Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 3, 1963 ― Legend of Willie Mays

It was approximately 4 p.m. on a chilly September 29, 1957 when Dusty Rhodes grounded a Bob Friend curve ball to Bill Mazeroski. The Maz fielded the ball cleanly, whipped to first and the New York Giants were no more.

The fans, some 20,000 who had come to see the last of a ball club who would no longer be their own, refused to go away quietly. They streamed toward the Polo Grounds’ center field clubhouse and for fifteen minutes urged the Giants to step out for a parting farewell. Then someone raised a sign “The Giants can go! We want Willie!” And the chorus began. Youngsters with black and orange Giants caps, adults with their hair flying in the breeze. They wanted Willie. And for an additional thirty minutes they stayed for one more glance at the kid who wouldn’t be playing stickball in Harlem anymore.

Willie Mays of the San Francisco Giants, sitting on a bicycle and Casey Stengel, manager of the New York Mets, are seen in New York’s Polo Grounds during a tribute to Mays on May 3, 1963. Mays, a long-time favorite of New York fans, played with the Giants when they were a New York team. AP Photo

Six years can do a lot to the attitude of a person. Some Giants fans remained loyal. Most decided to forget about the San Franciscans and, when the Mets were organized, switched to the blue and orange. Tonight, approximately 45,000 Mets fans and a few thousand Giant rooters will be drawn to the Polo Grounds for the same purpose ― to see Willie.

They’ll show him again, as they did three years ago at Yankee Stadium, as they did last year at Coogan’s Bluff and as they’ll do until the number “24” is retired by the Giant organization, that the Giants are Frisco but Willie’s still their own. And when at approximately 8:05 p.m., Willie comes marching up to home plate, the thousands at the PG, the hundreds of thousands watching and listening to the game here and the thousands listening three thousand miles away in San Francisco will all have one thing in common. They’ll be rooting for their hero.

It must be an unprecedented phenomenon that a ballplayer should have two cities, as far apart in their likes as the distances which separate them, in the palm of his hand. But Willie Mays is a phenomenon. He is, in fact, two phenomenons ― the ballplayer and the man. Willie the ballplayer excites people at a ballpark; Willie the man breeds a loyalty, almost a hero worship, unprecedented since the days of Babe Ruth. The reason behind these two phenomenons is the legend of Willie Mays.

Perhaps the greatest compliment paid to Willie’s fielding ability came from a fellow outfielder who said, “If Willie batted 100 points less during the regular season, he’d be called the greatest center fielder in the history of the game.”

Casey Stengel summed up Willie’s prowess with the bat. It was after Mays had hit two home runs against the Mets at Candlestick last season to win a ten-inning thriller.

“That second home run,” said Casey of the extra-inning blast with one man on which had robbed his Mets of another victory, “didn’t really impress me like the first.”

“But Casey,” said another reporter, “the home run in the eighth tied the game but the homer in the tenth brought the Giants from behind and won it for them.”

Dusty Rhodes is thrown out at first base for the final out in the N.Y. Giants’ last game at the Polo Grounds, Sept. 29, 1957. The San Francisco-bound Giants lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates, 9-1. AP Photos

“Yeah, I know all that,” said Casey, “but he hit the second homer with two hands. The first he used only one!”

Perhaps Del Crandall summed up everything when he said, “Willie is the only ballplayer in the majors that I’d pay money to see play.”

Mays’ record, of course, speaks for itself. At the age of 32, Willie is already the top right handed home run hitter in the history of the National League. He needed but 146 hits at the start of the season to reach 2,000. His lifetime batting average is .315. He has hit four home runs in one game. But his greatest statistic will never go into the record books. Since the day he joined the Giants, discounting the season and a half he spent working for Uncle Sam, the Giants have never won a ballgame in which his name has not appeared in the boxscore. In other words, Willie Mays is the Giants.

But Willie Mays is more than a ballplayer. He is idolized because he has retained the youthful innocence which won him his fans. This is not a superstar who envelopes his personality within himself. He is still a kid at heart when he’s out in the outfield or signing a baseball for a young admirer or throwing a party for a group of San Francisco kids. He still squeals when reporters question him; he still has fun playing ball and, given the opportunity, he probably wouldn’t mind going out and hitting a ball three sewers in the streets of Harlem.

Yet Willie Mays has grown up. And the fact that despite an unsuccessful marriage, financial setbacks and the pressure a superstar faces, he has remained the Willie Mays kids idolize, Giant fans boast about and New Yorkers pay tribute to.

In case you haven’t heard, today is “Willie Mays Day” in New York and tonight will be Willie’s night in a park which won him lasting fame. It will be interesting to see if his fans can outdo themselves in the affection they’ve shown him on two previous occasions in the last three years. In 1960, over 50,000 people weathered the rain and wind to cheer him against the Yankees at the Stadium in a Mayor’s Trophy game. Willie admitted then that that was his biggest thrill in baseball. Last year, when the Giants paid their first visit to Coogan’s Bluff, his fans turned out en masse to cheer him again. A huge sign reading “You’re still our #24” spoke for the entire gathering.

His fans will turn out again tonight. They’ll honor him just as he honors them. And across this vast United States, in San Francisco, the West Coast Willie Mays fan club will find out, if they don’t know already, that just as Gil Hodges and Duke Snider will always belong to Brooklyn, Willie will always belong to New York. The legend of the “Say Hay” kid adds another chapter tonight. 

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