Mays helped make baseball a true national pastime with his star power and skills in center field and hitting. Credit: Newsday

Willie Mays spanned generations as completely and gracefully as he covered ground in centerfield. As a rookie, he played opposite Joe DiMaggio in the 1951 World Series, and as an elder statesman, he watched godson Barry Bonds set the career home run record.

What’s more, Mays spent his final decades knowing he was generally acknowledged as the greatest living ballplayer. Some still say he was the greatest ever to put on a uniform.

Mays was the quintessential complete player, mastering all of baseball’s fabled “five tools” — hitting, running, throwing, fielding and hitting for power. He also helped make the sport a true national pastime, carrying his star power from coast to coast when his Giants moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958.

He came from the mill towns in Alabama, made his way through the Negro Leagues and became an American immortal. “The Say Hey Kid,” the last surviving member of the New York centerfield iconic troika from baseball’s Golden Age, died Tuesday, the Giants announced. He was 93. 

Mays was to be honored before Thursday's game between the Giants and Cardinals at Rickwood Field, where he played as a member of the Birmingham Black Barons. He said in a statement Monday that he'd be unable to attend.

Mays was a superstar centerfielder when baseball was king and centerfield was the glamour position. He had top billing in the fabled “Willie, Mickey and the Duke” combination that also featured Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider when the three New York teams dominated the sport. He went full circle by ending his career in New York and in the World Series with the 1973 Mets.

In a statement Tuesday night, Mets owner Steve Cohen and his wife Alex said: “Willie Mays was one of the greatest to ever play the game. Willie ended his Hall of Fame career in Queens and was a key piece to the 1973 NL championship team. Mays played with a style and grace like no one else. Alex and I were thrilled to honor a previous promise from Joan Payson to retire his iconic #24 as a member of the Mets in 2022. On behalf of our entire organization, we send our thoughts and prayers to Willie’s family and friends.”

As the Giants' centerfielder, he burnished his image on the national imagination when he sped toward the deepest part of the Polo Grounds, cap flying, and with his back to the infield caught Vic Wertz’ soaring fly ball late in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series.

“I could tell from the sound whether to come in or go back. This time I’m going back, a long way back, but there is never a doubt in my mind. I am going to catch this ball,” he said in the book “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend” by James S. Hirsch. “I turn and run for the bleachers. But I got it . . . Soon as it got hit, I knew I’d catch this ball.”

He was most proud of the fact that after he made the over-the-shoulder putout (estimated at 425 feet from home plate), he was able to stop, spin and get the ball into the infield to prevent Cleveland's Larry Doby from coming all the way home from second base.

The play was stunning — to just about everyone but his cousin Loretta, watching on television in Mays’ former high school outside Birmingham. She told Hirsch, “When Willie would wash dishes, he would throw them up and reach out for them and dive and catch them. That’s where he got that catch from.”

But Mays’ career and life featured far more than one stellar catch or even his 12 consecutive Gold Gloves. Despite missing almost two full seasons because of military service and playing 12-plus seasons at cold, windy Candlestick Park, he hit 660 home runs.

Leo Durocher, his first manager in the big leagues, once was asked to describe Mays’ essence as a player. He responded with this litany of sports and entertainment greats: “Joe Louis, Jascha Heifetz, Sammy Davis and Nashua rolled into one.”

Film legend Tallulah Bankhead was quoted as saying, “There have been only two authentic geniuses in the world, Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.”

The impact of the African American ballplayer who overcame racial discrimination to reach Hall of Fame heights went beyond even his 3,293 hits, .301 career batting average, Rookie of the Year Award, batting title, two National League Most Valuable Player trophies and 24 All-Star appearances. In awarding the Presidential Medal of Honor to Mays in 2015, President Barack Obama said: “In his quiet example, while excelling on one of America’s biggest stages, he helped carry forward the banner of civil rights. It’s because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for president.”

A Giant, with a small or capital “G,” was a good description of Mays. So was “The Say Hey Kid,” the origin of which still is not clear. It likely came from a member of the New York press corps in an era that popularized nicknames. It certainly stuck; it was mentioned in the titles of two songs during the 1950s and is permanently on his plaque in Cooperstown.

