The One-Armed Bandit of D.C. Sports Lore

Gary Mays, who should be had been surely well-known, died Monday night. He becomes 82.

The first time I met Gary was in 2001, whilst he drove to my house to choose me up to go to lunch. “Put on your seatbelt” changed into the primary issue he stated to me once I was given in the vehicle.

He changed into drinking an orange soda and speak on a cell phone at the side of riding. Gary had one arm, and I belted up.

I’d wanted to satisfy Gary for a long term before that day for reasons regarding his lacking a limb. I’d heard for years about the legend of “The One-Armed Bandit” from Armstrong Tech, who’d close down another god-like figure in D.C.’s black community, Elgin Baylor of formerly undefeated Spingarn, for a disappointing win back within the 1954 town basketball championships. In yet again or every other place, or if he wasn’t black, Gary would have been a legend anywhere.

That turned into the closing legally segregated schoolboy title tournament ever held inside the Nation’s Capital, coming handiest a pair months earlier than the U.S. Supreme Court launched its Brown v. Board of Education decision. The racist machine that saved Mays from showcasing his towards-all-odds abilities in opposition to his white peers also limited his renown, usually to neighborhoods in the east facet of the Anacostia River. Mays starred in what became referred to as Interhigh’s Division 2, a bracket for the five “colored” schools; Division 1 turned into D.C.’s 9 white faculties. The Washington Post and different neighborhood media gave sports on the white college’s huge coverage, whilst the black colleges were overlooked.

But Mays’s performances got around via word of mouth and through the black press. And so growing older African American ex-jocks all around D.C. Nonetheless pointed out him as a legendary determine after I met him, nearly a half of-century after he bested Baylor. He allowed me to become his friend and tolerated my constantly making him tell and retell his glory days memories. And what tales I heard, every one greater fantastical than the remaining, and Gary had a scrapbook to again up every exceptional element with newspaper and mag clippings.

He had his left arm amputated simply under the shoulder as a five-year antique in 1940 after he knocked a shotgun off a desk chasing a pet round grandmother’s domestic in West Virginia. He moved to D.C, and with his single mother, and grew up on the blacktops and sandlot ballyards of the town.

“On the playgrounds, no person would pick me till I beat them,” Gary as soon as instructed me. “So I had to beat them.”

By the time he reached excessive faculty, he had changed into prodigious in every game he had attempted. Turned out he also became a fine baseball participant within the city…As a catcher.

Ebony magazine gave him a few countrywide presses as a junior at Armstrong with a brief article on the only-armed backstop. A little later, Jet gave Gary a photo spread that confirmed how he threw attempted base stealers out by using tossing the ball up as he got out of his crouch, flipping his glove off, and catching the ball in mid-throw. The Washington Daily News, the most effective D.C. Day by day that devoted any ink to black faculty sports, mentioned after his senior season that “nobody has stolen a base on him all season.” The tale additionally said he’d hit .375 and didn’t make blunders all 12 months.

For all that, Gary didn’t even get invited to any All-High, All-Prep all-superstar games, performed each yr at Griffith Stadium, the home of the Washington Senators; handiest players from the white colleges had been eligible. He proved he deserved to be there 12 months later when the Daily News backed a tryout camp for players of any race. Gary (who turned into described in the camp software simply as a catcher who “bats right, throws properly”) hit the best domestic run of the camp-finishing scrimmage recreation and threw out the only runner who attempted to scouse borrow on him. Scouts unanimously named him MVP of the camp.

But no expert crew offered to sign Gary after that camp, so he got on a educate and headed to Caldwell, Idaho. Elgin Baylor and another D.C. Schoolboy star, Warren Williams of Dunbar, had been playing basketball for the College of Idaho. A 1955 tale inside the Caldwell newspaper stated that Gary and Elgin put on “Globetrotter-like” ballhandling routines at halftimes of Coyotes domestic games. The Coyotes went 15-zero in convention play for the 1954—1955 season, the first undefeated season in faculty records. Sports Illustrated wrote up the successes in its March 7, 1955, trouble and had this to say approximately Gary:

Gary continually told me that the students on the almost all-white college and the townspeople of nearly all-white Caldwell embraced him and his D.C. Teammates from the start. But the college administration didn’t like all the attention the hoops players had been getting. At the give up of the satisfactory-ever season, fired the teach and de-emphasized the basketball application. Gary, Elgin, and different surviving teammates have been delivered to Caldwell ultimate June for a party honoring the squad.

Baylor transferred to Seattle University and went on to almost singlehandedly deliver that group to the 1958 NCAA Final Four and opened the nation’s eyes to the bumper crop of hoops expertise being sown on D.C.’s playgrounds.

As the Idaho squad disbanded, Gary got a private letter from Abe Saperstein, the founder, and owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, soliciting that he join the team. A provide from the Globetrotters turned into regularly greater prestigious and profitable than an NBA deal at the time. Gary instructed me that as an awful lot fun as he’d had in Idaho, he became homesick, so he grew to become down Saperstein and got here returned to D.C.

Though Gary largely remained a secret outside of his hometown through the years, Baylor’s dominance on a country-wide level—he retired from the Los Angeles Lakers in 1971 because the NBA’s second all-time leading scorer, at the back of simplest Wilt Chamberlain, and changed into elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1977—gave toughness and gravitas to Mays’s reputation across the Nation’s Capital. On his last day, parents around here requested him approximately that sport returned in ‘54 and desired the One-Armed Bandit to explain how the hell he outplayed the incredible Elgin Baylor.

“Elgin didn’t like my nub,” he’d say humbly and with a smile, “so I saved rubbing it towards him.”

He ultimately commenced a circle of relatives and settled in Fort Washington, Md. He often informed me he had the hassle of getting work in later years; he wouldn’t get picked at the playground as a child for some of the identical motives. But, as he did return in the day, he rewarded all and sundry who took a threat on him with the pleasure he had. I take into account meeting him for any other lunch date in August 2002, while he was a self-employed contractor and had correctly bid on an activity to install safety systems inside the sewers around Henderson Hall, a Defense Department facility adjacent to the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., as a part of a publish-September 11 authorities agreement. It was above 90 levels that day, with the oppressive humidity ordinary of Washington summers. But when I arrived at his task, Gary, then sixty-seven years old, became operating alone and lugging the biggest solid iron manhole cowl I’d ever seen around the large automobile parking space with that one outstanding arm. He was already my hero, but, guy, I’ll never overlook that sight.