Commentary

The 'Say Hey Kid' turns 80

Nearly 40 years after his final game, Willie Mays' superstar legacy has endured

Originally Published: May 6, 2011
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

The words reverberate, vibrating noisily like a quarter sitting atop a spinning washing machine, rattling and demanding acceptance from those who wince at how quickly time goes, how easily it takes things away. Even the famous nickname -- the "Say Hey Kid" -- stands stubborn, unbelieving of a single sentence that holds and hangs for everyone who identified through him a life full of possibility instead of memory: Willie Mays is 80.

Age and time eat away at the body of a baseball player most cruelly: The sharp eyes of a hitter, perhaps Mays' greatest possession, are now almost blind. Yesterday's lithe frame -- 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, sinewy and lean -- is gone, and an old man, hunched and bespectacled, is physically all that's left. For most, even the great ones, time always erodes the monument. The people who molded it are gone, fewer and fewer people still around who saw it built -- home runs and stolen bases, electric moments and the emulated batting stance, the tapping of the glove just before the catch. Old numbers are replaced by new ones. People forget.

[+] EnlargeWillie Mays
Michael Nagle/Getty ImagesWillie Mays, now 80, remains an icon in San Francisco and among baseball fans as perhaps the greatest living player.

None of this applies much to Mays, for there is the power of imagination and deed, and then there is Mays' power -- vibrant and illuminant, 38 years after he played his last game, where the name itself represents without further explanation an era, a standard that remains. "It's still like Moses parting the Red Sea when he walks around the park," says one San Francisco Giants season-ticket holder.

Mays was the first athlete to spawn the practice of flattering imitation. The No. 24 might be the most enduring jersey number in sports, all tracing back to him. Babe Ruth retired in 1935, yet there was no generation of players who chose the No. 3. There was Mays and his 24, then everyone after who wanted to be him. Reggie Jackson wore 24 in college at Arizona State, Rickey Henderson to Barry Bonds to Ken Griffey Jr. on the top shelf, scores of lesser talents but equal reverence wearing the jersey, breathing his air, kneeling at the altar of the original.

So many of the explanations exist of the Mays phenomenon, of why he endures so many years later, and they seem to fall short in their comprehension. There always will be the big numbers that still seem big today -- 660 home runs, 2,062 runs, 3,283 hits, 1,903 RBIs -- but the numbers don't quite do it. Albert Pujols puts up numbers. So did Frank Robinson.

The great New York writer Pete Hamill lionized Mays last year in The New York Times by talking about Mays in misty, nostalgic terms, that Mays played the game for joy when baseball was a joy. It's dangerous territory, generations allowing the mind to play tricks on it. Perhaps for the kids of New York who left school and drifted deep into imagination of sandlot heroics, Mays provided them wonder and discovery: a human, living comic book. In comparison to today, when drugs temper accolades to replace enthusiasm for on-the-field heroics with a detective's skepticism, perhaps Mays seemed pure, just as Joe DiMaggio did. And maybe now, because of the speed of life and the roads that have been traveled and all that America knows that it wish it did not, the iconic life will never be quite so iconic again.

Mays, however, did not play baseball during an uncomplicated time. In a changing America, Mays was the first African-American superstar in every sense of the word. Boxer Joe Louis might have been considered an American hero, but he was a star in a shadowy sport, and his greatest triumph -- the knocking out of Max Schmeling with Hitler at the height of power -- did not come against an American but a German.

Jackie Robinson was respected -- for being first, for persevering, for being a tough, excellent ballplayer -- but he was never beloved, not like Mays.

Although black in a time of legal segregation, Mays did not allow his play to suffer such burden. He played with a certain joy that translated into love -- love of his talent, love of his game, love of his demeanor -- that eased for the white fans the tension of simmering 1950s race relations, tension that could not be erased when considering Robinson. Robinson wanted to know your politics before you cheered for him. Robinson never made the distinction between on the field and off. That made him complicated, respected and, in some corners, hated. Mays depoliticized turning a triple into a long, lonely out.

Mays provided the joy, and that was what made him famous. It hurt often when the pieces of his public persona could not hide his mercurial true self, how complicated his life truly was, how his own complexities were never taken seriously, how he attempted to navigate the same vexing social issues frustrating Robinson and Aaron without receiving respect for his feelings.

He would pay a personal price while receiving a public benefit that would not serve him as the years continued. Robinson criticized him for not using his public power to be prominent in the civil rights movement. As he challenged baseball's reserve clause to free players and ultimately make them wildly rich, Curt Flood singled out two star players as especially resistant: Carl Yastrzemski and Willie Mays. Mays lived in simmering silence that he was never recognized for supporting the movement until he authorized a biography in 2010. He wanted to be seen as three-dimensional, but to the public, he had to make it happy. The world was fine with that, even if Mays was not.

"Willie did everything big. I remember we were at an All-Star Game playing cards one year. ... And when Willie walked in, he just took the room over. He was the center. ... He couldn't be one of the guys because he was Willie. He was Willie Mays."

-- Henry Aaron

What made Mays the signature player of his time originally, then of all time, was the sheer incandescence of what he could do on a baseball diamond and how he could do it. Dutch has a word for it: uitstraling, pronounced "out-strah-ling." The closest English equivalent is "charisma," but charisma doesn't quite do uitstraling justice. In Mays' case, charisma seems an insufficient description.

"Willie did everything big," Henry Aaron said. "I remember we were at an All-Star Game playing cards one year. It was all of us -- Frank [Robinson], [Roberto] Clemente, [Bob] Gibson, me -- and when Willie walked in, he just took the room over. He was the center. I don't even know if he knew he was doing it, but that was just Willie. He couldn't be one of the guys because he was Willie. He was Willie Mays."

