I saw that Willie Mays turned 80 last week so I wanted to share a few memories and thoughts about him. People always ask me who my favorite player was growing up, and I’ve always said Willie Mays (and Johnny Bench, too, once I started playing catcher in high school).
I’m a native Oregonian—a Portlandian, more specifically—but when I was in elementary school we spent a couple of years in the San Francisco area. My dad worked for Westinghouse, and in the mid-1960s he was transferred down to sunny California. This turned out to be a transformative event in my life, as it may have been for any 5th grader just starting to discover baseball. Indeed, those were good times for Bay Area baseball fans. The Giants had a great team: Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Ray Sadeki, Jim Davenport, Jim Ray Hart, and, of course, Willie. Everyone loved Willie.
I have so many fond memories of those days. I mostly remember cold nights at Candlestick Park with my dad. We’d be there, freezing in the Westinghouse seats, sometimes in a box at the loge level and other times in the bleachers. I always loved watching Willie warm up before the game. He’d throw for a while with the other outfielders, and when he was finished he’d gently toss the ball up over the fence to the fans. I remember watching the kids, all gathered around, scrambling for it.
And then, of course, the basket catch. If there was a relatively routine fly ball, Willie would camp under it and just wait. Then, instead of catching it above his head, like most outfielders are taught, he’d turn his glove over, almost casually, and catch it below his waist. It always seemed so risky to me. But Willie had flair. A kind of artistry went into everything he did on the field. I swear, there was something almost poetic about the way his helmet would fly off every single time he’d run the bases.
At some point my dad got me a Willie Mays signature outfielder’s glove. It was a MacGregor and made of kangaroo leather. I used to take my Willie Mays baseball cards and compare the top row of webbing on Willie’s glove with the webbing on mine. I remember one time sitting there and counting, one-by-one, the stitches and the leather loops on each, which to my amazement were the exact same. I was convinced—absolutely convinced—that my dad had somehow gotten me one of Willie’s old game mitts. To this day I’m not even sure where my dad bought that glove, so, who knows, maybe it’s true :)
I also remember hitting a lot of imaginary home runs in those days (if, as a kid, you ever had a baseball bat, a handful of rocks, and a whole lot of free time, then you probably know what I’m talking about). We lived in an apartment in Redwood City for awhile, and I’d spend hours in the rear courtyard area, smacking rocks over the fence with the trusty bat I got at Bat Day. I’d count every single one, pretending I was getting closer and closer to Willie’s all-time total. It was the stuff of dreams: listening to ballgames on the radio, hitting rocks over the fence, and imagining I was a star big-league ballplayer like the great Willie Mays.
Willie retired shortly before I started playing, but I’ll never forget meeting him for the first time early in my career, at Candlestick Park, when the Braves were visiting the Giants. It was one of the great thrills of my life.
Happy (belated) birthday, Willie.