Here I am, trapped in a house. You, too? My house is everything to me now – workplace, coffee shop, theater, restaurant, library, Yoga studio. Everything.
It’s not perfect. It needs a paint job. But, it’s doing its best to keep me and Editor/Husband in and coronavirus out.
I am grateful for this house. I love it. Really, I do. But, I can’t wait to get out of it.
Being in this house is the whole of my world right now.
So, maybe it’s not so odd to rediscover the story of another house and the effort to keep someone out of it.
It’s not an unknown story. You probably know it. But, this story of Willie Mays and his house is a reminder of how far we’ve come … and how not far we’ve come at all.
Toward the end of the 1957 season, the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers formally announced that both teams would move to California in 1958.
The Giants last game at the Polo Grounds.
As soon as the season wrapped, Giants players began packing themselves up, looking for new homes in San Francisco.Embed from Getty Images
Willie Mays – by 1957, one of baseball’s biggest superstars – was one of them.
He was, as one sportswriter at the time described him, “baseball’s greatest one-man show.”
That season, Mays was an All-Star, just as he had been in ’54, ’55, and ’56. He won the newly created Gold Gold award – the first of his 12 straight – and placed 4th in MVP voting. He led all of baseball in triples (20) and steals (38) and his slugging percentage (.626) was third best (behind Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, and ahead of Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, and Duke Snider).
Today, we know Mays as one of the greatest to ever play baseball. Just 26 and six seasons into his career in 1957, he was already one of the greatest.
Superstar, sure. But, equal? Not quite. Here’s some context. Jackie Robinson, who integrated major league baseball in 1947, had already retired after 10 full seasons in the majors.
Hank Thompson and Monte Irvin were playing for the Giants in 1949, two years before Mays would debut.
But, integration in baseball, as in all of society, was slow-going. (“Is” slow-going.) In 1957, the Phillies had just brought up their first black player. (The Tigers and Red Sox wouldn’t integrate until 1958 and 1959, respectively.)
That’s where things stood in November 1957, when Willie Mays and his wife Marghuerite flew out to San Francisco to go house-hunting.Embed from Getty Images
Willie And Marghuerite Mays On Their Wedding Day, February 14, 1956
They found a house – brand new. It was 175 Miraloma Drive in the Sherwood Forest neighborhood of San Francisco, just a few miles from Seals Stadium where the Giants would play their first two West Coast seasons.
Built at the highest point in the city, the brick-and-redwood house had three bedrooms, a fireplace, a modern kitchen, a two-car garage, and a picture window with a sweeping ocean view. All told, 3,000 square feet.
175 Miraloma Drive
The asking price was $37,500 – about $345,000 in today’s dollars.
Mays offered $37,500 in cash to developer Walter Gnesdiloff, who accepted the offer.
Then Gnesdiloff backed out, as the San Francisco Examiner explained, “claiming that his business would suffer if it became known that he had sold a property to a Black man.”
It Was Big News
As one nearby resident told reporters: “I happen to have a few pieces of property in the area, and I stand to lose a lot if colored people move in.”
Reporters at the time noted that this was the third house that Mays had tried to buy in San Francisco but was blocked because of his color.
San Francisco’s mayor, embarrassed by the national spotlight the story created and, perhaps, panicking that the Giants might back out of the carefully crafted deal they had with the city, publicly invited Willie and Marghuerite to move in with his family while they looked for a home. (They declined.)
Front-Page News In Rapid City, South Dakota
The mayor’s staff scrambled to find alternatives for the Mays in neighborhoods “heavily Negro in ownership.” None were as nice as 175 Miraloma Drive and the couple refused each one.
Decades later, one San Francisco sportswriter tried to spin the local hostility toward Mays as not only about color, but really about the fact that the locals didn’t want an outfielder – of any color – overshadowing their hometown hero Joe DiMaggio who had played his early years in Seals Stadium.
Mays told reporters, “I like it here and I’d like to make my home here. I’m not looking for trouble.”
(Mays’ efforts to not look for “trouble” throughout his career when it came to racism continually frustrated civil rights leaders.)
Marghuerite Mays was more direct: “Down in Alabama where we come from, you know your place. But up here, it’s all a lot of camouflage. They grin in your face and deceive you.”
After scrutiny by the local and national media, and continued pressure from city leaders, Gnesdiloff re-accepted Mays’ offer.
Willie Mays Signs The Papers For Their New Home
Willie Mays discussed the difficulties he faced purchasing his home in this 1957 interview.
The couple moved in that winter, but the Mays’ – especially Marghuerite – never felt comfortable or welcome in the neighborhood.
In June 1959, a disgruntled fan threw a Coke bottle through their picture window with a note that Mays said referenced his race and demanded that the Giants beat the Braves in their upcoming series.
Local news reporters seemed less interested in the racism contained in the note, and more interested in informing readers that a) the police reported the value of the damaged window at $15, while Mays reported it to be $75, and b) the Giants lost to the Braves that day anyway.
The Mays’ sold the home soon after and re-established their permanent residence in New York, choosing to simply rent homes in San Francisco during baseball season.
As Marghuerite explained: “We probably could have found a place around [San Francisco] somewhere, but I can’t face another ‘breaking-in’ period to convince our neighbors that Willie and I are almost human.”
And, There It Is.
In 2016, the National Fair Housing Alliance estimated that there are more than four million cases of housing discrimination annually. People with disabilities and people of color face the greatest barriers.
Four million cases. Still.
Willie and Marghuerite divorced in 1961 and Willie eventually bought another house and made San Francisco his home.
175 Miraloma Drive was bought and sold and bought and sold throughout the years. It never seems to have become anyone’s “forever home.”
It’s still there – still standing at the highest point in the city – and is valued at more than $3 million today.
Perhaps someone is there, sitting inside right now – cut off by virus quarantine from neighbors who are, I’m sure, much more welcoming than neighbors were in Willie Mays’ day.
Perhaps that someone, stuck inside that house at 175 Miraloma Drive, isn’t thinking about how segregated the neighborhood was or that Willie Mays once lived there or that someone once threw a bottle through the picture window with the ocean view.
Perhaps that someone is simply wondering if it will ever be safe to leave their house again.
I’m wondering that, too.