It didn’t take long.
Three days after the San Francisco Giants traded Willie Mays to the New York Mets in 1972, the “Say Hey Kid” smacked a home run in his first game with the Queens-based ball club—a solo blast securing a 5-4 victory over his former team on Mother’s Day.
The next day, talk at breakfast tables in the New York City metropolitan area might have covered major events of the previous 24 hours: Emmy Awards, Israel’s 24th Independence Day Parade on Fifth Avenue, and a $50 million heroin bust in Harlem. But as sure as Abner Doubleday’s creation of baseball proved to be a myth, sports-minded folks talked about Mays between bites of toast and swallows of orange juice.
Mays admitted to feeling uneasy in adjusting to his new digs. “I was nervous before the game. I was so nervous that I didn’t want people to talk to me about the game. I never thought I’d do anything to this one.”[i]
Though the San Francisco press did not report the visiting team’s reaction to their former teammate verbatim, there was a sense of excessive displeasure. “Ballplayers are pragmatic,” wrote Bucky Walter in the San Francisco Examiner. “What they said about Mays’ fifth-inning home run that defeated them, 5-4, must be decently left unwritten.”[ii]
Playing against the Giants affected Mays, who won Rookie of the Year, MVP twice, and was a perennial All-Star. “It’s a strange feeling to be batting against the club I played with for 20 years. You look up and see ‘Giants’ written on their shirts, and feel you should be out there.”[iii]
Lest anyone think that Giants owner Horace Stoneham ridded Mays for personal reasons, the truth was sourced in fiscal realities. “I never thought I would trade Willie, but with two teams in the Bay area, our financial situation is such that we could not afford to keep Willie and his big salary as well as the Mets can.”[iv] It was reported that Mays had a yearly wage of $165,000 and Giants attendance totaled about 4,000 per game.[v]
Mets fans might have seen Mays in blue and orange earlier—a million-dollar deal was on the table a year before the trade. It did not reach fruition because of possible “furious public reaction” in San Francisco.”[vi] But New Yorkers felt deep down that Mays belong to them anyway, despite the decade and a half in San Francisco. His home run restored their universe after enduring the disappearance of the city’s cornerstones, e.g., the Dodgers and Giants leaving for California in the late 1950s; Mickey Mantle fading from a superstar with lightning speed to a veteran hobbled by bad knees; and the destruction of Penn Station’s artistic excellence in favor of a modern sports arena (Madison Square Garden).
Mays’s departure from San Francisco was not a sudden idea to Giants fans, even though New York was not a certainty until the May 9 trade. On May 1, Sacramento Bee sportswriter Tom Kane raised the question of the aging ballplayer’s future with the Giants. It came in the wake of the .146-hitting Mays sitting out the previous day’s doubleheader against the Expos. “The denizens of the press box could not recall Mays’ sitting out both ends of a twin bill, and there was a situation in the losing inaugural where he could have been called upon as a pinch swinger,”[vii] wrote Kane.
New York had jumped to a 4-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning quicker than it took Henny Youngman to deliver a handful of one-liners at a Catskills hotel. Rusty Staub socked a grand slam after Giants southpaw Sam McDowell loaded the bases with three straight walks to leadoff hitter Mays, Bud Harrelson, and Tommie Agee. McDowell then settled and struck out Cleon Jones, Jim Fregosi, and Ted Martinez.
Mets lefthander Ray Sadecki blanked the sons of San Francisco through four innings. But they tied the game in the top of the fifth. Sadecki walked Fran Healy; Bernie Williams pinch hit for McDowell and bashed a triple. Speier’s double scored Williams for the second run and Tito Fuentes’s two-run homer evened the score at 4-4. Mets fans grimaced and grumbled, but quieted when Sadecki got three outs quickly—striking out Bonds and retiring Dave Kingman and Ken Henderson on outfield flyouts.
In the Mets’ half of the inning, Mays’s leadoff home run set off a Vesuvian eruption of joy amongst the Mother’s Day crowd of 35,505. Facing relief pitcher Don Carrithers, the veteran slugger went yard off the righthander’s “high fastball” with a blast that went well beyond the 371-foot mark on the Shea Stadium left-field fence.[viii] It was also the first home run of the year for Mays, who played in 69 games and totaled six home runs.
Mays drew another walk in the bottom of the seventh, but the ballplayer who could once rival Mercury in a foot race got caught trying to steal second base. He struck out in the bottom of the second.
McDowell’s performance ought not be overlooked, either. The seasoned southpaw struck out seven in four innings. He led the major leagues in strikeouts for three straight years from 1968-1970 and the National League in 1965-1966. On the offensive side, Fuentes shone with a four-for-four afternoon and two RBI.
Nostalgia empowered by the Mays homer overshadowed Staub’s first-inning achievement. But there was no ill feeling. “He deserves all the attention—it was his day,”[ix] stated Staub, who ended an oh-for-16 slump with his third career grand slam.[x]
Like with any player voyaging to a different team after several years, it can be jarring for the fans. San Franciscans bid goodbye to the star centerfielder but seeing him play on the opposite side so soon after the trade did not give them enough time to absorb the change.
Mays’s Mets début was the third game in an 11-game winning streak. They went 21-7 in May and ended the season with an 83-73 record and third-place finish. Mays retired after the 1973 season, leaving behind a career of 3,283 hits; 660 home runs; .302 batting average; major-league stolen-base leader three consecutive years; major-league slugging-percentage leader four times; and three National League titles.
Baseball-Reference and retrosheet.org were used for box scores and play-by-play information:
[i] “Willie’s First Giant Hit Was A HR, Too,” Associated Press, Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 15, 1972: 8.
[ii] Bucky Walter, “Mays’ Broadway Scenario,” San Francisco Examiner, May 15, 1972: 47.
[iii] Joseph Durso, “Mets Win on Mays’s Homer, 5-4,” The New York Times, May 15, 1972: 47.
[iv] Jack Lang, “Willie Warms Up for Second New York Run,” The Sporting News, May 20, 1972, 11.
[vi] Dick Young, “Young Ideas,” The Sporting News, May 20, 1972, 14.
[vii] Tom Kane, “Whither Willie?: Aging Star, ‘Unwell,’ Takes Powder During First Game,” The Sacramento Bee, May 1, 1972: 24.
[ix] “Willie’s First Giant Hit Was A HR, Too.”
[x] “Willie’s First Giant Hit Was A HR, Too.”