On May 25, 1951, Willie Mays played in his first major league game. 19 years and 50 weeks later, Mays returned to the city that embraced his early career.
Entering the major leagues with the New York Giants under the managerial reign of Leo Durocher, Mays became a model of excellence in ability, knowledge, and behavior. In his 1975 autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last—written with Ed Linn—Durocher wrote, “Every day with Mays I would come to the ball park, pick up the lineup card and write his name in. Willie Mays was never sick, he was never hurt, he never had a bellyache, he never had a toothache, he never had a headache. He came to the park every day to put on the uniform and play.”
When the Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season, Willie Mays became a favorite son of the Bay Area, with a metropolitan synonymity as as powerful as cable cars, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Golden Gate Bridge. In the 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Spencer Tracy jokes that Willie Mays could get elected Mayor of San Francisco.
Mays’s term with the New York/San Francisco Giants brought 12 Gold Gloves, two Most Valuable Player Awards, and 18 All-Star Game appearances. On May 11, 1971, the Giants and the New York Mets secured a deal that traded Mays to the Mets for Charlie Williams and a reported figure of $100,000. Willie Mays back in a New York uniform ignited an inferno of nostalgia for the city’s glory days of the 1950s, when three teams ruled Gotham baseball. In the New York Times, Red Smith acknowledged the questionable value of a trade, given Mays’s subpar batting average (below .200) and age (41). “It can be justified only on sentimental grounds and if the deal comes off, God bless [Mets majority owner] Joan Payson. The name-calling and hair-pulling during the players’ strike, the prolonged bitterness over Curt Flood’s challenge to the reserve system, and the corrosive effects of Charley Finley’s haggling with Vida Blue have created a crying need for some honest sentiment in baseball.”
Additionally, Smith noted, Giants owner Horace Stoneham valued Mays, so a trade for the superstar hinged on protecting him. “Anybody who knows Stoneham knows he would not trade Mays unless he believed it would benefit Willie as well as the Giants.” Mays, in turn, voiced esteem for his boss during the press conference announcing the trade. Times reporter Steve Lady recounted Mays’s response when a reporter questioned “The Say Hey Kid” about possible bitterness towards Stoneham: “Bitterness? What do you mean? How could I have any bitterness for this man who is seeing that I’m taken care of after my playing days are over? A lot of ballplayers play 20 years and come out with nothing.” Regarding the city that launched his career, Mays said, “When you come back to New York, it’s like coming back to paradise.”
Contrariwise, in his 1988 autobiography Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays—written with Lou Sahadi—Mays revealed his initial disappointment. “My first reaction was anger at Stoneham,” wrote Mays. “What happened to that family atmosphere he had always spoken of? I couldn’t accept the fact that he hadn’t called me when he was working out the details. Later, he explained to me he was losing money and would sell the club soon, but before he did, he wanted to make sure my future was secure. Whatever feelings I had felt for him over the years, at that moment I felt betrayed.”
Security proved to be a factor in the trade of the aging icon, indeed. Associated Press reported, “No specific terms of the deal to bring Mays to the Mets were revealed at the Shea Stadium conference but [minority owner and Chairman M. Donald] Grant said part of the package included a job for Mays in the New York organization after he retires as an active player.” Joseph Durso of the Times reported, “Besides assuming his current salary, the Mets agreed to keep him for at least three years as a coach at $75,000 a year after he quits playing—which presumably could be at the end of this season or next.”
Despite unwarranted statistics, Mays attained selection for and played in the 1972 and 1973 All-Star Games. Once fleet of foot with speed that struck terror into fielders trying to throw him out, Willie Howard Mays evidenced his age during the 1973 World Series, which the Mets lost to the Oakland A’s in seven games. Phil Pepe of the New York Daily News wrote, “What you can say is that he looked every bit of his 42 years and had people feeling sorry for him as he floundered around under two fly balls in the sun. And you can say that he battled back to drive in the go ahead run off Rollie Fingers as the Mets scored four runs and punched out a 10-7 victory over the A’s in game No. 2 here Sunday.”
Mays also ran into problems on the base paths; Mets manager Yogi Berra designated Mays as a pinch runner for Rusty Staub in the top of the ninth inning with the Mets ahead 6-3. John Milner singled, but Mays “got his legs twisted and sprawled helplessly on the ground making his turn around the bag,” reported UPI. “Mays should’ve easily made third on the blow but, after his mishap, all he could do was half-crawl, half-fall back safely into second.”
In the 12th inning, Mays knocked in the game-winning RBI; it was appropriate, somehow destined, that “The Say Hey Kid” finished the 12-inning affair with redemption, giving baseball fans a last glimpsed of greatness.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 19, 2015.