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

All of us recall our first major league baseball game, a memory that traditionally begins with that impossibly large, green expanse of outfield grass.

Mine includes a bonus: The guy in the middle of all that green for half the game was Willie Mays.

This was on July 27, 1970, before 51,061 (on a Monday night!) at Shea Stadium.

The Mets defeated the San Francisco Giants, 5-3. Tom Seaver struck out Mays three times.

You could look it up.

In real time, it was as good as it gets for a 9-year-old Mets fan. Looking back from deep into a new century, it is even better.

Mays died at 93 on Tuesday, and beyond the personal loss felt by his family and friends, the rest of us felt it in a way that always resonates most in baseball.

Jerry West, another superstar of Mays’ generation, died last week at 86.

I was fortunate to see him play against the Knicks in my first NBA game. But you did not read a nostalgic essay about that here.

For all its problems and anachronisms, baseball remains uniquely suited to bonding generations and eras, and to tapping into American history more broadly.

Mays grew up in the segregated South, dabbled in the Negro Leagues, became a star in New York City, then helped the sport conquer a new coast.

He was the godfather of the man who now assumes his mantle (pun intended) as the greatest living ballplayer: Barry Bonds. That is some serious circle-of-life stuff.

“I am beyond devastated and overcome with emotion,” Bonds wrote in a post on Instagram. “I have no words to describe what you mean to me.”

Mays made his famous catch in deep centerfield against Vic Wertz of Cleveland in Game 1 of the World Series 70 years ago.

And to this day, any catch made running away from home plate by any player at any level of baseball or softball often inspires a reference to Mays.

Seventy years! No one under 80 years old or so remembers that play clearly, yet it endures.

There were many fans at the Polo Grounds that day old enough to have watched games played in the 19th century.

That’s baseball, Suzyn.

As joyful as he was on the field, Mays could be moody off it and did not suffer fools gladly. That included me.

I interviewed him during his visit to an Alaska League game in Anchorage in the early 1980s, then had the chutzpah to complain in print about his grumpiness.

That is one I would like to have back.

There are few living people who can recall seeing Babe Ruth play, but the blessing for us as we recall Mays’ life and career is that the world is full of Baby Boomers who can attest to his greatness.

Keith Hernandez, who is 70, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area during Mays’ heyday there in the 1960s. He became emotional on SNY on Tuesday night when he said this: “I got to tell him that he was the greatest player I ever saw.”

He was the greatest all-around player most fans old enough to remember him ever saw.

It is difficult to imagine Ruth – or anyone else – having been better, but let’s leave him and his contemporaries to his generation and stick with ours.

Mays was it. But the circle keeps turning. Mays was 39 when I first saw him. Seaver was 25, a New York baseball icon for a new group of rising fans.

Both are gone now. But not really. Not ever.

You will be reminded of that the next time you are at a field and someone makes an over-the-shoulder catch.

Say hey!


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