It isn't just talent. Bonds had talent. Griffey had talent. So did Aaron and Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg and Ted Williams. They said DiMaggio was one of the original five-tool players, too, but although DiMaggio played with grace, he moved with the brooding quest for respect of the immigrant. DiMaggio played with every hair in place, uniform pressed. His aura transformed whatever silent discomforts he possessed into a quiet elegance, trying to prove that he not only belonged on the baseball diamond but also looked the part, either at the dinner table or of an American leading man.

Mays bore deep into the American imagination, touching the kids who wanted to run fast and score and do it with a kind of flair -- like running so fast that your hat flies off. He resonated with the ones who wanted to hit the ball high and far, the ones who wanted to catch everything hit their way and the ones who wanted to charge a ball in the outfield, see the baserunner round second and gun him out with a perfect throw to third base.

They took place from the beginning, the big achievements with flair. During the barnstorming trip in the mid-1950s, when the Willie Mays All-Stars toured the country and went 32-0, each night Mays did something that would travel by word of mouth. He hit .477 in the minors at Minneapolis, then won the pennant his rookie year. He hit 50-plus home runs in a season twice. He robbed Vic Wertz, for posterity, in the '54 World Series. He tormented individual teams for years, like in 1961, when 22 of his 40 home runs came against Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

"With Willie, people remember 'The Catch,' but it was something different," Joe Torre said, trying to explain why Mays always has shined so bright. Torre, from Brooklyn, was a Giants fan as a kid. "Willie had the showman's flair without being a show-off. That is difficult to do, especially in a game that policed itself like ours did. What it was, was this: It was the volume of things he did. Willie Mays made a play you'd never seen every night."

[+] EnlargeWillie Mays
US PresswireWillie Mays was the quintessential five-tool player during his Hall of Fame career.

From the day Mays returned from the military in 1954, the narrative of Babe Ruth's home run record belonged to him. It was his. He was the best. End of story. It was his in 1962 and 1965, the year he won his second NL MVP award and his last great season, the last year he would score 100 runs and the second to last he would drive in as many. Even in 1969, the hold that Mays had on the public made people believe. Cameras might lie after all, but mathematics do not, and by the end of the decade it was clear that even the great Mays would not complete the journey to surpass Ruth.

Yet even at the end, when individual skills fade with age while the game remains ever so harder and demanding, Mays' mortality enhanced his humanity, evidenced by a 1971 Roger Angell profile in The New Yorker, which marveled at the Great Man's last charge:

"Candlestick's classic pastime -- and the best entertainment in baseball this year -- is watching Willie Mays. Now just turned forty, and beginning this twenty-first year in the majors, he is hitting better than he has hit at any time in the past six or seven seasons, and playing the game with enormous visible pleasure. Veteran curators in the press box like to expound upon various Maysian specialties -- the defensive gem, the basket catch, the looped throw, the hitched swing, and so forth. My favorite is his base-running. He may have lost a half-second, but I doubt whether Willie Davis or Ralph Garr or any of the other new flashes can beat Mays from first to third, or can accelerate just as he does, with his whole body suddenly seeming to sink lower when, taking his turn at first and intently following the distant ball and outfielder, he suddenly sees his chance. Watching him this year, seeing him drift across a base and then sink in to full speed, I noticed all at once how much resembles a marvelous skier in midturn down some steep pitch of fast powder. Nobody like him."

"The game," Reds manager Dusty Baker said, "is going to get all of us." Even Willie Mays. No throne worth having is easily abdicated. Mays had set the standard of play, of leadership, of the responsibility the white baseball establishment would allow a black player to have in those days and how much money black players earned. But Mays' time was ending. At the start of the 1972 season, Aaron for the first time passed Mays in salary, $200,000 per year to Mays' $165,000. In May, Aaron passed Mays in home runs at 648 and never looked back. Months earlier, Baker's prophecy applied. The Giants had just lost to Pittsburgh in the National League Championship Series, and Mays, like Ruth, exemplified the marquee -- vitality in victory, mortality in defeat. The latter, in a baseball sense, occurred during the playoffs, and Angell was there for that, too:

"A missing name in this account, it may be noticed, is that of Willie Mays. He played in all four games and did not exactly or entirely fail: two doubles, one homer, a stolen base, four hits. But these totals do not suggest the true level of his contribution, and by this, for once, I mean that he was less of a player than the statistics suggest -- much older player, who looked every year and every month of his forty years, a player gone quite gray-faced with exhaustion and pain and the pressures of leadership. Willie had seen all his splendid early-season triumphs worn away to bare competence; in the late going, he had managed but four hits in forty at-bats, had gone a whole month without a homer, and had been striking out almost half the time. He apologized to his fans at the end of the regular season. During the playoffs, after I had seen Mays taking call third strikes or trying to bunt his way aboard or slicing a weak little pop hit on a fast ball he could no longer get around on, I began -- for the first time in my life, and with enormous sadness -- not to want him to come up to the plate. I dreaded it, in fact, and I was embarrassed and ashamed of myself. But I still feel the same way, and I think it should be said: Hang them up, Willie, please. Retire."

Half a lifetime later, at the Fairmont Hotel in the Nob Hill neighborhood in San Francisco, the 40-year-old ballplayer is now 80, and a birthday party is being thrown for Mays. The name is still the standard, a living scouting report for baseball perfection, the scout's dream, the elusive five-tool player. The party is private, as is the guest list, which the Giants say contains 200 people.

Later in the day, the Colorado Rockies will come to town to a sold-out stadium. The Giants will be handing out birthday hats and mini-replicas of the towering Mays statue that stands in front of AT&T Park. There will be cake and legends and cheering. It is Willie Mays night, which, given a little bit of thought, sounds redundant. It's been Willie Mays night for 60 years.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.