The Baseball Legend Who Once Gave Life Advice To A Teenage OJ Simpson

From the moment Orenthal James Simpson was born in 1947, he was known as O.J. In fact, young O.J. didn't know his first name until the third grade, when a teacher called it out in class, he recounted in 1979 on "The Tonight Show" (via YouTube). He just thought he was "O.J." The origin of Orenthal, he later learned, came from a French actor his aunt liked, per Biography. But before O.J. won the Heisman trophy during his time at USC, before he became a star running back on the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers, and certainly before he stood trial for the murder of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman — before all of that, he was a kid in trouble who had an unlikely intervention by a baseball legend.

Growing up in a rough part of San Francisco in the 1950s and 1960s, Simpson said sports were his opportunity to do something positive, especially when it came to football and baseball. Baseball legend Willie Mays, who had recently relocated with the Giants from New York to San Francisco, was Simpson's hero, for his skills and for breaking the color line. "Wherever I went, whoever I spoke to," Simpson told Sports Illustrated in 1987, "people were talking about Willie Mays. And I realized this was a Black guy they were talking about and that it didn't matter!"

Seeing Willie Mays play

When O.J. was 10 years old, his uncle took him to Candlestick Park to see the Giants play. "I never took my eyes off Willie Mays," Simpson said, per Sports Illustrated. "I had heard about his basket catch and the way his cap always fell off when he ran, and I watched for those things. He did them all. He even hit a home run for me." From that point on, when O.J. was on the field, he did his best to emulate Mays — batting, catching, and running. "I hate to go so far as to say that he was my god, because my family was religious, but it almost amounted to that. I could almost say that I worshiped Willie Mays," Simpson told Sports Illustrated.

Early on, O.J. saw that his way out of living in a poor neighborhood would be sports. "I couldn't sing or dance, and I wasn't going to be a brain surgeon. So it had to be sports," he said, according to the 1996 book "Beyond O.J.: Race, Sex, and Class Lessons for America." In Little League baseball, O.J. was a catcher, which was a bit of a disappointment. But he was determined to become the Willie Mays of catchers, per Sports Illustrated. He eventually played different positions and, then, different sports, including track and football. "Running, man, that's what I do. All my life I've been a runner," Simpson later told The New York Times. He said no matter the sport, everyone wanted him on their team.

In a bit of trouble

By the time O.J. Simpson reached his teen years, he was a member of a gang called the Persian Warriors, per Vulture. Most of the activities he engaged in had to do with theft, minor shoplifting, and underage drinking. But his illegal transgressions caught up with him in 1961 when he was on the refreshments committee for a dance. With no money to his name, he resorted to stealing what was needed, per Yahoo! Sports. One problem: He pilfered supplies from a store where he accompanied his mother for shopping. The owners of the shop not only identified him, they also knew his address. So, according to the Los Angeles Times, when O.J. got home that night, he found a surprise that shouldn't have been one: the police waiting for him.

For the weekend, O.J. and his collaborators spend the weekend locked up in juvenile detention. On Monday morning, his mother, Eunice, picked him up. But his father, Jimmy, who had been separated from Eunice since O.J. was 5 years old, was the disciplinarian. In fact, for long periods of time, it seemed like that was the only time O.J. saw his father. "I knew the format," Simpson told Sports Illustrated. "I knew my father would come over, and he would yell and he would whip me with his belt. So I waited in my room, and then I must have dozed off." What O.J. woke up to was a something of a shock.

Another Willie Mays lesson

Over the weekend, O.J.'s uncle — the one who took him to his first Giants game — spoke to Lefty Gordon, who was a youth counselor at the nearby Booker T. Washington Recreation Center. According to the Los Angeles Times, it was Gordon who was responsible for what happened next. O.J. woke up from that snooze, hearing his mother yell, "Orenthal, you come down here," per Sports Illustrated. In the living room stood Willie Mays. "So there in our crappy little project house was my hero," Simpson said. "Willie Mays — in my house! He asked my mother if it was O.K. if he took me out for the afternoon, and he asked me if I wanted to go. She said yes, and I said yes."

There was no lecture about drugs or alcohol, or even about hanging with the wrong crowd. Per the Independent, Mays took O.J. on some errands, showed him his house, and just had low-stakes conversations with him. "It was his way, I guess, of showing me what to do," O.J. told Sports Illustrated. Simpson said he didn't turn his entire life around immediately and that he would have eventually gotten there himself, even without Mays. Still, Mays had a major impact in another way in terms of outlook. "[T]hat time with Mays made me realize that my dream was possible," he said (via Sports Illustrated). "Willie wasn't superhuman. He was an ordinary person, so there was a chance for me."