D.C.'s Greatest Living One-Armed Sports Star Tells All Meet Gary Mays, the man who singlehandedly shut down Elgin Baylor.

Gary Mays playing for the College of Idaho in 1955
Courtesy of Gary Mays

I got to spend a morning last week with Gary Mays. He’s my hero.

Mays, 75, has had a rough year. He’s been in and out of Washington Hospital Center for months, and our time together came on the fifth day of his most recent stay. He’s dealing with prostate cancer, and had been admitted this time for respiratory difficulties and kidney stones.

From all I’ve learned about Gary over the years, I shouldn’t have been surprised how strong he looked, even in his hospital bed and with all his ailments. So as I always do when we hook up, the whole time I was there I made him tell stories about himself to me, his temporary roommate, and any nurse or medical staffer who walked in. I’ve never met anybody who can tell tales better than Gary. And he’s got a scrapbook to back up every one of ’em.

So in the hospital room, I got to hear all over again about the 1954 basketball playoffs of the Interhigh League, the District’s public schools league. That’s when Mays, playing for Armstrong Tech, temporarily reduced Elgin Baylor to mortal status. Baylor had a godlike reputation on local playgrounds at that time, and his Spingarn High squad was undefeated. Mays changed that, leading his team to an upset win in the tournament for Interhigh’s Division 2, a confederation for the city’s five “colored” schools. (Division 1 was for D.C.’s nine white schools.)

The separate tournaments, which were held two months before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, were the last officially segregated schoolboy hoop competitions ever held in this city. Mays said his coach had designed a special box-and-one defense just to deal with Baylor, who had scored 44 and 45 points in the two regular season Armstrong/Spingarn matchups that year. Mays was the one assigned to hound him. Baylor only had 18 points that night. Armstrong notched a win that the white press ignored but black folks of Mays’ generation still talk about.

And Mays told us about playing catcher for Armstrong’s baseball squad. Gary was recognized as the best player in the city at a time when the game was huge here. He’d been written up by Ebony magazine for his baseball skills during his junior year at Armstrong. A report in the Washington Daily News after his senior season said he’d hit .375, hadn’t made a single error, and that “no one has stolen a base on him all season.” He wasn’t invited to the All-High, All-Prep all-star game played at Griffith Stadium, however, because only white players were eligible. He got to play alongside white players at the Washington Senators home stadium a year later, when he was unanimously named MVP of the Daily News’ annual tryout camp for local baseball prospects. The newspaper’s write-up of the two-day camp said Mays hit the only home run of the camp-ending scrimmage and threw out the one runner who tried to steal on him. No pro scouts offered Mays a contract then, however.

And I got Gary to talk about getting on a train headed for Caldwell, Idaho, to join two of his running partners on the D.C. playgrounds —Baylor and Dunbar High’s Warren Williams—where they played basketball for the College of Idaho. With the bumper crop of black D.C. talent, that school with an almost all-white student body of 500, smack in the middle of the whitest part of the country, went undefeated in its conference for the 1954—1955 season, the first time in school history that had happened. The Caldwell newspaper talked up the “Globetrotter like” ballhandling routine Baylor and Mays put on for the crowds at halftimes of home games.

For reasons that were never explained in the Caldwell newspaper and Mays isn’t sure of all these years later, the College of Idaho administration fired the hoops coach and broke up the basketball program after the D.C. kids’ first season there.

After the Idaho team was disbanded, Mays got a personal letter from Abe Saperstein, the founder and owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, inviting him to join the team. But he pleaded homesickness, and he and Williams came back to D.C. After the one year at Idaho, Baylor went on to take Seattle University to the NCAA Final Four

No NCAA programs recruited from D.C.’s black schools during the two-tiered, segregated era. The only college that had showed any interest in Baylor despite his deification around these parts was Virginia Union, a historically black school in Richmond, Va. So the train trips Baylor, Williams, and Mays took out of D.C. to Idaho have an almost spiritual quality to anybody who cares about this city’s sports history. By the time Baylor had finished up at Seattle, the District was recognized as the most fertile recruiting ground in the nation. It helped that Baylor had a Hall of Fame run in the NBA with the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers, retiring in 1970 with a career scoring average of 27.1 points per game. Only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, both at 30.1 ppg, have higher averages.

Baylor’s dominance on a national stage only enlarged Mays’ reputation around his hometown. All local jocks of a certain age know him as the guy who had shut Baylor down.

And they know he’d done that, and all his other athletic exploits, despite having just one arm.

In 1940, when Mays was five years old and running around his grandmother’s house, he accidentally knocked a shotgun off a bench. When the firearm hit the floor, Mays left arm was blown off just below the shoulder.

“People asked me how I did things, how I was a catcher with one arm,” Mays told me last week, laughing. “I’d have been a catcher with two arms if I had ’em.”

