I’ve never hidden my admiration for the greatest player to ever play baseball, the Say Hey Kid Willie Mays. Don’t believe my assessment? Well, read a bit of what the great Joe Posnanski wrote about the #1 player in his magnum opus The Baseball 100.
First, Joe sets it up by talking about memories, such as the first time you are at a ballpark. “The smells overwhelm you — what is that? Beer? Hot dogs? Funnel cakes? Sweat? Yes. All of it. Baseball smells like an amusement park and a backyard barbecue and an afternoon at a movie theatre and recess at the playground all at once.” Then, at the end of a book highlighting 100 greats of the game where he says, perhaps, that we cannot know who the greatest player of all time is, Joe catches himself.
But wait! Of course we can know. More than that: We do know. We know the answers to all these questions and more because … well, because we know. See, all along, this journey has not been just about the greatest players in baseball history. It has been about us too: fans. It’s about the things we believe in, the myths we hold dear, the statistics we embrace, the memories we carry.…
Who is the greatest player of all time? You know. Maybe your father told you. Maybe you read about him when you were young. Maybe you sat in the stands and saw him play. Maybe you bask in his statistics. The greatest baseball player is the one who lifts you higher and makes you feel exactly like you did when you fell in love with this crazy game in the first place.
The greatest player of all time is Willie Mays.
I say all of this to let you know why I bought yet another book on Willie Mays in October when I was at Books, Inc. in the Bay Area (naturally). And why you should not take anything I say about it too seriously.
24: Life Stories and Lesson from the Say Hey Kid (2020) by Willie Mays and John Shea is a great memoir from a true sports hero. My childhood and adult sports hero. Broken into 24 chapters (to correspond with Willie’s uniform number), Mays recounts stories about his father, “Cat” Mays in Play Catch with Your Dad; recalls his days in the Negro Leagues in Remember your History about the Birmingham Black Barons; explains why he had a unique and elegant style in Act Like You’ve Been There Before; and much more. Mays, who grew up in segregated Alabama during Jim Crow and the Depression, was no naive fool as he tells us in Why Life and Baseball Aren’t Fair. Yet, Willie’s life lesson was to Have Fun on the Job. Did anyone bring more joy to the game than the young Willie Mays? Did anyone provide fans with more joy his entire career? No.
Willie made impossible plays on the baseball diamond, none more impossible than the famous catch (the best in baseball history) and throw off a ball hit by Cleveland’s Vic Wertz in the 8th inning of Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, as recounted in the lesson Keep your Eye on the Ball. When that particular ball was hit, no one thought he would catch it. But Mays knew he would. And then the throw, which most people forget or treat as an afterthought, really made it sublime. Had Larry Dolby come around to score from second on that ball — a real possibility in the cavernous Polo Grounds — Cleveland would have taken the lead, likely won that first game, and could have won the series. Because of the throw, Dolby stopped at third, never scored, the Giants won in extra innings and proceeded to sweep the heavily favored Indians in four games.
My friend Ed Quattlebaum wrote to tell me that he’s “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!”
People — famous people — seemed to know their place in the pecking order when it came to Willie Mays.
- “There have only been two authentic geniuses in the world,” the actress Tallulah Bankhead said. “William Shakespeare and Willie Mays.”
- 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.
- “If he could cook,” his first (and most beloved manager) Leo Durocher said, “I’d marry him.”
- “Isn’t Willie Mays wonderful?” the first lady of American theater, Ethel Barrymore, asked.
- Sportswriter Bob Stevens penned a classic line 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.”
Some players are full of grace when they play. Joe DiMaggio comes to mind. But not Mays, as Posnanski reminds us. “No, Willie Mays going after a fly ball was cotton candy and a carousel and fireworks and a big band playing all at once. His athletic genius was in how every movement expressed sheer delight.”
Childhood heroes have a way of disappointing. But not so much with Mays. When you were young, you seemed to know that this was someone you should watch. Sportscaster Bob Costas, in the entertaining foreword to 24 writes of the first time his father took him to a Giants game at the Polo Grounds in New York City. Costas was five years old (it was 1957). The Giants are in the field, and his father says,
Look, Bobby, look at the player standing way out there in center field. No, not that guy, the one in the middle. That’s Willie Mays.” It was if he were pointing out the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. As if he were saying, “Take note, son, that’s Willie Mays, you won’t forget the first time you saw him.” More than sixty years later, it’s still true.
Willie wasn’t perfect, as Posnanski wrote,
And then, for me, there’s the biggest part of all. There was the joy. It is true that as the years went on, Mays grew tired and occasionally cranky. The fans didn’t treat him too well when the Giants moved out to San Francisco. Candlestick Park, where he played 889 games, was a cold and windy and desolate place. He, like every black man of his day, endured nastiness and racism. He went through a hard divorce. He had money problems. People tried to take advantage of him.
And he finished his career with the Mets, to the horror of all, by falling down in the outfield.
The only thing Willie Mays could not do on a baseball diamond was stay young forever.
But he could play and build memories like no one else. Posnanski finishes his tribute with this gem:
But even to the end, he sparked joy. What do you love most about baseball? Mays did that. To watch him play, to read the stories about how he played, to look at his glorious statistics, to hear what people say about him is to be reminded why we love this odd and ancient game in the first place.
Yes, Willie Mays has always made kids feel like grown-ups and grown-ups feel like kids.
In the end, isn’t that the whole point of baseball?
Say Hey! The greatest ever.
More to come…
Of course I have written several stories about Mays over the years on More to Come. Check out:
- The Say Hey Kid turns 90 (May 6, 2021)
- Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend (April 22, 2010)
- Willie Mays and America’s oldest professional ballpark (January 29, 2010)
This Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
Image: DJB outside Giants Stadium in San Francisco by the statue of Willie Mays (photo by Claire Brown)