Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Willie Mays at 93

"I just felt baseball was a beautiful game, especially at night. The sun -- I mean, you had the lights out there and all you do is go out there, and you're out there by yourself in center field, and it's just a beautiful game. And, I just felt that it was such a beautiful game that I just wanted to play it forever, you know."

- Willie Mays 
Academy of Achievement Interview, February 19, 1996

Yesterday, May 6tth, was the birthday of the great Willie Mays.  "The Say Hey Kid" turned 93 years old.  I always remember Willie's birthday because my late father was also born on May 6th.  I hope Willie enjoyed his special day and I wish him all the best.  By the way, there are different stories as to how Willie acquired his nickname "Say Hey Kid,"  According to New York Journal sportswriter Barney Kremenko, Willie, who was generally known as a quiet man, "would blurt 'Say who, 'Say what, 'Say hey.'  In my paper, I tabbed him the 'Say Hey Kid.' (in 1951), It stuck."  However, Willie's family, friends and later his teammates, fondly referred to him as "Buck."

Willie Howard Mays, Jr. was born on May 6, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama, a predominately Black company town. near Birmingham.  It's no wonder that Willie was such a good all-round athlete. His father, Willie Sr, a steelworker, was known as "Cat" Mays because of his quickness.  Cat Mays was aa talented baseball player with the Black team in the semi-pro Birmingham industrial league at the local iron plant.  Willie's mother, Annie Satterwhite, was a high school track star 

Willie appeared in his first major league game for the National League's New York Giants on May 25, 1951 at the age of 20.  Willie's Giants played the New York Yankees in a Subway Series that year.  The '51 series also featured two of the most flamboyant managers in baseball, Casey Stengel of the Yankees and Leo Durocher of the Giants.  Willie played centrefield for the Giants, but the Yankees, with Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle defeated the Giants in six games.  Willie was later named National League Rookie of the Year for 1951. 

After the 1951 season, Willie Mays was drafted by the United States Army to serve in the Korean War., but he still played the first few weeks of the 1952 season with the Giants.  On March 1, 1954, Willie was discharged from military service.  He reported to the Giants' training camp the very next day.  Willie was on fire during the 1954 season.  He led the league with a .345 batting average, and slammed 41 home runs.   The Giants went on to win the World Series that year, the only time in his career that Willie received a World Series ring.  He was also chosen the National League's Most Valuable Player.in 1954.

The highlight of Willie's career, and one of the most memorable moments in baseball history, occurred that 1954 World Series against Cleveland.  In Game One at the Polo Grounds in New York, Willie performed an amazing athletic feat known as "The Catch."  In the eighth inning, he made an incredible off the shoulder running catch of a Vince Wertz fly ball.  With his back turned away from the infield, Willie caught Wertz's long shot near the outfield wall. That catch preserved a 2-2 tie, and the game went into extra innings.  The New York Giants scored three more runs in the tenth inning to win the game 5-2.  They defeated Cleveland in the next three games and swept the Series in four games straight.

Willie in 1954

Willie continued to play well during the 1955, 1956 and 1957 seasons in New York.  He hit 36 home runs and stole 40 bases in 1956.  In 1957, he won the first of his 12 consecutive Gold Gloves.  Low attendance and a desire for a new stadium prompted the New York Giants to move to San Francisco after the 1957 season.  During Willie's first season in San Francisco, he led recorded an impressive .357 batting average.  

The Giants made Willie the highest paid player in baseball, with a contract of $750,000 for 1959.  He was named team captain prior to the 1960 season.  The Giants captured the National League Pennant in 1962, but were defeated in the World Series by the New York Yankees.  In 1965, Willie won his second MVP award and hit a career high 52 homers.  Four years later, in September of 1969, he smashed his 600th homer.  Willie spent over 14 seasons in the City by The Bay, where he became a fixture.

In 1972, 41-year-old Willie Mays returned to New York when San Francisco traded him to the Mets for pitcher Charlie Wilson and $50.000.  Willie received criticism for continue to play when he was over 40 and obviously past his prime, but he defended his decision to keep playing.  He said, "You know, a lot of people said when I was 40, I should quit, but I don't think so.  You should play as long as you can and as long as you enjoy the game.  In '73, I wasn't enjoying the game.  I retired and they wouldn't let me retire.  So I finished up in the World Series"

In 1973, Willie Mays played in his fourth and final World Series as his Mets challenged the Oakland A's, but the A's prevailed over the Mets in seven games.  Willie played in three games and had a batting average of .286, with 2 hits in 7 at-bats 

Willie finished his playing career in 1973 with a batting average of .302, 660 home runs, and 1,903 RBI.  He stole 338 bases.


* On October 3, 1951, Willie Mays was in the on-deck circle when Bobby Thomson hit "the shot heard round the word."  With Thomson's home run, the Giants defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the National League pennant, although they lost to the Yankees in the World Series.

* Willie has been married twice. In 1956, he married Marghuerite Wendell Chapman (1926-2010).  In 1959, the couple adopted a baby named Michael.  They separated in 1962 and divorced in 1963.  Eight years later, in 1971, he wed Mae Louise Allen, a San Francisco child-welfare worker.  In 1997, Mae was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.  Willie cared for her until her passing on April 19, 2013.

* In January of 1970, Sporting News named Willie Mays  the 1960s "Player of the Decade."

* Willie was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility with 95% of the votes cast.

*Willie played in 24 All-Star games.

* The San Francisco Giants retired Willie's Number 24.

* In 2015, former President Barack Obama presented Willie with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

* Since 2020, Willie has lived in Atherton, California with his personal assistant.  He suffers from glaucoma.

-  Joanne