Willie Mays at 89: ‘My Thing Is Keep Talking and Keep Moving’

Written by on May 13, 2020

Baseball is nearly like oxygen for Willie Mays. He spent a month this 12 months along with his outdated group, the San Francisco Giants, at spring coaching in Scottsdale, Ariz., the place baseball’s biggest dwelling participant served as unofficial clubhouse greeter. In regular occasions, Mays would now be an everyday presence on the Giants’ residence video games, sharing tales and laughs.

“Baseball is his complete outlet, his option to specific himself,” mentioned John Shea, co-author of Mays’s new guide, “24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid” and a longtime baseball author for The San Francisco Chronicle. “He doesn’t have entry to all of the gamers and the individuals for that style of baseball, which he simply lives for.”

Mays turned 89 final week, and he’s homebound in Atherton, Calif., due to the coronavirus pandemic. He lives with a private assistant and a buddy who was the caretaker for Mays’s spouse, Mae, earlier than she died in 2013 after an extended battle with Alzheimer’s illness. Trusted associates like Shea can come see him, however the each day give-and-take on the ballpark is lacking.

“My factor is hold speaking and hold transferring,” Mays advised Shea the opposite day, however these actions are difficult. Mays reads physique language the way in which he as soon as tracked fly balls, so in-person interviews are the one form he can comfortably give. He took questions by way of Shea for this column, because the constraints of the day have curtailed what must be a celebratory publicity push for his guide.

Mays has collaborated on books earlier than, however “24” seems like a valedictory handle through which the speaker is just too humble to brag, however waves of friends take the stage to provide stirring testimony. Shea presents Mays’s phrases in daring, letting him steer the narrative earlier than Shea’s intensive reporting fills within the gaps.

Shea first proposed the concept some 15 years in the past to Mays, who envisioned the guide as one thing to be taught in lecture rooms. Shea collected anecdotes from a number of vital figures who’ve since died, together with Mays’s former Giants teammates Willie McCovey, Alvin Darkish and Johnny Antonelli and the previous Giants proprietor Peter Magowan. He additionally interviewed opponents, historians, present stars just like the Angels’ Mike Trout and the previous presidents Invoice Clinton and George W. Bush.

“I discovered with each Bush and Clinton, their childhood heroes have been Willie Mays,” Shea mentioned. “Bush advised me that he didn’t wish to be a president, he needed to be Willie Mays.”

PicturePresident Barack Obama with Mays, left, and Giants General Manager Brian Sabean, right, during a White House celebration of the Giants’ victory in the 2010 World Series.
Credit score…Win Mcnamee/Getty Photographs

Mays can be near President Barack Obama, who flew with Mays to an All-Star Recreation on Air Power One, gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and is the topic of a full chapter in “24.” Mays says within the guide that he was scared whereas watching Obama’s victory speech after the 2008 election, as a result of he feared an assassination.

Mays doesn’t dwell on the racism he skilled in his profession, earlier than and after stardom: He was taunted as a minor leaguer in Trenton, N.J., and initially turned down for a house he needed to purchase in San Francisco due to his race. Mays by no means comes throughout as bitter, despite the fact that he was additionally discounted as a younger participant regardless of expertise that colorblind scouting couldn’t presumably have missed.

The Boston Pink Sox had a farm group that shared Rickwood Area in Birmingham, Ala., with the Black Barons, Mays’s group as a teen within the Negro Leagues. But the Pink Sox handed on Mays, who signed in 1950 with a New York Giants scout, Eddie Montague, for $4,000 and a month-to-month wage of $250, with the Barons getting $10,000. The Pink Sox turned the final main league group to combine, with Pumpsie Inexperienced in 1959.

“Oh, they’d me straightforward,” Mays mentioned of the Pink Sox as he talked with Shea for this column. He added later that it had all labored out for the most effective: “I didn’t just like the ballparks within the American League. I believed the Nationwide League was stronger than the American League. That’s what I believed.

“Once I went to the All-Star Recreation over there” — in 1961 — “they needed me to say that I needed to be a Pink Sock. I mentioned, ‘No, I’ll go the place they paid my household.’”

Mays shares the report, with Hank Aaron and Stan Musial, for many All-Star Video games — 24, naturally — and the guide conveys how significantly he embraced his position as an entertainer. Mays would exit of his option to thrill, making straightforward performs look troublesome, or baiting a runner by slowly pursuing a ball after which firing a strike to nail him on the plate.

“I needed to go manner round in my thoughts, however I may get him,” Mays mentioned. “Folks mentioned, ‘How the hell are you able to try this?’ I don’t know. I simply noticed him operating residence reasonably than operating to second.”

We are going to by no means know what may need occurred if Mays himself had been operating from first on the double he hit in Recreation 7 of the 1962 World Sequence with two outs within the backside of the ninth inning. With San Francisco trailing by 1-Zero and the Yankees’ Ralph Terry on the mound, Mays lashed a double to proper that slowed on the moist grass. Matty Alou was operating from first and stopped at third, setting up McCovey’s game-ending liner. Mays has at all times pictured a distinct end result.

Credit score…John Lent/Related Press

“If it had been me, they might’ve needed to throw me out coming residence,” Mays mentioned. “I might’ve tried for residence. Matty slowed down when he received to 3rd. There’s no manner I might’ve stayed on third. There have been two outs.”

Eleven years later, throughout the bay in Oakland, Mays had one other likelihood to return up because the potential last out of a World Sequence Recreation 7, this time as a member of the Mets towards the A’s. After a two-out error within the ninth, Oakland eliminated Rollie Fingers for the left-handed Darold Knowles, with the left-handed Wayne Garrett arising because the tying run. Mays hit right-handed, after all, however Supervisor Yogi Berra left him on the bench. Garrett popped out, and Mays by no means performed once more.

“I kick myself,” Mays says within the guide. “I may’ve gone to Yogi and mentioned, ‘I’ve received to pinch-hit, man.’ I believe he would’ve mentioned, ‘OK, go forward and pinch-hit.’ I believe that’s what he would have mentioned, as a result of we had that kind of relationship. However I mentioned, ‘No, that’s not the way to do it.’ I by no means did that.”

Mays’s last hit was a go-ahead, extra-inning single in Recreation 2 of that World Sequence, although the lasting picture of the tip of his profession is his fall in heart area whereas battling the solar. It was a hanging distinction to his indelible catch on the Polo Grounds in 1954, a second preserved in a statuette now given yearly, in his title, to essentially the most beneficial participant within the World Sequence.

The 2020 World Sequence is in jeopardy now, just like the season itself, one other American standby threatened by the pandemic. As we wait, Mays’s life story makes a compelling quarantine learn. He may have gone a bit deeper — particularly about his godson, Barry Bonds, the house run king tainted by links to performance-enhancing drugs — however controversy just isn’t Mays’s model.

He’s nonetheless a crowd-pleaser at 89, ceaselessly symbolizing the “mixture of greatness and pleasure,” as Clinton says, that explains a lot concerning the attract of sports activities. His new memoir will remind followers of why we love baseball a lot, and in addition, now, of why we miss it.


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