San Francisco Chronicle
Dwight and Willie:
In 2017, two Bay Area legends shared their signature moments
The meeting of two legends who made signature catches.
Dwight Clark did not look good when he arrived at the Giants’ ballpark on a sunny day in April 2017 for a photo shoot with Willie Mays.
Clark’s dress shirt hung loosely on his shrinking frame as he slowly got out of a friend’s car and walked to the tunnel under the grandstands. He had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He had 14 months to live.
But Clark was smiling and upbeat. That was him. Always a genuine gladtoseeyou fellow, Clark seemed determined to not yield his spirit to his fate, to not drag down his friends and fans.
Behind his smile, though, he did seem a little nervous. He was about to meet and hang out with a man he idolized. Clark had been Joe Montana’s running mate, and he was himself a legend to football fans, but the prospect of meeting Mays turned Dwight into a heroworshiping kid.
The concept for the photo shoot was simple: The Catch meets The Catch. Shoot the two Bay Area icons, each holding a photo of his signature moment.
I had come up with the idea a year earlier, when Clark was not yet diagnosed but knew something was very wrong. He agreed immediately to do the photo. Mays said yes also, but his dance card is full; it took a while to pin down a date. When I phoned Mays to confirm the shoot, he had one stipulation.
I had no plan in mind for the photos from the session, I just thought it would be cool, but initially there was the possibility that prints could be autographed and sold. Mays derives no small part of his income from memorabilia and autographs and is justifiably protective when it comes to photos and his signature.
“I hear Dwight is having some trouble,” Mays said.
He’s not doing too well, I said.
“Well, I want him to have all the money from this,” Mays said.
Mays attended most Giants home games, so we planned the shoot at the ballpark before a game. The Giants let us use the postgame newsconference room. The photographer was Michael Zagaris, a Bay Area legend himself, who shot every 49ers game during their glory years.
Clark rode to San Francisco from his home in Capitola with a friend, Gino Blefari.
“He was hurting, the ALS was starting to take its toll, but he was excited to get to meet Willie Mays,” Blefari said recently. “That was a very, very, very special day.”
I knew Clark pretty well from all the Warriors’ games he attended. Every time I ran into him, his enthusiasm and good cheer took me by surprise. I knew he would be his charming and enthusiastic self.
Mays? I had no idea what to expect. I knew he could be gracious and warm, especially with kids. But on a couple of occasions, I had seen him be a bit prickly. My hope was that, beyond the photo, Mays and Clark would hit it off.
You know how you plan something and you are so sure it’s going to turn out fabulous, but then something happens to spoil the perfection? Nothing happened to spoil this occasion. It went beautifully.
Well, there was one moment. Zagaris and his lighting tech, Peter DaSilva, spent more than an hour setting up the lighting, but when Mays arrived, we were informed that the bright lights were bad for his eyes. Pros are pros. Zagaris and DaSilva ditched their entire portraitstudio setup and made do with the room’s overhead lighting.
As for the meeting of the two Bay Area legends? It was brotherly love at first sight, hard to tell which man was more pleased to meet the other.
Mays greeted Clark warmly and enthusiastically, and for the next hour, Mays treated Clark like a cherished teammate with whom he had a lot of catching up to do (no pun intended).
The rest of us in the room disappeared for Clark and Mays, who chopped it up, smiling and laughing. Clark is a great storyteller, but he mostly yielded that floor to Mays.
Mays mentioned that he had been a pretty fair football player as a teenager, before baseball consumed his life, a quarterback who could throw 70yard rockets.
Mays told Clark about sandlot football games in Birmingham, Ala., where Willie would play quarterback for both teams, and when the cops appeared, everyone scattered, because it was against the law for Blacks and whites to be together like that.
Clark got it. He grew up in North Carolina in the ’60s, and he once told me how the brotherhood of sports had granted him immunity from the dread disease of racism.
Zagaris asked the two men to hold out their hands. Clark admired the hands that had cradled the massive drive from Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series, and commented that his own hands had been getting weak.
After the shoot, the Giants treated Clark and his friend to seats near the Giants’ dugout. During the game, Clark was saluted on the stadium video screen and received a warm ovation. In the broadcast booth, Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper waxed poetic.
Zagaris’ photos were sensational, the personalities of the two men shining through. Who needs studio lighting?
Mays had agreed to sign about 20 prints; he doesn’t do mass signings. After meeting Clark, though, Willie agreed to sign 100 prints.
I went to Clark’s house for his signing session. At one point, without pausing in his work, he said, “You know, it’s weird. Pretty soon I’ll be dead.”
The signed prints were turned over to the Giants and 49ers, and by the time they were sold, Dwight was gone. He died June 4, 2018. The proceeds went to a charity the 49ers created to benefit Clark and ALS victims.
My favorite memory from that photo day, other than marveling at Mays as he gave the gift of joy to a dying man, is a moment after the session ended. Mays had gone. Clark, as he was leaving, grabbed my arm. He was beaming.
The man who shared the biggest moment in 49ers history said, “That’s the coolest motherf—er I’ve ever met!”
“He was excited to get to meet Willie Mays. That was a very, very, very special day.”
Gino Blefari, friend of Dwight Clark