By Al Saracevic
Examiner staff writer
I couldn’t believe it. Willie Mays was sitting right behind me.
The Giants had been hosting a series of events commemorating the windblown monument known as Candlestick Park. And I was lucky enough to get an invite. There was Juan Marichal, the legendary hurler. The spit-balling master, Gaylord Perry, stood nearby. Perhaps the most popular Giant of all time, Willie McCovey, sat with a group of admirers. But when Willie Mays entered the room, conversation stopped. The greatest living ballplayer on the planet had arrived.
As Mays made his way to the table directly behind mine, I bowed my head in a moment of silent prayer, thanking the baseball gods for this blessing.
Now, I just had to figure out how to start up a conversation.
Memories of that first encounter with Mays came back to me this week, as the city prepared to celebrate his 90th birthday Thursday. It’s hard to fathom the Say Hey Kid entering his ninth decade, but it sure is wonderful.
Mays is not only the greatest player to ever don the orange and black; his legendary life tracks San Francisco’s modern evolution.
His arrival, with the Giants in 1957, made this a big league town. But his arrival also exposed our small-minded ugliness. Mays and his wife, Marghuerite, tried to buy a home on Miraloma Drive, near the St. Francis Wood neighborhood west of Twin Peaks. The builder selling the home rejected Mays’ offer at first, fearing he would lose business in the predominantly white neighborhood if he sold to an African-American family. Mayor George Christopher and the San Francisco Council for Civic Unity stepped up to confront the issue, joining forces with the NAACP to make matters right. The Mays family eventually purchased the home and San Francisco took another step forward in its ongoing and troubled march toward racial equity.
Some men would have turned bitter from such an experience. Instead, Mays embraced San Francisco as his own, giving of himself to the team and the community with humility for decades to come.
Willie Mays was the ultimate integrator. A young man who developed his talent in baseball’s Negro Leagues before dominating the National League. A grown man who played stick ball in Harlem before facing racial hardball in San Francisco. He has persevered through it all, with grace and talent, dignity and defiance.
So, there I was. Awestruck and sitting in the vicinity of greatness, trying to figure out how to approach Mays. Perhaps the aforementioned baseball gods heard my earlier thanks and smiled down on the situation.
Midway through the program, as salad forks clanked and speakers droned on, Mays tried to adjust the eyeglasses perched atop his head, inadvertently knocking them off. They ended up under my chair. My opening had arrived … and I flubbed it spectacularly.
Grabbing the specs, and turning around, I found myself face-to-face with the man.
“Ummm… Here are your glasses, Mr. Mays. It’s an honor to meet you,” I stammered. “But, you know, umm, I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. And people back there are still pretty angry with you about that catch.”
Of course, I was referencing the legendary catch Mays had made against the Cleveland Indians in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. He had chased down an absolute blast off the bat of Vic Wertz, sprinting toward the outfield fence and making an over-the-shoulder catch that many consider the greatest defensive play in baseball history. The catch, and his subsequent spin and throw, will live forever in the minds of fans. The Indians never recovered and the Giants, still based in New York at the time, went on to sweep the Series in four games. They didn’t win it again until 2010.
I guess I was trying to be funny and see how Mays would react. At first, his eyes grew wide and he didn’t say anything. Then that familiar face cracked into a wide grin.
“Awww, well, that was a long time ago. And you all have a pretty good ballclub these days,” he said. “I’m sure they don’t remember me.”
They sure do Mr. Mays. With awe and reverence.
That brief exchange, as ham-fisted and goofy as it was, made my month and revealed the man’s warmth and kindness.
Years later, I found myself covering the Giants’ run of championships, featuring players named Lincecum and Posey and Cain. Mays was often around in those glorious days, offering words of wisdom to young players and old coaches alike. He was clearly most comfortable around the ballpark, talking baseball.
One particular image stuck with me. Walking out of the clubhouse late one night, after another big win for the Giants, I came across Willie eating a post-game plate of spaghetti off of a paper plate with his long-time friend and clubhouse manager Mike Murphy. It was a touching moment. The game’s greatest living legend was still just a ballplayer, hanging out with his old clubby and rehashing the game.
Thanks for the memories, Willie. And happy birthday.
Celebrating Willie Mays
- . The Giants plan to celebrate Willie Mays’ birthday officially on Friday at Oracle Park, before, during and after the game with the Padres. Fans are encouraged to come early to see a special tribute. (First pitch, 6:45 p.m.) It will be Mays’ first trip to Oracle Park since 2019.
- . The Giants plan to share video birthday wishes for Mays during the game, featuring former presidents, great athletes and famous entertainers.
- . Thursday afternoon, Mays’ actual birthday, the Willie Mays Boys & Girls Club and the Giants Community Fund are co-hosting a virtual birthday celebration via Eventbrite.com. Participating children will celebrate Mays with poems, dance and artwork.