America, Say Goodbye To Willie

Contrary to what some might be inclined to believe, writing effective obituaries for fallen heroes isn’t something I relish.  I gather my thoughts, I sift through some appropriate links that appear to be germane to the topic and then I try to compile something that I believe to be both coherent and worthy of your time.  I hope I’m successful in doing so more often than not, and I know this past few weeks have been trying to both you and moi.

In the case of Willie Mays, the words flow much easier and the memories are far more vivid.  I’ve been writing about Mays for more than five decades, and actually hit a few “home runs” of my own as a result.

The bulletin board of our public school library, located mere minutes from Shea Stadium, took on a baseball theme the fall that the Mets shocked the world and somehow won the 1969 World Championship.  The matronly head librarian shocked us by unveiling a reading contest amongst the upper grades that would reward us with free paperbacks from a catalogue that supplied them for every four hard-covers we’d read and write a short book report on.  Most of my classmates chose Dr. Seuss, or perhaps Babar.  I know I chose every single sports book in the 796 section from the card catalogue.  I know I’m dating myself, but trust me, that’s how kids used to find entertainment before I Pads were invented.

And one of the first I read was the already dog-eared copy of Milton Shapiro’s THE WILLIE MAYS STORY.  The version of Mays that I saw as a player was an older, fleshier version of the lithe young man on its cover; the book was written at the beginning of 1960–slightly newer than many of the books we had in our library.  It told the story of Mays’ first decade in baseball and his early life growing up in Alabama.  I devoured every anecdote about his loving but demanding father, this version hiding and homogenizing the troubles Mays, Sr. had.  I knew about his more productive relationship with his first professional manager, the Birmingham Black Barons’ Piper Davis.  I knew the story of his rapid rise through the New York Giants’ minor league system, peaking after just 35 games in Triple-A Minneapolis where he tore up the American Association with a .477 average.  And his infamous 1-for-26 start (the sole hit being a home run off Hall of Fame Boston Braves hurler Warren Spahn), and how Shapiro would describe his high-pitched whine to Giants skipper Leo Durocher “PLEEEEASE MISTAH LEO!!!  Send me to back to Minneapolis!!!”

Durocher also took Mays, by this time barely 20, under his wing and talked him into sticking around a while.  Mays eventually took up residence in Harlem mere blocks from the Polo Grounds and, being barely older than many of the kids that would play stickball on St. Nicholas Avenue on hot long summer nights, quickly developed freindships and genuine camaraderie with neighbors while he was building accolade across baseball.  He won the 1951 National League Rookie Of The Year Award and led the Giants to the World Series for the first time in 14 years. And then, after nearly two years of military service, in his next full season 1954, he returned them to the Series and this time they won it all, sweeping the 111-43 Cleveland Indians in four straight.  His legendary catch of the Indians’ Vic Wertz’ booming drive, more than 440 feet from home plate, that helped to secure the chance for the Giants to win the opener, is deemed as perhaps the best defensive play in the game’s history.

I loved reading those stories.  I read Shapiro’s book several times, as there were no rules about repeats. To be fair, I also read biographies of Bob Cousy, Bill Russell and Sandy Koufax.  Jim Thorpe and Gordie Howe.  And what appeared to be a donated copy of Jimmy Breslin’s hilarious documentation of the Mets’ inaugural 1962 season, CAN’T ANYBODY HERE PLAY THIS GAME?  And I reread those, too.

I was the de facto Willie Mays of our little competition.  I think I had been given credit for about 40 titles–10 home runs–before the librarian finally noted that my book reports were repetitive.   They discontinued the contest by the following fall, after the Mets had returned to mediocrity (which was a step up from where they were before their title).  So my “career” was over.

But Mays’ wasn’t; in fact, he finished it in Flushing as a member of the Mets’ next championship team, the 82-79 1973 version that turned out to be his last.  I vividly recall the speech he delivered to the Fan Appreciation Night crowd on a Wednesday night against Montreal, the same night they somehow vaunted into first place less than a month than they had been dead last in the Eastern Division.  For those of you who haven’t seen it, here it is.  You try and keep a dry eye.  I didn’t.

And in a bittersweet turn of events, on a national stage on the very field where Mays’ professional career began, the roles will eb reveresed tomorrow night, where SPORTICO’s Barry Bloom reported how Mays, in death and life, was received last night:

The news sped through the stands at Rickwood Field Tuesday night midway through a Double-A game that the great Willie Mays had passed away at 93. Suddenly there was a video message on the scoreboard and the crowd of 7,866 gave Mays an impromptu standing ovation, breaking into the signature chant, “Say Hey, Say Hey.”

Rickwood is the oldest pro ballpark in America and the site where MLB planned to honor Mays and the Negro Leagues with a game Thursday. Mays got his start in the stadium and today the red brick Willie Mays Pavilion sits down the third base line- just beyond Section 24, of course

24 was also the number of All-Star games that Mays played in, a record.  And for fans of revisionist history, CBS SPORTS’  R.J. Anderson reported this factoid this morning:

We’ve established that Mays was an elite hitter and an elite defender at a premium position for a longer time than most players can dream. It should come as no surprise, then, that he ranks highly in terms of estimated Wins Above Replacement — after all, you can make a strong case that he was the most well-rounded player in baseball’s history, and they’ve played the game for a long time.

Baseball Reference’s calculations, to cite one source, have Mays with the fifth-most WAR of all-time:

  1. Babe Ruth, 182.6
  2. Walter Johnson, 166.9
  3. Cy Young, 163.6
  4. Barry Bonds, 162.8
  5. Willie Mays, 156.2

And if you parse all of that and acknowledge that the only players ahead of Mays were two pitchers, a steroid-assisted freak (and, yes, his godson) and an out-of-shape behemoth who happened to have massive home run power in a deadball era, a strong case can be made that indeed Mays was the GOAT.

Mays was not without his flaws.  Jackie Robinson in particular was not pleased that Mays was nowhere near as active in civil rights efforts after he retired, especially during the turbulent 1960s when Mays was at the top of his game.  In his defense, Mays was living in San Francisco, a far calmer city when it came to race relations than was the New York that Robinson called home.  It took him a few years, especially after he moved to the windswept novelty of Candlesitck Park, for him to establish a fan base in The City–initially he was seen as too New York-loyal and, worse, he was patrolling the same Seals Stadium center field than native son Joe DiMaggio once ruled, and many San Franciscans never quite used to him being New York-loyal, either.  But eventually Mays did find appreciation and love and, even better, a more enduring and loving marriage than the one he began his days on the West Coast with.

If you’re a baseball fan, or merely a sports fan, or even just someine who appreciates art, I encourage you to Google the Wertz catch and anything else from his San Francisco Giants era you can find.  These days, you don’t need a card catalog to indulge in learning.  And I promise not to ask you for a book report.



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