Willie Mays’ Little-Known Role in the History of Late Night

Legendary baseball player Willie Mays died on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. While he’ll be remembered most for his accomplishments on the field, Mays also held a special distinction in the world of late-night television.

The New York Giants center fielder was a guest on the first-ever episode of The Tonight Show.

Television’s first late-night show originated as The Steve Allen Show on NBC’s New York affiliate, WNBT, in July 1953. In the fall of 1954, NBC brought Allen’s show national, renaming it Tonight Starring Steve Allen.

That first national broadcast—September 27, 1954—marked the beginning of The Tonight Show franchise.

That day, Willie Mays and his teammates on the Giants—then of New York (now based in San Francisco)—filed down NYC’s Canyon of Heroes to City Hall in a ticker-tape parade. They had just wrapped up their regular season the day before, finishing as National League Champions, and were on their way to the World Series two days later. But first, Mays had a stop on national television to make later that night.

At the time, the national Tonight was slated for 90 minutes, but Allen was still beholden to his local Steve Allen Show sponsor, Knickerbocker Beer. To fulfill his obligations, Allen started the show 15 minutes early in New York, taping a portion of the show only WNBT viewers would see. At 11:30 pm, the show was then picked up by the national broadcast. That meant Allen did 105 minutes every night—and he did it live. 

Sadly, only a half hour of the show’s first national broadcast survives on YouTube, beginning as the opening titles for the nationwide show rolled. 

“Tonight’s special guests: Wally Cox, Bill Kenny of Ink Spots fame,” announcer Gene Rayburn declared. “And New York’s greatest Giant, Willie Mays.”

YouTube player

The episode’s originally-planned first guest was actress Martha Raye, but Cox filled in when she couldn’t make it. Mays’ appearance came later in the show, and was conducted live via remote from his home.

“We’re going to try to go up to Harlem here in New York City,” Allen told viewers at the start of the show, “to look for Willie Mays.”

As a Sports Illustrated profile of Mays put it, “The network needed a big guest star for the debut, and none shone brighter in the fall of ’54 than Willie Mays.”

In the segment, Tonight’s resident musicians Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé (a.k.a. Steve and Eydie) went to Mays’ apartment in Harlem. Climbing a ladder to his bedroom window, the duo serenaded Mays with a song about the Giants’ upcoming showdown against the Cleveland Indians (who have since been renamed the Cleveland Guardians). 

Using then-expensive remote broadcast technology and a telephone, Mays sat for a split-screen interview with Allen, who remained in studio at the Hudson Theatre.

Mays would later appear on Tonight during both Jack Paar and Johnny Carson’s tenures.

Allen had started that first episode of Tonight with a warning to viewers about its 1 am end time: “This program is going to go on forever.”

Those words would take on new meaning in the years to come. While Allen departed in January 1957, The Tonight Show went on to became the longest-running talk show in the world.

The Giants, meanwhile, went on to sweep the Indians in the World Series.

And Willie Mays continued a standout career in which he earned 2 MVP Awards, 12 Gold Glove Awards, a slew of franchise records, and an induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The “Say Hey Kid” continues to be cited as one of the best players baseball has ever seen. He died peacefully yesterday afternoon at the age of 93.

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