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Willie Mays, Giants’ electrifying ‘Say Hey Kid,’ has died at 93

FILE - New York Giants' Willie Mays poses for a photo during baseball spring training in 1972. Mays, the electrifying “Say Hey Kid” whose singular combination of talent, drive and exuberance made him one of baseball’s greatest and most beloved players, has died. He was 93. Mays' family and the San Francisco Giants jointly announced Tuesday night, June 18, 2024, he had “passed away peacefully” Tuesday afternoon surrounded by loved ones. (AP Photo, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Willie Mays, the electrifying “Say Hey Kid” whose singular combination of talent, drive and exuberance made him one of baseball’s greatest and most beloved players, has died. He was 93.

Mays’ family and the San Francisco Giants jointly announced Tuesday night he had died earlier in the afternoon in the Bay Area.

“My father has passed away peacefully and among loved ones,” son Michael Mays said in a statement released by the club. “I want to thank you all from the bottom of my broken heart for the unwavering love you have shown him over the years. You have been his life’s blood.”

The center fielder was baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility, and in 1999 followed only Babe Ruth on The Sporting News’ list of the game’s top stars. The Giants retired his uniform number, 24, and set their AT&T Park in San Francisco on Willie Mays Plaza.

Mays died two days before a game between the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals to honor the Negro Leagues at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

“All of Major League Baseball is in mourning today as we are gathered at the very ballpark where a career and a legacy like no other began,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “Willie Mays took his all-around brilliance from the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League to the historic Giants franchise. From coast to coast in New York and San Francisco, Willie inspired generations of players and fans as the game grew and truly earned its place as our National Pastime. ... We will never forget this true Giant on and off the field.”

Few were so blessed with each of the five essential qualities for a superstar -- hitting for average, hitting for power, speed, fielding and throwing. Fewer so joyously exerted those qualities -- whether launching home runs; dashing around the bases, loose-fitting cap flying off his head; or chasing down fly balls in center field and finishing the job with his trademark basket catch.

“When I played ball, I tried to make sure everybody enjoyed what I was doing,” Mays told NPR in 2010. “I made the clubhouse guy fit me a cap that when I ran, the wind gets up in the bottom and it flies right off. People love that kind of stuff.”

Over 23 major league seasons, virtually all with the New York/San Francisco Giants but also including one in the Negro Leagues, Mays batted .301, hit 660 home runs, totaled 3,293 hits, scored more than 2,000 runs and won 12 Gold Glove. He was Rookie of the Year in 1951, twice was named the Most Valuable Player and finished in the top 10 for the MVP 10 other times. His lightning sprint and over-the-shoulder grab of an apparent extra base hit in the 1954 World Series remains the most celebrated defensive play in baseball history.

Between 1954 and 1966, Mays drove in 100 or more runs 10 times, scored 100 or more 12 times, hit 40 or more homers six times, more than 50 homers twice and led the league in stolen bases four times. His numbers might have been bigger. He missed most of 1952 and all of 1953 because of military service, quite possibly costing him the chance to overtake Ruth’s career home run record of 714, an honor that first went to Henry Aaron; then Mays’ godson, Barry Bonds. He likely would have won more Gold Gloves if the award had been established before 1956. He insisted he would have led the league in steals more often had he tried.

Sports writer Barney Kremenko has often been credited with nicknaming him “The Say Hey Kid,” referring to Mays’ spirited way of greeting his teammates. Moments on and off the field sealed the public’s affection. In 1965, Mays defused a horrifying brawl after teammate Juan Marichal clubbed Los Angeles Dodgers catcher John Roseboro with a bat. Mays led a bloodied Roseboro away and sat with him on the clubhouse bench of the Dodgers, the Giants’ hated rivals.

Years earlier, when living in Manhattan, he endeared himself to young fans by playing in neighborhood stickball games.

“I used to have maybe 10 kids come to my window,” he said in 2011 while visiting the area of the old Polo Grounds. “Every morning, they’d come at 9 o’clock. They’d knock on my window, get me up. And I had to be out at 9:30. So they’d give me a chance to go shower. They’d give me a chance to eat breakfast. But I had to be out there at 9:30, because that’s when they wanted to play. So I played with them for about maybe an hour.”

He was born in Westfield, Alabama, in 1931, the son of a Negro League player who wanted Willie to do the same, playing catch with him and letting him sit in the dugout. Young Mays was so gifted an athlete that childhood friends swore that basketball, not baseball, was his best sport.

By high school he was playing for the Birmingham Black Barons, and late in life would receive an additional 10 hits to his career total, 3,293, when Negro League statistics were recognized in 2024 by Major League Baseball. With Robinson breaking the major league’s color barrier in 1947, Mays’ ascension became inevitable. The Giants signed him after he graduated from high school (he had to skip his senior prom) and sent him to its minor league affiliate in Trenton, New Jersey. He began the 1951 season with Minneapolis, a Triple-A club. After 35 games, he was batting a head-turning .477 and was labeled by one scout as “the best prospect in America.” Giants Manager Leo Durocher saw no reason to wait and demanded that Mays, barely 20 at the time, join his team’s starting lineup.

Durocher managed Mays from 1951-55 and became a father figure -- the surly but astute leader who nurtured and sometimes pampered the young phenom. As Durocher liked to tell it, and Mays never disputed, Mays struggled in his first few games and was ready to go back to the minors.

“In the minors I’m hitting .477, killing everybody. And I came to the majors, I couldn’t hit. I was playing the outfield very, very well, throwing out everybody, but I just couldn’t get a hit,” Mays told the Academy of Achievement, a Washington-based leadership center, in 1996. “And I started crying, and Leo came to me and he says, ‘You’re my center fielder; it doesn’t make any difference what you do. You just go home, come back and play tomorrow.’ I think that really, really turned me around.”

Asked about career highlights, Mays inevitably mentioned “The Catch,” but also cherished hitting four home runs in a game against the Braves; falling over a canvas fence to make a catch in the minors; and running into a fence in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field while chasing a bases-loaded drive, knocking himself out, but still holding on to the ball.

Most of the time, he was happy just being on the field, especially when the sun went down.

“I mean, you had the lights out there and all you do is go out there, and you’re out there by yourself in center field,” he told the achievement academy. “And, I just felt that it was such a beautiful game that I just wanted to play it forever, you know.”



Hillel Italie, The Associated Press

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