San Francisco Chronicle

Heartfelt tributes:

TRIBUTES TO WILLIE

- Contributo­rs: All tributes gathered by Chronicle staff writers Eric Branch, Bruce Jenkins, Christina Kahrl, Matt Kawahara, Tal Kopan, Ron Kroichick, Steve Kroner, Connor Letourneau, Scott Ostler, John Shea, Susan Slusser and Trisha Thadani.

Players, coaches, ex-presidents send their regards.

“Back in 2009, I gave Willie a ride on Air Force One to the All-Star Game in St. Louis. I’ll never forget that day because it was one of the few times when I wasn’t the most important person on the plane. Everyone was excited to see Willie. And I was, too. I told him that if it hadn’t been for folks like him and Jackie Robinson leading the way, I might never have made it to the White House. The spirit Willie brought to the game and the way he carried himself not only changed baseball — it also changed people’s attitudes, and helped young Black and brown kids see themselves differentl­y. We are lucky to be able to walk this earth with Willie Mays, and I’m glad he’s still going strong.”

— Barack Obama, 44th president of the United States

“I’m grateful I’ve gotten to know and become friends with Willie over the last 20-plus years. I’ve really enjoyed playing golf with him, and felt honored to speak at a dinner for his foundation. Our conversati­ons are always special. Listening to him talk about hitting is both earthy and enlighteni­ng. I’ll never forget him saying, ‘The strength and endurance of your lower body demands a lot of attention. Batting is like ballet in that way. You can’t do either if your big toes are hurt.’ I love Willie, and wish him a happy 90th birthday and many more.”

— Bill Clinton, 42nd president of the United States

“Willie Mays took the Jackie Robinson tradition and continued with it. If one would view life as a relay of important figures from one to the next to the next, Willie didn’t drop the baton. He advanced it. His example did not get dragged down by political environmen­ts. He rose above it and set a very good example for others. Willie has a vibrant personalit­y, a kind man who cares about kids.”

— George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States

“I think what stands out the most when I think about his time in the clubhouse is how much he enjoys talking shop with the guys, and he still has a great sense of humor.”

— Buster Posey, Giants catcher

“I played seven years with Willie and wanted to get on base because every time he hit a home run, I was at home plate and always in the photo.”

— Tito Fuentes, former Giants infielder

“He was my hero, my ideal. I didn’t think of him as a human being. I thought of him as a superhero.”

— Jon Miller, Hall of Fame broadcaste­r

“Willie Mays was actually one of my mother’s first students at Fairfield Industrial High School in Birmingham, Ala. She knew then that he’d one day be a ballplayer, but I’m not sure if she knew that he would end up being one of the greatest baseball players of all time.”

— Condoleezz­a Rice, former U.S. secretary of state

“When I was playing in Tampa, I did sit next to Willie Mays in a flight and had a great talk with him. He was in his 70s and I sat there in awe of the size of his forearms the whole time.”

— John Lynch, 49ers general manager

“To any baseball fan, Willie Mays is an absolute legend. It always amazes me how much he still pays attention and knows exactly what’s going on with each of us.”

— Brandon Crawford, Giants shortstop

“I know you hit 660 home runs in your great career — to be honest, I thought you hit all of them against Dodger pitching.”

— Vin Scully, Hall of Fame broadcaste­r

“More than a 5-tool player, he was a 6-tool player — above everyone.”

— Billy Williams, Hall of Fame outfielder

“I know in my mind, you were kind of the Steph Curry of your day, the combinatio­n of supreme talent and extreme joy, just breathtaki­ng to watch.”

— Steve Kerr, Warriors head coach

“With a bounce in my step, I headed over to the coffee machine to get my day started, and as I turned the corner I bumped into Willie Mays. I looked at him and I realized that I was wearing the exact same uniform that he had on. I’ve NEVER felt more like a big leaguer than I did at that.”

— Mike Krukow, Giants announcer

“Wills, as I call him, is loyal, funny, generous, and has given my daughters and me so many wonderful memories and experience­s by inviting us into Willie’s world.”

— Martha Whetstone, presidenti­al appointee of Bill Clinton, who introduced Mays to the president

“To this day Willie has always cared for me as a person, and that means a lot to me and it says a lot about who he is.”

— Felipe Alou, former Giants manager

“Every time he took an atbat, everything in my world just stopped.”

— Bob Melvin, A’s manager

“As Felipe Alou once said, ‘The All-Star Game was made for Willie Mays.’ ”

— Joe Torre, Hall of Fame manager and former catcher

“For most of the generation that followed Michael Jordan, that’s how you describe greatness. But before Michael Jordan, it was Willie Mays. He’s before me, but when someone said, ‘Who’s the most famous, impactful athlete you’ve ever heard of?’ I would say Willie Mays.”

