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The Villages
Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Willie Mays was true giant on and off the field

Tony Violanti
Tony Violanti

Baseball is a generational game, linking the past with the present. When a Hall of Fame baseball player dies, we are left with statistics and memories.

But there was something more to Willie Mays, who died Tuesday at 93. The one-time “Say-Hey Kid” brought a spirit, grace and style that turned his baseball performance into a near-art form.
Mays captured a time and place forever gone. It was filled with lush, green fields, sunlit skies, warm summer days and games that brought fans together with each other, and their city. When the Giants were off the field, young Willie played stickball on the streets of New York.

“Willie Mays exuded joy with the way he played the game, and he made people baseball fans,” Bob Costas said Tuesday night, while announcing a game at Yankee stadium between New York and Baltimore. “He was a baseball genius.”

Costas mentioned “the catch,” probably the most famous defensive play in World Series history. It came in 1954, when Cleveland’s Vic Wertz smashed a drive into the deepest region of the Polo Grounds. Mays turned his back to the ball, gave chase and the rest is history.

During the seventh inning stretch of Tuesday’s game in New York, Terry Cashman’s song “Willie, Mickey and the Duke (Talkin’ Baseball)” was played.

The song harked back to another time, but Willie Mays was a player for all-time. He exploded on the baseball scene in 1951, with the New York Giants.

That was the era when New York was blessed with the three Hall of Fame center fielders: Mays, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees and Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Villager Stu Sachs – a diehard Mets fan — grew up in the New York area and saw Mays play in person, and one day got his autograph.
“He was the greatest player I saw during my lifetime,” Sachs said. “He could do it all, and it was so exciting to watch him play. It was great to have him, Mickey and the Duke in New York.”

The Polo Grounds and Ebbets field are long gone. The Giants and Dodgers ditched New York for San Francisco and Los Angeles. Mickey and the Duke have passed on.
And now, Willie Mays has moved to another field.

Look, you could endlessly argue about the greatest player of the modern era. But for my money, it was Willie Mays. Hank Aaron hit more homers. Roberto Clemente had a better arm. Lou Brock stole more bases. Stan Musial hit for a higher average.

But Willie Mays, for me, was the most complete player of his time. He played in the Big Leagues from 1951 with the Giants until finishing with the Mets in 1973.

The statistics were impressive. Mays had 3,283 hits, 660 home runs and a career batting average of .301. He was the ultimate what baseball scouts call a “five-tool’ player. Mays could hit for average, hit with power, run, field and throw.
“Statistics alone cannot capture” what Willie Mays, “meant to the game,” Costas said. “He was singularly great.”

Rob Manfred the Commissioner of Baseball issued this statement:
“His incredible achievements and statistics do not begin to describe the awe that came with watching Willie Mays dominate the game in every way imaginable. We will never forget this true Giant on and off the field.”

Barry Bonds, a home run star with the Giants in recent times, is Willie Mays’ Godson. Bonds’ father  — Bobby Bonds – played with Mays on the Giants.
“I am beyond devastated and overcome with emotion,” Bonds wrote, adding a broken heart emoji. “I have no words to describe what you mean to me- you helped shape me to be who I am today….Rest in peace Willie, I love you forever.”
Willie Mays’ death comes just before Thursday’s symbolic game to honor the Negro Leagues between the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals at historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala.
Mays started his baseball career in that city in 1948, as a 17-year-old member of the Birmingham Black Barons. In 1947, Jackie Robinson desegregated Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
 Mays couldn’t attend Thursday’s game. He issued this statement on Monday.

“I’m not able to get to Birmingham this year but will follow the game back here in the Bay Area. My heart will be with all of you who are honoring the Negro League ballplayers, who should always be remembered, including all my teammates on the Black Barons.
 “I wanted to thank Major League Baseball, the Giants, the Cardinals and all the fans who’ll be at Rickwood or watching the game. It’ll be a special day, and I hope the kids will enjoy it and be inspired by it.”
In death, as in life, the amazing Willie Mays remains an inspiration.

Tony Violanti writes about music and entertainment for Villages-News.com. He wrote a book about baseball (“Miracle In Buffalo” St. Martin’s Press 1991) and once interviewed Joe DiMaggio, who was Willie Mays’ idol.

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