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Willie Mays
PHIL TAYLOR
July 14, 2008
It's been half a century since the Say Hey Kid led the national pastime on its move to the West Coast. He's still a baseball man at heart, as monumental—and enigmatic—a legend as American sport has ever seen
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July 14, 2008

Willie Mays

It's been half a century since the Say Hey Kid led the national pastime on its move to the West Coast. He's still a baseball man at heart, as monumental—and enigmatic—a legend as American sport has ever seen

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It is at times like this that Mays will fall easily into reminiscing about his playing career. He will say, for instance, that he disagrees with the popular belief that the famous back-to-the-plate catch in the Polo Grounds against the Cleveland Indians' Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series was his greatest. He considers at least one play even better—a diving, backhanded grab he made in Ebbets Field against the Brooklyn Dodgers infielder Bobby Morgan in 1952. "I was playing him toward right center, and he pulled it more than I expected," Mays says. "I just left my feet, stretched out, and the ball hit in my glove. It must have knocked the wind out of me, because the next thing I remember, Jackie [ Robinson] and Leo [ Giants manager Durocher] were looking down at me when I opened my eyes."

Mays describes the action, the slider that was thrown, the way he was positioned, as if giving a postgame interview, as if it all happened out there on the field just a moment ago—the way a ballplayer would. He also waves off discussions of what he might have accomplished had he not missed most of the 1952 season and all of '53 to military service. But considering that he hit 41 and then 51 home runs in his first two seasons after returning, it very well could have been Mays, rather than Hank Aaron, who first surpassed Babe Ruth's total of 714 homers. Aaron and Bonds would have had to chase him for the record.

He was, of course, much more than a home run hitter. Mays is as proud of his .302 lifetime batting average as his long balls, and the plays he tends to mention first when he recounts his career are the ones made with his glove. He was such a dazzling centerfielder and base runner that he might well have made the Hall even if he had been far more ordinary with the bat. In the '59 All-Star Game, Mays stroked a triple off the right centerfield wall, causing the San Francisco Chronicle to provide perhaps the best summation of his all-around brilliance. Bob Stevens wrote, "The only man who could have caught it, hit it."

It is no wonder, then, that McNamara is beaming as he tells Mays about the depth of his boyhood fandom. This is what Mays does to people, does for people, often without saying a word. He takes them back to their childhood, to more innocent times. "They talk and I listen," he has said. "It's more for them than it is for me." McNamara tells him that once, when word got out that Mays was going to be at the bank across the street from the flower shop McNamara's father owned, the boy waited for hours hoping to catch a glimpse of him, to no avail. Mays is attentive but not particularly moved. "I must have gone in and come out the back way," he says.

McNamara turns to McCovey and tells him that he got Big Mac's autograph at an auto dealership in 1959. "Did you pay for it?" Mays says. McNamara says no, that McCovey was a rookie then and, anyway, no one charged for autographs in those days. Mays, his voice rising again: "You got it for free?" McCovey and McNamara laugh. Mays is stone-faced. He's kidding. Probably.

He can seem unsentimental and preoccupied with commerce that way, joking sometimes that he'd trade being the World's Greatest Living Ballplayer—the unofficial honorific held by Joe DiMaggio until his death in 1999—for being the world's highest-paid. Like many stars of his era he has supplemented his income handsomely with appearance fees at memorabilia shows and with autograph signings; his friends will tell you that he is anything but money-hungry. If he were concerned with lining his pockets, he wouldn't have turned down multiple lucrative offers from publishers over the last decade for an autobiography. He agreed finally to do one, scheduled for release next year, only because a major share of the profits will go to his charitable foundation. (Because of the upcoming book, Mays politely declined to be interviewed at length for this story.)

If Mays seems interested in trading on his fame, it's probably because he is more comfortable with clear transactions, each party knowing exactly what is expected of the other. "He doesn't like to give out too much of himself," Simmons says. "He prefers to say, 'You want something from me? This is what I want from you.' It helps him weed out the people who simply want to take advantage of him." That's why encounters with fans, in which the terms aren't so clearly set out, can seem awkward and cold. He has softened some in recent years, partly out of necessity, since under his lifetime contract with the Giants he is called on to mingle with the public. But the random fan who approaches Mays expecting the Say Hey Kid might very well be surprised to find more of an edge to him. "He can be a little rough," says Bay Area sportscaster Gary Radnich. "But some of that is his way of saying that even though he's not as young as he used to be, he's got some juice left."

There may be more to Mays's gruff front than protectiveness. For all of the adulation he received during his career, he was not immune to the racial tensions of the era. A child of 1930s Alabama, he has often said that sports was the great equalizer during his boyhood, that he played with black and white children who judged each other by their athletic ability. Later, though, he found that the world, even the baseball world that embraced his brilliance, was not color-blind.

When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, Mays was booed at times during the early days. Even after fans warmed to him, he faced discrimination away from the ballpark. Mays and his first wife, Marghuerite, couldn't buy a home in San Francisco until the mayor intervened, and about a week after he moved into the house on Miraloma Drive, a brick was thrown through his window. "Mays was the hated embodiment of New York," wrote Charles Einstein in the 1979 book Willie's Time. "He had the temerity to play centerfield in Seals Stadium, where the native-born DiMaggio had played it in his minor league days. Also, Mays was black. The brick that crashed through his window almost as soon as he moved in had to reflect at least one of these viewpoints, if not all three."

Mays has spoken occasionally of his first minor league game, in Hagerstown, Md. It was 1950, and he remembers the racial taunts he heard from fans at the game. City officials in Hagerstown invited him back for a day in his honor in 2004, to apologize for the way he had been treated. Mays accepted, came to town and officially gave absolution to the city—in return for an appearance fee. You want something from me? This is what I want from you.

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