Greatness Never Fades: Willie Mays Turns 89

One of my greatest thrills as a sportswriter in the ’80s was to be on the field watching Willie Mays take batting practice before an old-timers game. He actually hit a home run down the left field line, that dramatic flair still flickering in his 50-plus-year-old body.

He laughed and bantered, saying “I still got it,” and I looked around the ballpark wondering if many earlier arrivers had even noticed that it was Mays who cranked that long ball.As I saw him around the ballpark a little more frequently during the Al Rosen-Roger Craig years, after the Giants had accepted him back into their family — I tried to play it casual. He hung around the Giants’ batting cage in his matching tan double-knit pants and coat, dispensing pearls of wisdom — in his famously scratchy, high-pitched voice — to the likes of Candy Maldonado, who at the time was scuffling.

But I couldn’t lie to myself: It was a thrill to be so close to the man I’d idolized since the moment the kid down the block, Richie Jyrinki, introduced baseball — and the Giants — to me in 1967 in the form of Topps baseball cards and a game of catch.

I even got Willie Mays’ autograph (a faux pas for reporters on the field) on a day that the Giants brought Leo Durocher into town to reunite with Mays. I still have it, on lined reporter’s notebook paper, with Durocher’s underneath it.

Durocher told me that he’d seen Mays make even greater catches than The Catch he is universally known for.

“One time, in old Crosley Field (in Cincinnati),” Durocher said, “the wind was blowing and Willie was chasing a line drive into the right center field alley when the ball got knocked down like it was shot out of the air. Willie had overrun it, but he stuck out his hand and caught it barehanded like it was nothing. And that ball was hit like a bullet.”My introduction to Mays in the late 60s was strictly through the limited means fans had to connect with ballplayers of the time: baseball cards, radio broadcasts, some Channel 2 games, and baseball books and magazines. The legend was as much a part of the mind as it was a tactile experience.

East Bay kids who’d become Giants fans before the Oakland A’s had even come to town would trek out to Candlestick Park, loaded down with dimes and nickels, by way of AC Transit (the F San Francisco bus to the S.F. terminal) and the long Muni ride through the Hunter’s Point projects before we caught glimpse of what we considered to be the majestic palace of Candlestick Point.

By the time we had our parents’ permission to go alone, though, Mays was more legend than practicing star, already in the twilight of his career.

We spent more time yelling “We want Willie! We want Willie!” than cheering on anything he did on the field as he rested his weary body in the dugout.

But he remained our hero. After one game, my twin brother, Joel, and I were hanging out with a bunch of kids at the ballplayers’ parking lot (can you do that anymore?), hunting for autographs (finally settling on the Mets’ Bud Harrelson, who barely stood taller than us), and lo, there was Mays, riding shotgun in his pink Cadillac!

We all swarmed around the magnificent, gleaming symbol of stardom, yelling, again, “We want Willie! We want Willie!” Joel, always the brazen one, jumped on the hood and rode on it before Willie himself yelled at him to get off — a thrill in itself to have the Say Hey kid barking at us.Suffice it to say, Willie Mays’ legendary place in my heart is secure as I toast his 76th birthday today. The iconic Willie Mays imagery is one of pure American strength and grace; his name alone evokes a feeling of hero worship that rests deep in my inner 12-year old soul.

It’s his willingness to accept Barry Bonds’ record-breaking pursuit that’s been so disheartening. I often wonder whether Mays, in his most private moments of contemplation, doubts the legitimacy of Bonds’ home run career, or if he is just too close to his godson to believe the worst in him.

More, I’m sad that Bonds would have put his ego ahead of the sanctity of his baseball forefathers’ marks, including Mays’ 660 home runs. Bonds was on his way to a Hall of Fame career before he allowed Mark McGwire’s illegitimate assault on the single-season HR record to get under his jealous skin. Perhaps, Mays just doesn’t care that Bonds will soon surpass Hank Aaron’s 755. Aaron’s record, remember, came while playing half his career in the Fulton County Launching Pad, while Mays toiled in the swirly winds off Candlestick Point.

As Mays turns 89, all bitter thoughts of Bonds’ home run pursuit behind me, I can only marvel at Mays’ durability, the enduring glow that emanates from his name. It was with deep satisfaction that I read James Hirsch’s wonderful biography, Willie Mays, The Life, The Legend, last year.

The 628-page tome (they should have stretched it to 660, just for the symbolism) gave me a fuller appreciation of his life. Hirsch gave texture and perspective to Mays’ virtual silence on racism when his Civil Rights brethren were calling for revolution. He uncovered the shocking treatment Mays received from San Franciscans who fought to keep him from moving into their neighborhood. Hirsch delved into his childhood deeper than all those who have tried before. It’s a book well worth the time to read and it didn’t, by any degree at all, shake my faith in the legend of Willie Mays.

Editor’s note: This post first appeared 13 years ago to celebrate Willie Mays’ 76th birthday. It was modified slightly to update it for Mays’ birthday this last week.

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