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Willie Mays, Giants legend and MLB Hall of Famer, dies at 93

President Barack Obama presents Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 24, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

NEW YORK — In memory’s haze, Willie Mays is forever young, scampering to the farthest reaches of the Polo Grounds in pursuit of the longest out in baseball history, before disappearing from view. He is gone now, dead at 93 (born May 6, 1931), and it is an unarguable fact that nobody played the game with quite the flair and exuberance of the man they called the “Say Hey Kid.”

An icon in both New York and San Francisco and acclaimed by many as the greatest all-around ballplayer there ever was, Mays broke into the majors as a scared rookie with Giants in 1951 and went on to hit .302 with 660 homers (fourth all time) and 1,903 RBIs through 1973 when he ended his career as the Mets’ center fielder in his fourth World Series. Along the way, he won two National League Most Valuable Player Awards, in 1954 and ’65, the NL Rookie of the Year in ’51, twelve Gold Gloves and appeared in 24 All-Star Games, setting Midsummer Classic records for most hits, runs, extra base hits, triples and stolen bases. His 1954 season, after he’d returned from two years in the Army, he won his only batting title with a .345 average, along with 41 homers, 110 RBIs, 119 runs and a league-leading 13 triples, and galvanized the Giants, who won the National League pennant by five games over the Dodgers and then swept the heavily favored 111-win Cleveland Indians in the World Series.

It was in the ’54 Series that Mays made what has long been called (though not by him) the greatest catch in history, when, with the none out, the score tied 2-2 and Indians runners at first and second, Cleveland first baseman Vic Wertz, who had already tripled and singled twice in the game, hit a towering shot to the Polo Grounds’ vast center field — which was the longest in baseball. Turning and sprinting with his back to home plate, Mays caught up to the ball some 440-feet away and gloved it in his inimitable “basket catch” style, before whirling and uncorking his throw, back to the infield in one motion. Only one of the runners was able to advance on the play and the score remained tied until the Giants won it on a pinch-hit homer by Dusty Rhodes off Indians ace Bob Lemon in the 10th inning. Afterward, Mays told reporters nonchalantly: “I had it all the way. You should never miss those kind.” He then added the play he made in the 10th inning, racing over the deep left-center to cut off another line drive hit by Wertz, and holding it to a double, was even better.

In later years, whenever he was asked about “The Catch,” Mays reiterated it was not nearly the best he ever made. The play that stamped him early on as a premier defensive center fielder in baseball was another catch he made off the Dodgers’ Carl Furillo, August 15, 1951, in the midst of a 16-game Giants winning streak. With one out in the eighth inning of a 1-1 game and Dodgers at first and third, Furillo hit a sinking fly ball to right-center that, even if caught, looked far enough to easily score Bobby Cox from third. But Mays, rushing toward the foul line, caught the ball and, without breaking stride, turned and threw the tagging Cox out at the plate. It was that play which prompted Dodger manager Charlie Dressen, in the clubhouse later, to tersely utter his famous line: “He’ll have to do it again for me to believe it.”

Mays himself said the catch he made off the Dodgers’ Bobby Morgan on opening day at Ebbets Field in 1952 was his best. Racing to deep left-center in pursuit of pinch hitter Morgan’s two-out drive in the seventh inning, Mays had to dive for the ball at the last instant and somehow managed to come up with it as he fell prone, face down, on the warning track. As Mays re-told it, he was momentarily knocked unconscious and when he looked up, Giants manager Leo Durocher and the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson were standing over him. “I’m the air, like parallel, I catch the ball and hit the fence and knock myself out. When I woke up , I see all these people standing around me, including Jackie, and I’m wondering, ‘what the hell is he doing here?’ Damn, if he just wanted to make sure I still had the ball!”

An Alabama native, Mays was signed by the Giants at age 17 for a $4,000 bonus in 1950 after honing his skills in the Negro Leagues with the Birmingham Black Barons. It was Barons manager, Piper Davis, who Mays especially credited with helping him learn the fundamentals of baseball and, in particular, how to hit the curve ball. In his second season of organized ball, Mays was hitting .477 for the Giants’ Triple-A minor league team in Minneapolis when he was called to the big leagues. Before doing so, however, Giants owner Horace Stoneham felt compelled to take out full page ads in the Twin Cities newspapers, explaining why the electrifying youngster was more needed in New York.

But Mays was not an instant success. He got off to a 1-for-26 start in the majors — his one hit being a home run off future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn of the Braves — and it was then when Durocher came across him crying in the clubhouse.

“What’s the matter, Willie, why are you crying?” the manager demanded. “Mr. Leo, I just can’t help you,” Mays replied. “I can’t even get a hit. You’re going to have to send me back to Minneapolis. I don’t belong up here.”

