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THOMPSON: Willie Mays, baseball's greatest of all time

May 10, 2021 - 12:00 PM

It was 1989 - mid-July - and I was in San Francisco on a trip devoted more to pleasure than business. It was my fifth trip to Fog City - truly one of the strangest and most wonderful cities in the U.S. or anywhere - and a long haul from where I lived and worked on the East Coast.

I usually spent a week enjoying everything the city offered - seafood on Fisherman’s Wharf, Dim Sum in Chinatown, Sour Dough Bread at Boudin’s, Golden Gate Park - then another week in Napa and Sonoma pursuing my culinary and wine interests.

But this time - on my second day in town - my focus was on a long-time mistress...baseball. I had seats three rows above the first-base dugout at Candlestick Park to see the San Francisco Giants host the St. Louis Cardinals.

My life has been filled mostly with serendipitous good fortune...and that day would be no different. A couple of rows down from me that afternoon sat one of my baseball idols from the 50s and 60s...Willie Mays. I wanted - not so much an autograph - but to simply thank him for playing the game as few others have...before or since.

My team - the Giants - won 7-3 that day, and would go on to claim the NL Championship that season before losing to cross-bay rival Oakland Athletics in the World Series. Millions tuning in to watch the third game of the World Series in October witnessed an earthquake that killed 67 people and caused $6 billion in damages to the area.

But back to Willie Mays. Last week, he turned 90 years old, and for whatever reason and however inexplicable it might seem, I felt compelled to write about this extraordinary man. He was soft-spoken...almost shy...when I told him he was - in my humble opinion - Major League Baseball’s GOAT...Greatest of All Time. He simply smiled and said, “thanks.”

In a span of more than 20 years, Mays always let what he did on the field speak for him, and it was mostly a thunderously loud and joyous voice. I never saw a boy or man enjoy America’s game more...and despite the three-hour time difference between California and Florida where I grew up and San Francisco’s smaller television market...I rarely missed opportunities to see Willie play ball.

Perhaps my previous year’s visit had lulled me into some kind of weather false sense of security. I had arrived in July then, as well, but without checking the weather packed long sleeve shirts...cashmere sweaters and a jacket.

President Barack Obama talks with baseball great Willie Mays aboard Air Force One en route to the 2009 MLB All-Star Game in St. Louis, July 14, 2009.
President Barack Obama talks with baseball great Willie Mays aboard Air Force One en route to the 2009 MLB All-Star Game in St. Louis, July 14, 2009.
Image Credit: The White House Photostream/Pete Souza

After all, Mark Twain - with perfect accuracy - once said, “The coldest Winter I ever spent was a Summer in San Francisco.” But when my plane landed the Summer of 1988, it was 101 degrees...and for more than a week it never broke that fever. A few hours after checking in to my hotel, I had the start of a new wardrobe...which looked a lot like the clothes hanging in my closet back East.

But, back to the future - sort of - to July 1989. The early afternoon was pleasant enough, but by the time I found my seats above the Giant dugout...the temperature had fallen 15 degrees...and swirling winds from every direction were a steady 25 M.P.H. Tornadoes of chewing gum and hot dog wrappers, plastic bags and ticket stubs whipped around the cold concrete stadium.

Candlestick Park was where warm Summer afternoons came to die, and before the first pitch I owned an ill-fitting SF Giant jacket that I would have gladly given double the $135 I paid.

Despite the cold, every inning fans made their ways down the aisles to pay homage to “The Say Hey Kid”...Willie Mays. I noticed that he never once seemed troubled by the interruptions...always the broad smile...always maintaining eye contact with each fan as they showed their appreciation and love.

Here’s why Willie’s name - like Babe Ruth’s - will always be whispered with reverence by baseball fans. Mays had speed on the base paths and power at the plate...and made defensive plays in center that amazed other centerfielders.

He was the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1951. He was named to 24 All-Star teams during his career. He was the NL’s MVP in 1954 and 1966, and contended for that honour every year in between. In fact, he garnered enough votes to be among the top six players in 12 of those 13 seasons. Mays was an All-Star Game starter a remarkable 18 times, the most for any player in MLB history.

The man hit 660 home runs, with 3,283 base hits, and a lifetime .302 batting average. You have to wonder what his stats would have been had he not missed two seasons while in the U.S. Army in South Korea. On average Mays hit a homer every 17 at bats during his career...another 1,000 trips to the plate...he would likely have passed the Babe. Plus, he played half his games on a field that more often than not was so cold and damp that what were homers in other stadiums were easy fly balls in Candlestick. But this man needs no excuses or what-ifs...his numbers don’t lie.

Only 32 of the thousands of players in baseball history are members of the 3,000-hit club, but Mays is the only player in MLB with at least 3,000 hits, a .300 career batting average, and at least 300 home runs and 300 stolen bases. Most power hitters aren’t great base runners...but Mays was. He claimed four home run titles and four stolen base titles.

Also, he was one of the best defensive players in baseball...taking home 12 Gold Glove Awards...the most by any centerfielder. Of course, he also made "The Catch" - an iconic over-the-shoulder grab in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series - considered one of the greatest defensive plays in MLB history.

Beyond those accomplishments, Mays was the inaugural recipient of the Commissioner's Award in 1971 - later renamed the Roberto Clemente Award after Clemente's tragic death in a 1972 plane crash. The annual honour goes to the player who best represents baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions...on and off the field.

That is Willie Mays...a man among men...and for me baseball’s Greatest of All Time. Happy 90th birthday, Willie!

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2021
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