SAN FRANCISCO — In over 30 years of filmmaking, Nelson George has been to a lot of movie premieres.
But Sunday night’s advanced screening of the documentary “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco was one-of-a-kind.
“This was very different — this was like a home team screening,” said George, the film’s director. “There are laughs and insight and emotion that you’re not going to get elsewhere. We screened it in New York and it was fine, but it wasn’t the same as being in the ballpark.”
There was a ballpark feel to the 100-year-old theater on Sunday night for the West Coast premiere of the documentary about the Giants legend, which debuts on HBO at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
The hundreds of Giants fans who were invited hooted and hollered throughout the showing and at the panel beforehand. And while Mays was not in attendance on Sunday night, the crowd was delighted when a surprise guest came on stage: Mays’ godson, Barry Bonds.
Bonds joined George, Giants broadcaster Jon Miller, public address announcer Renel Brooks-Moon and Mays biographer and San Francisco Chronicle writer John Shea for the pre-viewing panel and beamed about his godfather and idol, who he’s often referred to as his “second father.”
Also in attendance was Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, Mays’ son Michael, two former Mayors of San Francisco, Frank Jordan and Willie Brown, several former Black major leaguers and Colin Hanks, who was a producer on the film. Seemingly every member of the Giants front office was in the building, including new general manager Pete Putila — whose name being announced led one fan to audibly yell out, “Sign Aaron Judge.”
But the night and the film was truly about San Francisco’s first baseball star, which felt fitting to the longtime Giants clubhouse manager Mike Murphy, who’s worked for the Giants from the moment Mays and his teammates arrived out West in 1958.
“It couldn’t have happened to a better person,” Murphy said, adding that he recently went to visit Mays at his home to discuss old-time ballplayers and Frank Sinatra.
After an initial start with some of Mays’ top highlights from the back-half of his career, the documentary weaves Mays’ story chronologically, paced to keep things moving but paint a full picture of each step along the way. There are interviews with Bonds, Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Reggie Jackson, Dusty Baker and more people from in and around baseball.
George interviewed Mays in his home for the film and uses that throughout (one tip: stick around all the way through the end credits), but also uses over a dozen different points of archival footage of Mays speaking, going back as early as the 1950s. And there is obviously plenty of baseball footage, too.
But Mays’ life outside of the foul lines is also explored, even if there are some touchy subjects. The part that will surely raise eyebrows to those unaware is how, as the Giants were moving to San Francisco, Mays was initially prevented from purchasing a house because he was Black.
“No story that’s of a real heroic journey is a straight line of victory,” George said of the choice to dive into the housing issue. “His ability to overcome that and not to let hate fill his heart at all, I think that’s really important. That’s who he is. His ability to continue forward and to love San Francisco and not be turned off by that and to not internalize that around everyone in the city.
“It could have been easy to say, ‘[Expletive] San Francisco,’ and he didn’t.”
The documentary also touched on criticism Mays received from the Black community, and specifically Jackie Robinson, of how Mays didn’t speak up for the civil rights movement. Mays’ response to Robinson is both shown on the screen and read aloud, and he gets defended from several in the film, most notably Bonds.
The 90-minute run time means some parts of Mays’ life were skipped over, like how Mays was once banned from baseball because he took a job as a greeter for an Atlantic City casino. But in fitting with the theme of mentorship — both of those for Mays initially, then of Mays to others — the film concludes with Bonds’ relationship with his godfather and how Mays helped bring Bonds back to San Francisco in 1993 and push to break the all-time home run record.
Bonds said that Mays continues to push to be a mentor and educate younger players about baseball, even saying that Mays is already trying to convince those close to him to let him go to Arizona for spring training next year.
“It’s always, ‘Boy, what are you teaching these guys?’ I tell him, ‘Willie, the game’s changed. They’re on a computer,’” Bonds said, earning laughs from the crowd. “Willie tells me, ‘I don’t care, it’s your job. It’s your duty.’ It’s our job, it’s our duty, to educate our next generation.
“Willie will never leave this earth [if] us former ballplayers … keep educating the youth, the next generation.”
That relationship between godfather and godson is as strong as ever today. Bonds briefly showed the crowd a photo of Mays at home, watching the documentary, which Bonds said he’s been doing “over and over again.”
After admitting that showing the crowd that photo might make Mays mad, Bonds asked the crowd to do something for #24: yell ‘Say Hey, Willie’ all together.
When the crowd did so in booming fashion, Bonds joined them, knowing it would be the type of thing that would bring joy to Mays. The same kind of joy Mays brought to so many over the years.