— Steve Young, Hall of Fame QB for the 49ers

“We became good friends, good teammates, I love Willie and very proud to play almost my whole career with Willie. I wish I could be there with him to give him a big hug.”

— Juan Marichal, Hall of Fame pitcher for the Giants

“Every time I see Willie, I see the face of greatness.”

— Bruce Bochy, former Giants manager

“Thank you, Mr. Mays, not only for what you have done for baseball, but for our community and country. You have made this world a better place.”

— Tara VanDerveer, head coach, Stanford women’s basketball

“Everybody has heroes growing up. My first sports hero was Willie Mays, and to have your sports hero become a personal friend later in life is pretty remarkable. He’s why I wore 24.”

— Rick Barry, Hall of Fame forward for the Warriors

“I met him on the dais at the Boston baseball writers dinner in January 1979, because he had just made the Hall of Fame and I was Red Sox pitcher of the year in ’78. I remember saying something in my speech about how in awe I was of him. It didn’t matter that I won 20 games. Willie Mays was on the dais, man!”

— Dennis Eckersley, Hall of Fame pitcher who grew up in Fremont

“My heart is filled with love to be able to celebrate Willie on his 90th birthday.”

— Orlando Cepeda, Hall of Fame first baseman for the Giants

“In a city with a rich history of legends, Willie Mays stands alone.”

— London Breed, mayor of San Francisco

“Once I got to the Giants, it was a pleasure being around him all the time with his infectious laugh and smile, always in a good mood.”

— Dusty Baker, Houston manager and former Giants manager

“My greatest acknowledg­ment of him is when he gave me permission to wear the No. 24 when I played for the New York Mets.”

— Rickey Henderson, Hall of Fame outfielder

“My father brought me to bat day at Candlestic­k Park in 1962, the Giants vs. the Pirates. After the game, it seemed like hours of waiting but Willie signed every autograph. I was one of the last, but he signed my bat. He impacted me and how I treated fans as a profession­al.”

— Dave Stewart, former MLB pitcher and general manager

“I was fortunate to spend a weekend in 2010 with Willie and Harry Belafonte when the three of us received MLB Beacon Awards during the Civil Rights Game in Cincinnati. The three of us locked arms and talked of the importance of equal rights and opportunit­ies for all. The words we shared that day still ring true today.”

— Billie Jean King, tennis Hall of Famer and founder of the Women’s Tennis Associatio­n

“Willie was a Citizen of the City — someone who lived his life among us, not in a faraway tower. My friend Jack had a paper route in Willie's neighborho­od, and on collection day, Willie would give out bubble gum, candy and sometimes an autographe­d baseball. He often gave rides home to neighborho­od kids in his Cadillac. Willie was and is a real hometown hero.”

— Bob Sarlatte, longtime local actor, comedian and sports announcer

“Happy 90th birthday, Willie Mays. What a special, special milestone and a great opportunit­y to continue to give you your flowers and to celebrate your work on and off the field. You are an icon, you are a legend, you have paved the way for so many to come after you. We celebrate you to the fullest, my man. Happy 90th birthday from the Curry family, the Warriors, the whole Bay Area, all love.”

— Stephen Curry, Warriors guard and twotime NBA Most Valuable Player

“Never could I have imagined that, as a Giants broadcaste­r, I would spend hours in Mike Murphy’s office listening to the same Willie Mays tell stories. Sitting in a corner, saying nothing, and simply listening to Mays unplugged was surreal, the intense reality of a dream. And the greatest privilege of my life in baseball.”

— Ted Robinson, former Giants broadcaste­r

“What makes kids watch and appreciate what Steph Curry is doing today is what I felt watching Willie Mays. It’s not just his redefining of the game, it’s the joy. He made me love the game of baseball.”

— Barry Tompkins, longtime broadcaste­r

“Willie Mays is the greatest living ballplayer. The epitome of the all-around player. His highlights are transcende­nt and timeless. Willie Mays is multiple eras of greatness, past, present and future. Forever young. A legend, amongst legends.”

— Billy Owens, A’s assistant general manager

“Growing up watching Willie Mays play baseball was magical. He could do the impossible. To later meet him and get to know and appreciate what a sweet, generous and loving man he is has been one of the greatest thrills of my life.”

— Huey Lewis, rock & roll singer who grew up in Marin County

“One of my most cherished mementos is a framed picture of him, leaping high against the center field wall in Ebbets Field to rob Duke Snider of a home run, August 15, 1954. One year I brought it to Cooperstow­n with hopes that Willie would sign it. He did, very graciously, and said, ‘Wow, this is my favorite picture.’ ‘Mine, too,’ I replied.”

— Bill Madden, Hall of Fame baseball writer

“He was the player all the players measured themselves against. By taking over Jackie Robinson’s barnstormi­ng tours, his fame created fame for other great players, like Henry Aaron and Roy Campanella. Seventy years after his major-league debut, he’s still the standard for excitement and greatness.”

