July 22, 2024

Willie Mays, the Bay Area’s original and untouchable sports immortal

In my family, and, we always presumed, the entire family of the reasonable world, there was one, unalterable truth from which all sports meaning began:

Willie Mays is the greatest baseball player who ever lived, period, stop, underline, underline.

My brothers and all my friends grew up on this. We lived this. We didn’t question this. I’ll never question this. If there is a secular church of Bay Area sports, it is built on the sacred certainty that the greatest player who ever lived spent most of his career with the Giants — we got to watch him! — and then came back here to stay after he retired. We got to see him in Mike Murphy’s old office in the Giants’ clubhouse. We got to hear his laughter. We got to be around him … until the sad news of Mays’ death at 93 arrived on Wednesday.

The greatest who ever lived — underline, underline — is gone. The greatness endures.

Mickey Mantle? Nope, even he admitted that Mays was better. Henry Aaron? Good thought, still wrong. Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig? The greatest players of MLB’s segregated years, yes, but not of all time, thank you very much. Barry Bonds? Greatest of his own era, but not of all eras. It’s Mays. It will always be Mays.

When I grew up in the Bay Area, and I know my experience is similar to kids and adults of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s who grew up anywhere from San Francisco to Oakland to Palo Alto to Richmond to Burlingame to Fremont to Gilroy to Novato, we loved Willie McCovey, we cherished Joe Montana, we were awed by Jerry Rice, we were thrilled by Rick Barry, we were fascinated by Reggie Jackson and we roared for Ken Stabler.

But Mays was separate and singular, and we all understood that the Bay Area had special rights and obligations because of this. Or, as I came to understand: When major-league baseball branched out to the West Coast in 1958, Southern California got the Dodgers and Northern California got Mays.

Yeah, we did OK there.



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It’d be overstating it to say that Mays made the Bay Area a major professional sports area. The 49ers had been here for more than a decade before the Giants came to town, and in many ways, the following 49ers dynasty was the modern establishment of everything the Bay Area considers itself as a sports town.

And sometimes Mays seemed too great to fully comprehend or to fit in the Bay Area or any region. McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal were beloved here because they started their major-league journeys here.

Mays was always larger than any of that. He was the grainy historical highlight chasing down Vic Wertz’s deep, deep fly ball in the 1954 World Series. He was part of the team that caught the Dodgers and was on deck for Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” — I listened to a recording of Russ Hodges’ “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” about a thousand times in my house growing up. It felt, even then, like a relic from another time, another realm, another existence.

May was a mini-deity and you don’t possess gods. You just are thankful they’re here. It meant something to be in the Bay Area and know that Willie was here, too.

Willie Mays statue

Flowers adorn the Willie Mays statue outside Oracle Park in San Francisco on Tuesday. The Hall of Famer played 21 seasons with the Giants, 15 in the Bay Area. (Jeff Chiu / AP)

And he made No. 24 a hallowed number, consecrated by none other than Rick Barry, who chose to wear it for the Warriors to honor Mays. Which made every kid in the Bay Area fight to wear that number, and if you wore No. 24 and you weren’t good enough to pull it off, you absolutely heard about it.

We all tried the basket catch, too, of course. We did it so often on my Little League team that my fairly tough manager would allow each of us to try it once, since we were going to do it, anyway, and each of us could keep doing it until there was a drop by anybody. I think that lasted two practices and we all understood. What, did any of us really think we were Willie Mays? No, we did not. But it was fun to try.

I was too young to see Willie in his prime — I was born in 1965, his last MVP season, which my older brothers always noted. Yes, in my family, we marked major milestones by Mays achievements. But my parents were happy to show me off to friends when I was a toddler, because I could recite the Giants’ entire starting lineup (I have vague memories of yelling out “Fuentes, Mays, McCovey!” more than a few times).

I’m pretty sure my dad took us to Candlestick in the early ’70s almost specifically to make sure we saw Mays. All I remember is the end of one game, when Mays charged in for a sinking liner then just ran directly into the tunnel to the clubhouse in right field. The umpires, naturally, signaled that Mays caught it cleanly and the game was over. I remember the players on the other team complaining that it hit the ground, which was probably true. And I remember either my dad or my brother laughing and saying: “What are they going to do, tell Willie he has to come back out?”



MLB world reacts to Willie Mays’ death

Another moment I can’t forget, many decades later: At an on-field celebration of the Giants’ large group of Hall of Famers, the great Monte Irvin — a mentor to Willie — was struggling to get into his chair. A worried Mays got up, waved off staffers, adjusted Irvin’s chair and carefully helped him sit down, then bustled around Irvin to make sure he was comfortable the rest of the ceremony. An immortal looking after another.

I’d never felt more connected to Willie than right then. I’d never seen him seem more human, more understanding of vulnerability and more kind. (The same way I felt about Bonds when, in a later ceremony, he fidgeted around Mays to make sure he was OK.) And Mays reminded me of somebody.

From then on, I couldn’t help but think of Willie when I thought of my dad and think of my dad when I thought of Willie. Maybe that seems silly now, but they were both born in 1931, so there was an automatic link for me. My dad sort of talked like Willie, had the same skeptical eyes as Willie, cocked his head like Willie when he couldn’t hear everything, enjoyed his friends like Willie, quietly looked out for everybody like Willie and loved baseball probably almost as much as Willie.

My dad died early this year and my brothers and I miss him terribly. But he and my mom got to see Willie Mays play hundreds of times. He got to live a great life and raised sons who grew up understanding one eternal sports truth that I have never believed more than right now. 2024 has been a rough year; we’ve lost so, so, so much. But we hurt because we were given so much. We were given decades with Willie Mays and we will never lose that.



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(Photo of Willie Mays in 1956, two years before the Giants’ move to San Francisco: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images)