Sports Corner

Ode to 24: The Greatest Giant of Them All

(Courtesy of San Francisco Giants)

When the news came on June 18 of Willie Mays’ death at age 93, the Bay Area reacted in classic fashion. Instinctively, fans from San Francisco and beyond converged at the corner of 3rd and King streets to lay flowers and messages at the statue of the “Say Hey Kid” that graces the entrance to Oracle Park.

Such tributes would have touched Mays to his heart because the statue had meant so much to him since its unveiling at the christening of the Giants’ new ballpark in the spring of 2000. Clearly overwhelmed, the 68-year-old legend said in his speech that day, “This is the kind of thing they usually do for somebody after they’re dead. To still be around for this and know it’s going to be here for years to come, I can’t help but be happy about it. I felt as a ballplayer, I had a chance to get into the Hall of Fame, but you never think of a statue. It’s never in your dreams.”

(Courtesy of San Francisco Giants)

Commissioned and paid for by the late Giants President Peter Magowan and his wife Debby, and carved by sculptor William Behrends, the nine-foot bronze statue, like its subject, is truly one-of-a-kind (see image below). Unlike those of Stan Musial in St. Louis and Roberto Clemente in Pittsburgh, which show each in his trademark batting stance awaiting the pitch, Mays is portrayed at the end of his swing, after he has sent a phantom ball into the distance, his right foot planted for one of his patented dashes around the bags.

In its essence, the statue captures the spirit of the reaction by the late Hall-of-Fame baseball scribe Bob Stevens to a rocket shot Mays smacked into the outfield gap during an All-Star Game in the ‘60s and stretched into a sliding triple. Wrote Stevens, “The only player who could have caught that ball hit it.”

So true. In his 23 big-league seasons, Mays slugged 660 home runs, drove in 1,909 runs, stole 339 bases and batted .301 lifetime. He played in a record 24 All-Star Games (often as the leadoff hitter), earned 12 Gold Gloves, was NL Rookie of the Year in 1951, twice the NL MVP (1954 and ’65), and was a first-ballot inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.

But those are just the stats. Former Giants teammate and fellow Hall-of-Famer Orlando Cepeda paints a more vivid picture of his longtime friend. “I played with Hank Aaron and against Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson. But Willie had his own niche, a cut above the rest,” said the “Baby Bull.” “It was not only his hitting, fielding and throwing, but also Willie was the best baserunner I ever saw.”

Sergio Romo, Willie Mays and Denard Span escort Pat and Pam Irvin to the the mound to throw the first pitch during the ceremony on Opening Day on April 7, 2016. (Courtesy of San Francisco Giants)

In his retirement years, Magowan signed Mays to a lifetime contract as a Giants Ambassador. In that role, he wasn’t expected to be a statue. Rather, he kept a busy schedule, working with the team at Spring Training, regularly attending games during the season, visiting the minor league affiliates, and making appearances at civic functions and charity events where he smilingly signed thousands of autographs, especially for the youngest of fans.

Former Giants outfielder Marvin Benard recalled, “Just walking into the clubhouse and seeing Willie sitting there talking with the guys made you realize even as a big leaguer that you were in a special place. You didn’t know whether to ask him for an autograph or a piece of advice. And yet, Willie was perfectly natural and not the least bit intimidating.”

Those who did seek his advice were often given the same tip. As Mays would say, “Practice like a pro, then play like a kid.”

(Courtesy of San Francisco Giants)

That’s exactly what Mays did every day throughout his legendary career and what made him such a joy to watch perform. His daring deeds on the diamond live forever in the reels of film footage from the past. But leave it to Stevens to say it all in the fewest words.

Wrote Stevens, “For my money, Mays was the best all-around player ever, even if you saw him play only one game.”

(Courtesy of San Francisco Giants)
(Courtesy of San Francisco Giants)
The bronze statue of Mays. (Courtesy of San Francisco Giants)
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