— Howard Bryant, ESPN columnist

“Willie Mays was a true rock star on the field. He played with a certain energy, a verve, a passion that I can really relate to. He knew how to excite the fans and give them their money’s worth every time he took the field.”

— Clem Burke, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame drummer for Blondie, lifelong Willie Mays fan

“He’s a regal force of nature, beaming with rare and different nobility, humility, and grace, all while establishi­ng the standard of excellence and search for perfection that has inspired my pursuit of a promised land as it can, could and should be, Willie is a forever giant, in every way, epitomizin­g the values, character, integrity, credibilit­y, and abilities of the greatest of champions in the game of life.”

— Bill Walton, Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst

“He’s the ultimate San Francisco Giant, the best Giant ever. The way he roamed center field, and some of the shots he would hit out there that would just die in the fog. He’s a San Francisco icon.”

— Juli Inkster, golfer and lifelong Giants fan

“I always wanted Willie’s nickname: the Say Hey Kidd LOL. His speed and power was what I wanted when I played baseball. We all know about The Catch, and the Say Hey Kid made it look so easy.”

— Jason Kidd, 10time NBA AllStar, raised in Oakland

“Willie Mays takes me back to 1954, age 9 in Oakland, feigning ailments in October and ‘recovering’ as soon as the World Series was over. So I saw The Catch, in glorious black and white. One spring day in 1991, at Pier 35 for a fundraisin­g lunch to benefit high school sports programs. I met Willie and, gracious as ever, he signed a beautiful red baseball I'd brought to the event ... just in case.”

— Ben FongTorres, rock journalist, author and broadcaste­r

“I first saw Willie Mays play when he played for the (minor-league) Minneapoli­s (Millers), and they played the Columbus Red Birds. I was 10 or 11. I had no idea who Willie Mays was at the time. … Because I saw him play young, I became a Willie Mays fan. I’ve always loved watching the way he played, the ease and enthusiasm.”

— Jack Nicklaus, Hall of Fame golfer who grew up in Columbus, Ohio

“He’s touched so many lives in New York, San Francisco and throughout the broader baseball community. There are so many who have been able to participat­e in baseball in one form or another because of his work, and that legacy deserves just as much acknowledg­ment as his greatness as a player.”

— Gabe Kapler, Giants manager

“I met Willie in 1958 when the Giants moved to San Francisco. He shook my hand and introduced himself to me, and he was like a father figure. He took me under his wing and told me I should be going to school instead of hanging out at the ballpark. Willie was the best in my book and still is the best.”

— Mike Murphy, longtime Giants clubhouse manager

“Willie was the greatest player I ever observed, played with or against. He would do something in most every game he played, whether a stolen base, a great catch, a powerful throw to nail a runner, a clutch hit, or, of course, a home run.”

— Keith Hernandez, fivetime MLB AllStar, 1979 NL MVP, raised in the Bay Area

“Willie Mays was my baseball hero as a kid, even though I grew up 3,000 miles away in Bethesda, Md. As an 8-yearold, I was already hopelessly captivated by baseball, and when Willie homered to lead off the 1965 All-Star Game, I was mesmerized forever. He was the perfect baseball player. I felt that way then. Fifty-six years later, I still feel that way.”

— Tim Kurkjian, ESPN baseball writer/broadcaste­r

“Willie Mays was the true epitome of the 5-tool player: hit, hit with power, run, throw, field. He remains my favorite player ever.”

— Bob Ryan, Boston Globe sportswrit­er since 1968

“We had a night game in New York, and that morning he takes me to a fashion district, and all these shop owners come out and tell Willie to take what he wants. He’d say, ‘What about my boy?’ He’s a giving man, and I’ll never forget that. As I got older, I remembered that and knew I needed to give back to the younger guys.”

— Chris Speier, former Giants shortstop

“It’s been the joy of a lifetime for my boyhood hero to become my friend and colleague for the past 30 years. A lifetime contract is too short for a man of Willie’s character, integrity and impact on our world.”

— Larry Baer, Giants CEO

“I got to know him at an oldtimers’ game in 1982, and watching him took my breath away. The way he interacted with his old teammates was just a joy to watch. And even at his age at that time he still played with grace and flair.”

— Duane Kuiper, Giants announcer

“There are a few players who compare to Willie Mays statistica­lly. Even fewer who compare when it comes to all-around excellence. But none of those select few were as exciting and as much sheer fun to watch as Willie Mays. To those lucky enough to have seen him play, the mere mention of his name brings a smile.”

— Bob Costas, Hall of Fame broadcaste­r

“Happy 90th birthday to the best baseball player of all time. We all appreciate the smiles you put on our faces from being so good and such a class act.”

— Randy Bennett, head coach, St. Mary’s men’s basketball

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