There also is a reminder that he was the first player to reach 300 home runs and 300 stolen bases, adding that Mays was “one of baseball’s most colorful and exciting stars. Excelled in all phases of the game.”

He did so with ease and exuberance, emblemized by his trademark basket catch of fly balls. It was no act. He displayed the same enthusiasm when he played stickball with youngsters in Harlem during his early years with the Giants. A photographer showed up one day and captured him swinging with a broomstick, and soon six national magazines published stories and/or photos on his pastime.

Once he arrived at the ballpark, he seemed like a man playing against children. Bill Rigney, a teammate who went on to become Mays’ manager, once said, “All I can say is he is the greatest player I ever saw, bar none.”

Willie Howard Mays was born on May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama. His father, William Howard Mays (named for President William Howard Taft and known as “Cat”), was a semipro pitcher and his mother, Anna, had been a high school track and basketball star. When the couple separated, Willie remained with his father and inherited a love for baseball.

When he was 16 and still in high school, the younger Mays played weekend games for the Birmingham Black Barons, champions of the Negro American League. In 1949, New York Giants scout Eddie Montague was watching first baseman Alonzo Perry, but couldn’t help noticing the young centerfielder. Durocher later wrote that Montague’s report called Mays “the best ballplayer I ever looked at.” The Giants signed him for a $4,000 bonus and a $250-per-month salary.

He immediately started for Class B Trenton and was the league’s only Black player, causing him to absorb countless taunts and the ordeal of having to stay in Blacks-only hotels. Mays nonetheless hit .353 with 55 RBIs in 81 games and was promoted to Triple-A Minneapolis in 1951.

On an off day during a May road trip, he was in a movie theater when the house lights went on and an announcement was made for Mays to call the hotel’s manager. The message awaiting him was that he was being promoted to the Giants.

Joining the 17-19 team in Philadelphia on May 25, Mays started in an 0-for-12 slump, then hit his first home run against future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. Years later, Spahn joked, “I’ll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out.”

A subsequent 0-for-13 run reportedly left Mays in tears, despairing of ever being able to hit big-league pitching, but Durocher told him that as long as he was the Giants’ manager, Mays would be the centerfielder.

By the time that season ended with the Giants reaching the World Series — Mays was on deck when Bobby Thomson hit ''The Shot Heard 'Round the World'' to beat the Dodgers and give the Giants the National League pennant — the centerfielder was on his way to one of the greatest careers in sports history.

Mays stole four bases in a game on his 25th birthday. Against Milwaukee on April 30, 1961, he hit four home runs in a game, even though he was sick to his stomach from a snack the night before.

The move to San Francisco was seminal for the sport, but not so easy for Mays. Even though he was one of the biggest stars in baseball, his offer on a house was rejected by a realtor because neighborhood residents objected to a Black couple moving in. He and his wife, Marghuerite, eventually did take ownership, only to have a brick crash through a window on their first night there.

Still, he lived in the San Francisco area for the rest of his life, which was marked by some difficulties. He and Marghuerite divorced in 1963. Mays’ second wife, Mae, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s before she was 60, and she died in 2013.

Mays and Mantle were barred from baseball in 1981 for having done promotional work for an Atlantic City casino. Mays was allowed back in 1985 and received a five-minute standing ovation in his return to Candlestick Park.

Peter Magowan, a fan since the club’s New York days, bought the franchise in 1992 and gave Mays a contract for life. So the legend was part of the family when Bonds, son of Bobby Bonds, Mays’ former teammate, broke Hank Aaron’s career record for home runs in 2007.

In 2010, after the Giants finally won the World Series for the first time since 1954, Mays brought the championship trophy to PS 46 in Harlem, near the site of the long-gone Polo Grounds. He became emotional seeing signs that said “Welcome Home Willie Mays” and the sounds of the chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Mays told the children, “I don’t think I ever left. I have a place in Riverdale. I didn’t go to San Francisco by choice. I was asked to go by the team.”

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