 points I was walking around thinking I was the first high school basketball player to play in a Box In One!
There were three other things that Gary and I had in common we were both raised by our grandmothers (early years) we worn the number 23 as high school athletes and we were both were piss poor students.
I was in the same boat with Pittsburg Steeler’s QB Terry Bradshaw you could spot me the C-A in cat and I still could not spell it.
The similarities end there he was easily the greatest all-around athlete in the city. He could swim like a fish, played pool and held his own with the sharks and hustlers.
Gary was due to graduate in June 1954 but he had to return to Armstrong to get credits for English and a piano class. He passed both courses and graduated in January 1955.
He wanted to take his athletic skills to the next level by attending college and had been asked by the legendary basketball coach Johnny McLendon to play for him at Tennessee State University in Nashville. The late Coach McLendon was a class act and he was one of the finest coaches to ever coach the game of basketball. He was an innovator and created “The 4 Corners.”
As bad luck would have it Elgin Baylor and Dunbar High School student/athlete Warren Williams came home on a college Christmas break and asked Gary to join them at the College of Idaho.
They made him an offer he could not refuse and Gary joined them for the 54 hour ride by train where Black faces were in short supply. They joined R. C. Owens who would later go on to be an All-Pro wide receiver for the NFL San Francisco 49ers.
During his tenure in the NFL he and NFL Hall of Fame QB John Brodie created “The Alley Oop” pass play. The pattern consisted of Owens running straight down the field and Brodie throwing the ball as far and high as he could get it. Owens would use his basketball skills to out jump the defender for the ball.
In the meantime at the college of Idaho, Elgin, Warren, Gary and R. C. were pioneers during the 50s. There was an unwritten rule that no school could play more than three blacks at time, but the College of Idaho was different.
He reminded me of the great NBA legendary coach, Red Auerbach, as the basketball coach, Sam Vokes walked to his own drum beat.
He wore two hats, he coached basketball and football. He needed players and he would not allow their color to be used to disqualify them.
The school was located in Caldwell, Idaho a small town located near the Oregon border.
The town of Caldwell took some getting use to when Gary decided to go to town he would stop the traffic and the people. They would stare at him. The looks he received were looks of surprise and not hate. They had never seen blacks before.
The locals were very friendly. Winning can do wonders and the town’s folks fell in love with the black players. The school’s basketball team was suddenly hot and could not be stopped.
Elgin averaged 31.3 points and 18.9 rebounds a game. R.C. Owens grabbed 37 rebounds in a single game. The team went undefeated in the Northwest Conference. Where once you could not give tickets away the school was now turning away fans.
Gary hardly ever got any playing time but he could have cared less! He was having so much fun. He and Elgin would put on “Globetrotter-like” dribbling exhibitions during halftime.
The town had really embraced the players and Gary says “I had the best seat in the house, on the bench.”
Gary played baseball for the Coyotes (the team’s nick name) and worked at a Caldwell sporting goods store. He befriended the white owner, Pat O’Connor, a well-known war hero. The two would go hunting and Gary would borrow a shotgun from a local dentist he had befriended.
O’Connor took Gary on sales trips along the Oregon border and he would speak to the school children. He would entertain the children by tying and untying his shoes. The kids loved it but all good things must come to an end.
In a March 7, 1955, an article was published in Sports Illustrated that said, “The College of Idaho was winning games by admitting academically unqualified athletes.” A blind man could see where the fingers were being pointed.
The fingers were being pointed at Elgin, Warren, R. C. and Gary. They were identified as the “Usual Suspects.”
It was reported that Elgin earned all Bs during his first semester. I would guess if you checked Elgin’s high school transcript you would ask yourself how in the hell could this guy get all Bs?
Coach Vokes stood his ground for the Black athletes against the school administrators. He was fired following the basketball season.
Elgin left for the University of Seattle, which he later led them to the Final Four. Warren Williams transferred to Virginia Union University in nearby Richmond, Virginia and Gary went back to Idaho in the fall, but he didn’t like the new basketball coach. He quit school and returned to DC.
Once home he received a couple of letters from the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, Abe Saperstein. He offered Gary a tryout but he decided he did not want to be a part of the Globetrotter’s side show.
He started his own construction company, drove a cab, ran a numbers book in what is now known as the DC, Maryland and Virginia lotteries and had one of largest black own liquor stores in DC.
Gary was always a self starter. It would be 50 years later before he returned to Caldwell, Idaho. The occasion, the Coyotes were inducting the 1954-55 basketball team into its basketball Hall of Fame.
- C. Owens and Gary were the only Black players to return for the induction ceremony. The town folks remembered him and the weekend he spent there for the induction was a love fest.
Today Gary Mays is 75 years old and has a “Family Tree” that consists of Donna his wife of 20 years, a daughter who has her college degree in Communications and a 16 year old son who is a computer whiz.
He loves talking about his 9 year old cousin, Cameron an upcoming track and field superstar or his cousin, A’dia Mathies, who was Miss Kentucky Basketball in 2010.
The 2011 Black History Month tribute, recognition by ESPN Magazine and the City Paper was great and long overdue. The one thing that he enjoyed most was the discovery that he is the original “One Arm Bandit.”
The two men laying claim to that title are John S. Payne a rodeo rancher and Larry Alford II a golfer. There are pictures of them using prosthesis to aid them in their pursuit of excellence. Gary is the only one that uses the one arm to play in the Game Called Life. This Black History fact makes him “The Original One Arm Bandit.”