This is a wonderful personal story from Lee Mendelson. It describes an incident that ultimately led to 38 years of animated Peanuts specials. It was the catalyst for bringing Sparky, Lee and Bill Melendez together for the first time:
In 1963, we produced a one hour documentary about Willie Mays. It was called A MAN NAMED MAYS and was broadcast on NBC-TV. It got a great rating (27% of all viewers) even though it went up against the first million dollar TV special, “Elizabeth Taylor in London”.
Shortly after we had finished production, I was reading a Charlie Brown comic strip where he was losing another baseball game. The thought came to me: “We’ve just done a show on the world’s greatest baseball player….why not do one on the world’s worst baseball player Charlie Brown.”
I found out that Charles Schulz lived about an hour from me, and I also found his phone number in the phone book.
So I called him, introduced myself as a film-maker in San Francisco, and said I was interested in doing a documentary about him and Charlie Brown.
He was very cordial but he said that he had been approached by both Hollywood and New York to do something, but he just wanted to focus on doing the comic strip at that time.
I asked him if he happened to have seen the Willie Mays special on NBC-TV, and he said he had. “I really liked the show. Willie is a hero of mine. Why do you ask?”
I told him I had produced the show and wanted to do something similar with him. There was a long pause, and then he said: “Well maybe we should at least meet. If Willie can trust you with his life, maybe I can do the same. But I can’t promise anything.”
So we met a week later, discussed how I wanted to do the documentary and how it wouldn’t interfere in any way with his daily routine.
He agreed to do it and that started a relationship with him and animator Bill Melendez and myself that would last for 38 years, produce 50 network specials, and 4 Feature Films.
So that’s how Willie Mays helped bring about “A Charlie Brown Christmas” two years later.
This is a recent picture of Willie and I holding up the comic strip where Charlie Brown can win the class spelling bee if he spells the word “MAZE” correctly. Unfortunately, he spells his hero “MAYS” instead, and he loses the spelling bee.
So that’s how the world’s greatest and worst baseball players have been linked for nearly fifty years!
Other Peanuts strips mention Willie mays, but these are my favorites: