San Francisco Chronicle
Mays fans feel young, and he puts kids first
John Shea on a great player who is also a great man.
To sit and talk with Willie Mays is to walk into the Polo Grounds or Candlestick Park, hang with Monte Irvin or Bobby Bonds, lose your cap running first to third, and make a basket catch or three.
Willie Mays makes us young again. He makes us feel good about ourselves, our environment. He makes us reflect and smile. He makes us want to do better and be kinder.
We think of Willie Mays, we think of the memories, the stories, the laughs, the tools, the intellect, the style, the panache, the energy, the enthusiasm, the brashness, the audacity.
All part of the package that is Willie Mays, the legend who turns 90 on Thursday and will be honored and celebrated at the PadresGiants game Friday at Oracle Park. The Say Hey Kid is expected to attend, his first regularseason game since 2019.
Call the adoration for Mays sappy. Sentimental. Over the top. Guilty as charged. But all who have hung with him or watched him play or read about his life or listened to his words, they know.
Willie Mays not only is the greatest allaround player in baseball history and an American hero and icon, but he’s a genuine gooddeeddoer who turns most every conversation to kids and the importance of giving back to benefit the upcoming generations.
“I do what I can for people, man,” Mays said during my recent visit to his home on the Peninsula. “When the kids ask me for something, shoot, I give it to them. Let them have it because they’re going to be here after I’m gone, and I want the kids to enjoy what they can enjoy.”
Dressed in a white “Say Hey” polo shirt and sporty burnt orange jacket, Willie greets me with a smile and reminder that the Giants are playing well a month into the season.
We discuss many subjects, typically. Buster Posey’s fast start. Who’s playing center field. The kids in Fairfield, Ala., his roots. Coping in a pandemic.
A regular at home games before the pandemic, Mays is itching to return to Oracle Park and at some point in the future visit the clubhouse, where he’s known to sit in his friend’s office — longtime clubhouse manager Mike Murphy — and be available for mentoring, storytelling or good ol’ fashioned razzing.
These days, not so much. Like most seniors, Willie sheltered for most of the past yearplus but, as usual, made the best of a rough situation. He has been vaccinated and remains careful. He has friends over to his house and remains bubbly.
But it’s nothing like the ballpark, Willie’s second home, where he’s known to hold court with accomplished players, wideeyed rookies and anyone else fortunate to be in the room, his voice rising an octave or two with his enthusiasm for the subject, his infectious laugh lighting up the room.
“I like to help people when I go to the ballpark,” Mays said. “Help the Giants. Do what you can do. That’s all. That’s my goal. They helped me when I was a young man, a teenager. They signed me out of Birmingham.”
The world has changed since Mays last went to a ballpark, in spring training in March 2020, just before the coronavirus shut down baseball. Extremists attacked the U.S. Capitol. George Floyd was murdered. Police violence, systemic racism and a changing of the guard at the White House dominated headlines during a tumultuous stretch in our country.
Furthermore, Willie lost many of his dear friends, 10 fellow Hall of Famers who died, many of whom were extremely close, which was heartbreaking for Mays, now the oldest Hall of Famer.
But he pushes forward because that’s what he does, bothered by many events that transpired in the world but seeking better ground and an improved environment in the future.
“It happened too quickly,” said Mays, reflecting on the Cooperstown greats who were lost. “All good men. They’re no longer with us. We’ve got to handle it, just keep it going.”
At the same time, Willie reminisces and smiles. About how he’d appear at card shows with Hank Aaron and advise him to get the money upfront from organizers just in case they didn’t deliver in the end.
How a young Joe Morgan would visit his house and leave with bags of gear. How Tom Seaver gameplanned with him before starts with the Mets. How Lou Brock, of all people, was one of the very few to homer to center field at the Polo Grounds.
How he loved to face Whitey Ford in AllStar Games and the 1962 World Series. How he didn’t recognize Bob Gibson the day he noticed him at his doorstep in glasses. How Tommy Lasorda made him laugh until he cried. And on and on.
“‘Take the money, man. Put it in your pocket,’ ” Mays recalls telling Aaron. “He and I were pretty good friends. They didn’t think so. We used to laugh about it. ‘As long as we get paid, Willie.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ”
The Giants’ game is on in the background. Posey is up. Posey is swinging free and easy, his hip surgery in the distant past, and Mays gleefully relates to how the catcher hits to all fields.
“Nice kid, always comes around me when I’m at the ballpark,” Willie said. “I know you can’t move so well with a hip problem, but it’s good he’s doing well. He’s a very watchable guy.”
Mays is interested in updates on Mike Yastrzemski (grandson of fellow Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski) and the backgrounds of highly touted outfield prospects Heliot Ramos and Hunter Bishop, both firstround draft picks. Bishop played at Serra High and Arizona State, taking the same path to pro ball as Barry Bonds.
Over the course of a few hours, the subject turns to Dusty Baker (Willie continues to monitor him in Houston, “Dusty’s done a good job, hasn’t he?”) and Roberto Clemente (a teammate as a teenager on a great winter-ball team in 1954 — “We moved him from left to right because he had such a good arm”) and George Springer (first recipient of the Willie Mays World Series MVP Award, Mays loves his game) and Lon Simmons (in the booth and on the golf course) and Joey Amalfitano (former teammate and longtime instructor who recently retired) and Kevin Mitchell (Willie is hoping the 1989 NL MVP could land an instructing gig) and Bobby Bonds (“We always stayed together, Bobby and I, good family, his last words, ‘Take care of my kid’ ”).
And, of course, Mays’ early days in Alabama, his father and his Birmingham Black Barons teammates.
“In high school, they’d let me go for a few days to play ball, and I’d get back Monday morning to teach the class what I learned on the road,” Mays said. “One thing I enjoyed a lot, the bus ride from Birmingham to New York. It got strange one time. The bus caught fire through the Holland Tunnel, and I had to go back and grab some new clothes my dad bought me. I didn’t get it all.
“We had a lot of fun, man. Alonso Perry, Artie Wilson, who played in New York before I got called up and out here with the Oakland Oaks. Bill Greason, who’s preaching back in Birmingham. A lot of guys taught me and prepared me.”
The game on TV ends, and the news comes on. And talk of George Floyd. The verdict had found Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on all three counts.
Mays’ hometown is just outside Birmingham, considered the nation’s most segregated city when he was young, where white supremacist and public safety commissioner Bull Connor used fire hoses and police dogs against demonstrators, which generated national attention and helped lead to the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
To understand Mays’ upbringing is to understand why he questions whether justice will be served — when I say Chauvin faces up to 40 years in prison, Willie wonders if it might be half of that and spent in a “fresh air camp.”
Mays always was a uniter and peacemaker — remember who broke up the Johnny RoseboroJuan Marichal incident in 1965 by dragging Roseboro off the field? Mays had a knack for bringing people together and making them forget about race.
He fought bigotry on his terms while expressing himself more with actions and deeds than with words because his father, Willie Howard Mays Sr., told his son, a center fielder at the Polo Grounds less than a year after high school graduation, just four years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, to watch what he says.
“‘Just keep quiet for a while,’ ” he remembers his dad saying.
Nevertheless, countless players vouch for Mays for what he did for them, for civil rights, for the African American cause. He’s still doing it, including through his Say Hey Foundation.
In our conversation, we spoke of MLB’s pursuit to get innercity kids into baseball. “Some of them don’t get a break,” Willie said. “They need as much as they can.”
It always comes back to kids and the future. About helping others after so many helped him during his historic, fruitful and inspiring journey through baseball and life.
“The kids are so much smarter than we are, and some of them feel shut out,” Mays said. “You’ve got to do what you can do. I always try to do something for the kids. I hope I can do more.”
“When the kids ask me for something, shoot, I give it to them. Let them have it because they’re going to be here after I’m gone.” Willie Mays