Seventy years after making his major league debut, Willie Mays is still one of the greatest baseball players of all time: the most spectacular combination of power, speed and defense the game has ever seen.
And yet, when he graduated from Fairfield Industrial High School in Fairfield, Ala,. in 1950, it read on his diploma that his assigned profession would be in “cleaning, dyeing and pressing,” the department in which he had completed his studies.
Alas, Mays did not become a dry cleaner. Instead, he became, as Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench said, “the perfect baseball player.”
Mays’ diploma is being made public for the first time in the 90-year-old’s first NFT, which will be released on Sunday, ESPN has learned. Mays’ 90th Birthday Celebrity Drop is going live on Oct. 24 — an ode to Mays’ jersey number — on the marketplace Nifty Gateway.
“I didn’t really understand how these computer tokens worked at first,” Mays told ESPN. “I had to get them explained to me. I’m used to tokens you can hold in your hand. But I guess people collect them the way they do trading cards. And those cards are worth a lot of money now. And I figure anything like that, that people can enjoy and that help me support the kids, is something worth doing.”
All proceeds from the release will be donated to the Mays’ Say Hey Foundation, which establishes baseball programs for underprivileged youth in Alabama, as well as the restoration of youth baseball facilities at Kirkwood Field, the home of the Negro League’s Birmingham Barons, for which Mays played from 1948-50.
“I know that I wouldn’t have had the life I’ve had if it weren’t for other people,” Mays said. “There were grown-ups who looked out for me when I was just a kid starting out. People who taught me and gave me a chance. And teammates. Everybody needs a team. I just want to make sure young kids get a team so they have the chance to have this kind of life — that they eat right, have good teachers, have a place to play and learn. I think that’s the best thing I can do for them. Just do what other folks did for me.”
The NFT art piece, which features several pieces of memorabilia alongside narration by Bob Costas, includes:
• Mays’s high school diploma, with his assigned profession. White students in segregated Alabama were allowed to decide on their own professions, but black students were not.
• One of Mays’ report cards from high school; he was considered the best baseball player, point guard and quarterback in the state, but received a “B” in gym class (he did get an “A” in sportsmanship).
• A scouting report on Mays, who is described as a “colored boy,” as all African-American players were before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. The scout said Mays “has the best reflexes and coordination I’ve seen in a long time.” It notes that if Mays was white, he would be considered “a franchise player.”
• The contract for $250 a month that Mays signed with the Negro League’s Birmingham Barons.
• The Western Union telegram that informed the Barons that Mays’s contract had been purchased for $10,000 by the New York Giants organization, and he would be assigned the Minneapolis Millers minor league team.
• A newspaper article with a headline that read that Mays had a chance to become “a dusky Joe DiMaggio.”
• The floor of the digital art piece is covered with 660 baseballs, the number of home runs he hit in his major league career.
The piece is being released as part of the inaugural drop of the Castacos Collection, which was founded by sports poster artist John Costacos, CEO Justin Moorad and Digital Art Leader Mike Campau. And it only came to be because Mays decided to forgo his chosen profession — although he says he could have excelled at that, too.
“I think that whatever you do, you do your very best at it, I took cleaning and pressing seriously, I got pretty good at it,” Mays said. “I just want every kid to get the chance to do their best at whatever they decide to do. I decided to do baseball.”