He’s still a young man on his 1951 Bowman rookie card but you’ve probably never seen Willie Mays at the dawn of his pro baseball career.
A rare photo of the 16-year-old Mays playing in the Negro minor leagues has surfaced and is up for auction.
The 8×10 team photo, taken by a local photographer, is among the featured items in RMY Auctions’ current online catalog. Auction officials say it originated in a prominent collection of Negro Leagues photography.
Already considered to have a skill level of someone much older, Mays played for the Chattanoogo Choo Choos, a team affiliated with the Birmingham Black Barons. Mays’ father drove him from the family’s home in Alabama to Chattanooga during the summer. There has never been a photo of Mays in a Choo Choos uniform that has surfaced in the hobby until now.
Mays can be seen kneeling in the front row, fourth from the left, with his glove in hand.
The back carries the stamp of the original photographer (Ernest Withers of Beale Street in Memphis).
RMY calls it “one of the most important images of baseball rookie photography that has ever hit the market.”
Mays played for the Barons in part of 1948 and ’49, and with his expansive talent no longer a regional secret, signed with the New York Giants prior to the 1950 season. He’d been scouted by Eddie Montague, who was actually looking at another player but was quickly captivated by Mays who he called “the greatest young player I had ever seen in my life or my scouting career.”
The photo is one of more than 1,300 images up for bid through November 10 at RMYAuctions.com.