Willie Mays ended his career where he began it. New York City.
His was a career of milestones. As a rookie, Mays was a witness to baseball history. On October 3, 1951, he was in the New York Giants on-deck circle when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard ‘Round the World. In the 1954 World Series, he made baseball history when he caught a Vic Wertz fly ball to center field in the Polo Grounds while he sprinted with his back toward home plate.
Mays became a Giants cornerstone, frustrating National League opponents with his running, fielding, and hitting. But the days of wearing black and and orange, the colors of the Giants, came to an end for Willie Howard Mays on May 11, 1972, when the San Francisco Giants traded him to the New York Mets for minor league pitcher Charlie Williams. Stories indicated the Mets also paid $100,000 in the deal. In the Mays biography Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, James S. Hirsch discounted the cash component. “[Giants owner Horace] Stoneham, however, later acknowledged that he didn’t accept any money,” stated Hirsch. “Ultimately, all that mattered was that Willie would be taken care of, and the Mets agreed to pay him $165,000 that year and the next. Mays said the Mets also agreed to pay him, on his retirement, $50,000 a year for ten years.”
Though he was in the twilight of his career, Mays in a Mets uniform provided a sense of continuity in a nation shattered by the Vietnam War, Watergate, assassinations, and riots. When he donned a Mets cap with the familiar NY insignia borrowed from the Giants log, order seemed restored for those who grew up watching Mays patrol the Polo Grounds outfield in the 1950s. He was back home. Not in the same ballpark and not for the same time. But in New York City, nonetheless.
On September 25, 1973, the Mets hosted Willie Mays Night; Mays retired after the ’73 season. “I hope that with my farewell tonight, you’ll understand what I’m going through right now,” revealed Mays. “Something that I never feared: that I were ever to quit baseball. But as you know, there always comes a time for someone to get out. And I look at these kids over there, the way they are playing, and the way they are fighting for themselves, and it tells me one thing: Willie, say goodbye to America. Thank you very much.”
Mays’s return to New York City culminated with the 1973 World Series, a seven-game affair that saw the Oakland A’s dynasty defeat the Mets. Meanwhile, the Big Apple’s other baseball team saw its share of drama in ’73. Yankee pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson swapped wives, Ron Blomberg became baseball’s first designated hitter, and Ohio ship builder George Steinbrenner led a group purchasing the Yankees.
Yankee Stadium also said goodbye to America in 1973, undergoing a renovation that lasted two years.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 15, 2014.