“What do you mean you can’t hit?” Durocher said incredulously. “You’re going to be a great ballplayer. Look, Willie, I brought you here to do one thing — play center field. You’re the greatest center fielder I’ve ever seen. As long as I’m the manager of the Giants, you’re my center fielder.”

Mays was the Giants center fielder for a lot longer than that. He went on to hit .274 with 20 homers and 68 RBIs in 121 games as the National League Rookie of the Year in ’51 while playing a leading role in the Giants’ miracle comeback from 13 games behind on August 12 to the pennant. He was then called into the service 34 games into the ’52 season and did not return to the Giants until ’54, whereupon he embarked on a career in which he won four home run titles, with 51 in 1955, 49 in ’62, 47 in ’64 and 52 in his ’65 MVP year. He also led the league in slugging five times, stolen bases four times, triples three times, runs and on-base percentage twice and hits once. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1979.

When the Giants were in New York, Mays was the quintessential New Yorker. The Giants found him a rooming house on St. Nicholas and 155th street, a short walk from the Polo Grounds, and he frequently could be found playing stick ball with the kids in Harlem after Giants games. It was at those games, he would happily greet the kids with “Say Hey” which became his enduring nickname. His ’54 season, in which he won the batting title (.345), the MVP award, and hit six homers in a five-game span in late June in leading the Giants to the pennant by five games over the Dodgers, stamped him as a genuine superstar as well as the toast of New York. And as his popularity soared that ’54 season there were no less than three songs, “Amazing Mr. Mays” by the King Odom Quartet, “Say Hey Willie Mays” by the Wanderers, and “Say Hey” by the Treniers, recorded about him.

When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, Mays didn’t receive the same adulation until after his playing days when Bay Area natives came to realize he was the greatest Giant of them all.

On April 30, 1961, at Milwaukee County Stadium, Mays had his greatest day in baseball when, after feeling weak from a bad case of indigestion, he borrowed a lighter bat from teammate Joey Amalfitano and proceeded to hit four home runs with eight RBIs against the Braves. After leading the Giants to the 1962 pennant, hitting .304 with 49 homers and 141 RBIs, Mays’ double with two outs in the bottom of the ninth of the dramatic World Series Game 7 against the Yankees nearly tied the score. But a strong throw by Roger Maris held Matty Alou at third and the Yankees went on to win the game, 1-0, and the Series. On July 2, 1963, it was Mays’ homer in the bottom of the 16th inning off Spahn that decided the greatest pitching duel in history in which the Braves’ ace and the Giants’ Juan Marichal each pitched 15 innings of scoreless ball. Right before he went to bat in the 16th, Mays promised the exhausted Marichal, who had thrown 227 pitches, he would end the game.

In his 1965 MVP season, Mays hit .317 with 52 homers, 112 RBIs, 118 runs and also led the league in on-base (.398) and slugging (.645) percentage, but the Giants finished second by two games to the Dodgers. He went to the postseason with the Giants one more time, in 1971, when, at age 40, he led the NL in walks with 112 and on-base percentage. By then, however, it was evident he was finally slowing down, and in May the following year, Mets owner Joan Payson, who’d been a lifelong Giants fan growing up in New York and a particular devotee of Mays, decided it was time to bring Willie home. On May 11, the Giants traded Mays, hitting just .184 at the time, to the Mets for a second-line pitcher, Charlie Williams, only to be immediately embarrassed when, in his first game for the Mets, Mother’s Day, Willie homered to give his new team a 5-4 win over San Francisco at Shea Stadium.

In his next game, Mays walked and tripled and two days later hit a two-run homer for another one-run Mets victory. He reached base his first 20 games as a Met, but, alternating from center field to first base, played in only 88 games and hit a career-low .250. In ’73, he did not get his average over .200 until July and announced he would retire at the end of the season. On a night in his honor, September 25, Mays told the Shea Stadium crowd: “I hope that with my farewell tonight, you’ll understand what I’m going through now. I look at these kids in the dugout over there, the way they are playing and the way they are fighting for themselves, and it tells me: ‘Willie, say goodbye to America.’ ”

But the Mets surprised by winning the National League pennant and advancing to the World Series against the defending world champion Oakland A’s. Unfortunately, the sad image of Mays misplaying two balls in center field in Game 2 of that Series became an indelible reminder of what happens when a great player stays too long on the stage — which Mays acknowledged in his 1979 Hall of Fame speech when he looked out into the audience and said: “I couldn’t play those last two years — they were a gift. Almost as if Mrs. Payson was saying: ‘You gave us 18 years, we’re gonna give you two.’”

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