A 1955 Jet magazine profile of Mays explained how he tossed out base stealers by tossing the ball in the air as he got out of his catcher’s crouch, flipped off his glove, and caught the ball in the middle of his throwing motion.

I’d heard the legend of the schoolboy known as the “One-Armed Bandit” for years before I found Mays in Fort Washington, Md. We’d talked on the phone, and he agreed to come by my house and pick me up. As I got in his car, I noticed he was talking on his cell phone and drinking a soda while driving—and, once more, he’s got just the one arm. “Put on your seat belt,” was the first thing he said to me.

His hero status in my eyes was only enhanced by what I saw when I went to pick him up at work for a lunch date in the summer of 2002. At the time he was installing security systems in the sewers around Henderson Hall, a Defense Department facility in Arlington, as part of a post-9/11 government contract he’d won for his small firm. It had to have been more than 90 degrees around here that afternoon, and with all the humidity Washington has to offer. When I showed up, Mays, then 67 years old, was in the parking lot lugging around the biggest manhole cover I’d ever seen—probably a couple hundred pounds of iron—with that one golden arm.

And while I was making him talk about himself at Washington Hospital Center, Mays even told me the wound often helped him out. “Elgin didn’t like my nub,” he said from his hospital bed. “So I kept rubbing it against him.”

His hospital roommate last week, a much younger man, was being treated for complications from diabetes, and had just had half his foot removed. I’ve looked at Gary Mays as a role model since I met him, and I’m not alone. As I was leaving, the roommate said he’s better off without the foot.

Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday morning at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk.

Our Readers Say

Little more Gary Mays: This was from Sports Illustrated in March 1955, in a story about how the College of Idaho had become a "basketball powerhouse" overnight thanks to the DC talent. It's the first mainstream press given either Mays or Elgin Baylor:

Two more sensational recruits, Elgin Baylor and Gary Mays of Washington, D.C., joined the [College of Idaho] basketball team. Baylor, a 6-foot 6-inch schoolboy flash at Springarn Tech, averaged 34 points a game. Mays, known as "The Bandit" because he lost an arm in a childhood accident, captained the Armstrong Tech team, made Washington's All-Metropolitan squad, caught for the baseball team, ties his shoes and shoots a fine game of pool—" 'Course I use a bridge," Mays (no kin to Willie) qualifies.
Bandit,

I wish you well. As a DC native it makes me proud that there is a feature story with a positive spin!

As a young boy growing up in the '50's your name and folk lore spread around the playgrounds of DC. Though I never saw you play the folk lore tranfixed my imagination as though I were there to see you do your thing.

Thanks for all that you have done to propell our city into the fore front of sports in our nation! Also, I thank the Washington DC City Paper's Dave McKenna for revisiting the legendary Gary Mays, the One Armed Bandit!

I wish you and your family well. May your years be long and your health improve, greatly.

Best Wishes,

Gerald R. Dendy

PS The late, Paul and Delores Thomas were my neighbors. I had the distinct opportunity to meet you at Delores' Homegoing Service!
Thank you for your article. I will be printing this off for my son, who is an at birth, lower left arm amputee. He enjoyed playing catcher this season on his 3rd & 4th grade team. It is stories like this that give him the encouragement & incentive to hurdle difficulties in pursuit of the same skills of his teammates.
I work with Gary Mays....he is not only the greatest but he is one hell of a comedian. I can not wait to hear all the stories on baseball the way it used to be played. And, because I am a baseball freak..I probe him all the time for more and more stories. He is genuinely one of a kind...we love him brecause he will never let the handicap cause him to loaf. God bless him for what he has accomplished with one arm...he told me that when the government gave him a prosthesis after a short period he asked for teeth because the new arm got in his way. He said a new set of teeth would serve him better!
This is an uplifting and informative article on an incredible athlete. I am a historian and have written on sports history. One-armed athletes are uncommon, though several have made lasting contributions. Boyd Bouie of the 1950's Harlem Globetrotters;Pete Gray of the 1940's St. Louis Cardinals;Jim Abbott, an all-star pitcher with of several major league teams; and recently Chance Anthony who won the 2011 High School Football Player "Rudy" Awar, are among them. During the 1920's there was an African American all conference lineman --whose name escapes me -- who played for the University Southern California.

Exceptional athletes respond to physical challenges if -- early on -- they are expected and coached to compete without excuse. That approach is also applicable to other areas of life.


Al-Tony Gilmore
I WAS A CHEERLEADER AT ATHS. GRADUATED IN 1953.REMEMBER GARY MAYS VERY WELL. IF ONLY THE SYSTEM HAD BEEN DIFFERENT THEN. I'M SURE GARY WOULD HAVE BEEN RECOGNIZED MUCH EARLIER AS ONE OF WASHINGTONS GREATEST ATHLETES. BESIDES BEING A GREAT SPORTSMAN HE WAS JUST A,"NICE GUY".

