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