Alabama baseball legend Willie Mays’ Jewish “best friends”

Willie Mays (left) with Jacob Shemano and the Dodgers’ Leo Durocher. Courtesy of Gary Shemano

By Louis Keene

(The Forward) — Willie Mays was in the prime of his career in 1963, but his finances were a mess. The Giants’ star outfielder had plunged into debt amid divorce proceedings, and even with more than half of his career home runs under his belt, was staring down bankruptcy.

Then he met Jacob Shemano.

Shemano was a banker whose kid, Gary, was shagging fly balls during warmups that day at Candlestick Park. They connected in the locker room afterward, where Mays asked Shemano to help him smooth out his money problems. Shemano agreed on one condition: He wouldn’t take a dime for his work.

What began with Shemano rescuing Mays from bankruptcy evolved into a close friendship that spanned generations and made Mays an honorary member of sorts not just in the Shemano family, but also in the San Francisco Jewish community. Mays in 1964 told the San Francisco Examiner the Shemanos were “the best friends I’ve ever had in my life.”

“Anything that we did, Willie was here,” Gary Shemano, now 79, recalled by phone on June 18, hours after 93-year-old Mays died. “He was close to the Jewish community because of my dad.”

To some it might have seemed an unlikely pairing: Shemano, a Conservative Jew who had immigrated from Russia as a toddler, and Mays, a Black man born and reared in coal-mining, rural Alabama, who got his start with the Birmingham Black Barons at the age of 17. But both had overcome the odds against them as minorities to find success. Shemano was one of the first Jews in California to receive a charter to run a bank. Mays played in the Negro Leagues as a teenager prior to Major League Baseball’s integration.

Shemano had a civil rights bent — he insisted on hiring Black tellers for his bank — and in Mays, he had found a stylistic peer. Shemano favored green velvet shirts and Mays steered a pink Cadillac around the Bay — including on trips to his Jewish friend’s home.

“The kids in the neighborhood all knew when he was at Shemano’s,” Gary recalled.

The founder of Golden Gate National Bank, Jacob Shemano did squeeze something out of his new friend: Mays became a celebrity ambassador for the business. He was universally popular, a star in the field and at the plate, a perennial winner with a carefree smile.

The slugging center-fielder was helpful when Gary and his brother Ritchie took dates to the ballpark, too. They’d call him up and give him the girl’s name in advance, and Mays would toss them a signed ball as he ran onto the field.

When Gary enrolled at the University of Southern California, Mays would swing by the dorms if the Giants were in town playing the Dodgers.

“‘Let’s go shopping, get your ass out of bed’,” Gary recalled Mays telling him. “We had so much fun.”

Gary Shemano with Willie Mays in 2022. They’re holding a photo of Mays with Gary’s parents, Jacob and Rhoda. Courtesy of Gary Shemano

As good as he was with a bat — Mays retired behind only Babe Ruth for career home runs, and his 660 still ranks sixth today — Gary described Mays as an awful golfer. The elder Shemano  taught the slugger how to play.

“He said, ‘Jake, how can this game be so tough when the ball’s not moving?’” Gary said.

The relationship ultimately ingratiated Mays with the Jewish community. Shemano once took Mays on a visit to the local Jewish Home, Gary said, and Mays later made visiting there a habit.

He appeared at Jewish community events so often that Mays was eventually invited into the local Concordia-Argonaut Club — a Jewish social club — as the first Black member, according to James Hirsch, author of the biography “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend.”

And while Mays frequented the Shemano home on holidays, there was one Jewish delicacy he couldn’t handle.

“He loved my mother until she made him eat some smoked salmon on a bagel for Thanksgiving and he couldn’t swallow it,” Gary said. “It was hysterical.”

Gary said that Mays’ short-term memory was fading when he last visited, about six months ago. There was a photo of Jacob Shemano, who died in 1979, and his wife, Rhoda, on the wall.

“The day that my grandmother died, my father’s mother, he called my dad,” Gary recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t know what to do for you, but, you gonna go to the game tonight?’ My dad said, ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘Well, I’m gonna try to do something for you at the game.’ He hit three home runs.”

Louis Keene is a staff reporter at the Forward covering religion, sports and the West Coast. He can be followed on Twitter @thislouis. Reprinted with permission.