MARGARET ROBERTS
Way to go Gary! Didn't know all this about you SUPERSTAR!! Don't even try it--I know you big head. Love ya!
I am so glad to hear about my godfather in the paper. I have been looking for him. I miss him so much. Yes his comedy is who he is. It was amazing watching him do things that was fairly easy for him to do. I always thought he would need help, NEVER. I wish I could get some help in finding out where exactly he is. Please email me with further information about his whereabouts. Please let him know that Lois Akins youngest grandchild is looking for him.
Hey, One-are Gary, I played against you in DC and I remember what a beating you put on my flashy ass at the time. I also watched you play against the big boys down in S.E. when Elgin, Wilt and a few of the other big name guys showed up to play in a tournament on concrete. I wish you the best. A great friend of mine asked me had I ever heard of Gary Mays. I told her that I did not and then she went on to say that you had one arm. I shouted out, you mean "One Arm Gary?" The memories I have of growing up in Southeast and Playing at Turkey Thicket, Sherwood,Sleepyhollow up on 18th street NW and that cool place out in Georgetown. Although not an Armstrong or Spingarn graduate, I exited from the Great School of Dunbar. Great memories and you helped carve them all. Stay well and strong my, friend. Altho

Lattimore
Do I remember Gary, hell yea, he played basketball with my brother Pug Green and ate dinner at our table at 409 Dst S.E. I watched and played with and against him at Lincoln playground in S.E. I saw him a couple of years ago at a reception for him at Ben's Chilli Bowl and he remember me right off the bat, about my brother Pug and eating at my mother's table. Stay strong, keep your Faith and hope to see you when I get back in town this summer. Good luck, my friend.
I REMEMBERED GARY FROM OUR DAYS AT TECH IN MR BALTIMORES CLASS ,MR B MORE WAS THE COACH, THE BANDIT WAS THE NICEST GUY IN QUR SCHOOL AND HE WAS TOUGH YOU COULDNT FIND A NICER TECHITE,EVERYONE AT TECH LOVED HE WAS OUR LEADER SPINGARN HAD RABBIT WE HAD THE BANDIT,GARY I HOPE ONE DAY TO SEE YOU AGAIN WE BOTH ARE OLD MEN NOW ,,THOSE WERE SOME GOOD OLD DAYS AT TECH, I REMEMBER WHEN WE USED TO HAVE GYM CLASSES THEM CLOVERS WOULD BE IN THERE SINGING THAT WAS ABOUT 60YRS AGO MY HOW TIME FLY ...AN OLD CLASS MATE ...HERBERT WEBB FROM THE PRINT SHOP CHIEF LIGGINS,,,CHARLIE B MORE DRAFTING... TAKE CARE MY OLD CLASSMATE...
TO MR, EARNEST GREEN YOU MENTIONED YOUR BRO- PUG GREEN, ARE YOU ALSO RELATED TO BILLY(AKA ROY CAMPY} IF ALSO I AM AND OLD FRIEND OF BOTH OF THEM WE ALL GREW UP AS BOYS TOGETHER.ERNEST I WAS TRYING TO REMEMBER YOU. MY NAME IS HERBERT{AKA-JACK }WEBB I REMEMBERED YOU ALL LIVED AT 409 D ST SE ACROSS THE STREET FROM EBERNEZER CHURCH,I DELIVERED THE TIMES HERALD TO YOUR HOME. YOUR BIG BROTHER CAMPY WAS ONE OF MY BEST FRIENDS,I HAVE NOT SEEN ANY OF THOSE GUYS IN MANY YEARS SPEAKING OF GARY MAYS I REMEMBER WHEN WE HAD TOURNAMENTS AT THE PLAY GROUND WILT-RABBIT-GARY-PUG AND A GROUP OF OTHER GUYS THAT WAS 1954-1955 THEY PUT S. E. ON THE MAP. WELL EARNEST I WILL SIGN OFF FOR NOW
This world we now live in is starving for this movie to be made and I would love to just play a small part in helping it take place. I'm his cousin my mother is his aunt whom he calls from time to time along w his other aunt my also aunt "ninnie lee". Our family is so very proud of Garrett. My mother speaks of him often. She and our aunt ninnie lee have stories of her own. 502-475-3864 my cell Lou. Ky.
Hey Gary. I came thru Armstrong a little bit behind you (55) but you had such a reputation of a sportsman it was impossible not to want to be in your company. Event through you had one arm you were and are more complete then many. I remember you swimming and diving at McKinley Tech. pool, AMAZING.I also remember you hitting a home run at Brooks Stadium with that powerful arm. I too would support a movie to be made with one of DC's GREATS OF ALL TIMES while he is able to see and enjoy it. If anyone can contact Mrs. Cathy Hughes, of WOL & WOOK, she might help to bring this idea to pass. See you later Gary.

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