Baseball
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The Say Hey Kid turns 90

With Willie at ATT Park

Happy Birthday, Willie Mays!

My childhood hero turns 90 today, and that takes a lot of processing. I never saw Willie Mays play live, but I followed his career religiously, to the point that I would call the local newspaper in Murfreesboro, in those pre-internet days, and ask them to tell me the score of the Giants game played the night before in San Francisco.

I was such a fan that my friends gave me the nickname that Mays made famous — the Say Hey Kid. I still enjoy it when my life-long friend and preservation colleague Dr. Van West pulls that old nickname out of his memory box when we connect.

Woody Allen, in the movie Manhattan, said Willie Mays was one of the things that made life worth living, right after Groucho Marx but before “those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne.” I don’t know that I’d put Groucho before Willie.

James Hirsch wrote a wonderful biography of Mays entitled Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, which I reviewed on this blog in 2010. In that post, I recount the story of the role Mays played in the famous Juan Marichal/John Roseboro brawl. As I noted after recounting that incident, Mays is a man of incredible talent, a man of contradictions, but — most of all — Willie Mays is a man of character.

James Hirsch has a wonderful essay of appreciation in today’s New York Times entitled Willie Mays Turns 90. Here’s how it begins:

I once asked Willie Mays what his proudest achievement was in baseball.

His oft-cited designation as the greatest all-around player in history?

His two Most Valuable Player Awards?

The Catch?

None of the above.

“I came into the league with a 32-inch waist, and I retired with a 32-inch waist,” he told me 12 years ago when I interviewed him for a biography.

A bit surprising, but not really. Mays takes great pride in his durability as a player, and it wasn’t an accident. He never drank, never smoked, watched his diet and rarely went clubbing.

His self-discipline made possible an epic career that began with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948, reached exalted heights with the New York Giants in the 1950s and didn’t end until 1973. Playing center field for 22 years in Major League Baseball, with a record 7,095 putouts and with 6,066 total bases, Mays surely ran more miles on the field, and with greater speed and more style, than any player before or since.

Hirsch has written a loving appreciation for an exceptional talent, who is carrying the torch for a generation of baseball players who are fast leaving us. Ten Hall of Famers — including Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Tom Seaver — have all died in the past year. Mays is now the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame, which again takes some personal processing.

I’m just thankful that I had a chance to watch the man who inspired one of the classic lines in sports, written by sportswriter Bob Stevens after Mays hit a game-winning triple in the eighth inning of the 1959 All-Star Game, which went, “Harvey Kuenn gave it honest pursuit, but the only center fielder in baseball who could have caught it hit it.”  

Happy birthday, Say Hey! I’m one of those who believe that you made life worth living.

More to come…

DJB

Image: DJB outside Giants Stadium in San Francisco by the statue of Willie Mays (photo by Claire Brown)

This entry was posted in: Baseball

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I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

3 Comments

  1. DJB says

    My friend Van responded to this post with the following email:

    “David, brilliant, and brings back many fond memories. I can remember him from the mid 1960s on, especially with him and Willie Mc in the middle of the Giants lineup.

    Took great pride a few years ago of fighting the good fight for the (National Register) eligibility for the old Black ballfield in Chattanooga (Lincoln Park) where Say-Hey played when just a kid. Thought of you every time I made the argument that hell Willie Mays played here in the era of segregated professional baseball. Those first pioneers for Black ballplayers—Mays, Aaron, Banks—were straight arrows and all about the game, a fortitude that I imagine helped them succeed when so many wanted failure.

    Van”

  2. DJB says

    After getting the note from Van, I wrote back the following:

    “Van,

    Good for you, re: Lincoln Field. That’s a no-brainer in my books.

    I thought McCovey was the most fearsome slugger I ever saw (on TV – like Mays, I never saw him in person, although I was lucky enough to see Aaron in the 1960s when the Braves moved to Atlanta). Then one night at a Nationals game I saw Barry Bonds hit the hardest home run I’ve ever seen in my life. It jumped off his bat and went out over the right field fence in a split second. I was sitting along the first base line and almost got whiplash following the ball. It was one of his HRs in the low 700s…hadn’t passed Ruth yet at that point, but was less than 10 behind as I recall. Of course Ruth, McCovey, Mays, and Aaron never used steroids. Mays has always covered for Bonds because he’s his Godfather, but I think it has to hurt him, knowing how much he loved the integrity of the game.

    Hope you can get past the Times paywall to see the Hirsch piece…it is really well done”

  3. DJB says

    On Friday morning, my friend Ed (who has a son who works for the Red Sox), also read the post and wrote me an email:

    “This is fantastic, David. Love the photo, too.

    And you’re now climbing up there with other greats, like James Hirsch himself; like Bob Stevens who minted that great line about Say Hey’s triple in 1959; like the Manhattan scene [if not Woody Allen himself, sigh] — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKTQ4a3BR5c

    Once, Willie Mays himself walked right by me, just after he walked out of a major Manhattan hotel. He looked like a million dollars, wearing a beautiful gray suit, and shined shoes. “Wow, there’s the Say Hey Kid himself.” He smiled, with a small wave. Maybe Gods DO answer letters.

    And I’m old enough to have seen, live on Bobby Beckenbaugh’s Sylvania TV down the street, Vic Wertz’s long, long drive, and Willie Mays’s jaw-dropping catch AND THROW.

    One story has it that Durocher had brought Don Liddle in to pitch to just one hitter, Vic Wertz.
    And when Liddle came back to the dugout after Mays’s play, Liddle threw his glove down on the bench and said, “Well, I got my guy!”

    Thankyou!
    E”

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