In Tribute to Willie Mays

         The news of the death of Willie Mays certainly resonated with baseball fans, especially those of a certain age. Mays was, without question, one of the greatest- if not the greatest- baseball player of all time and the announcement of his death brought long time baseball fans sweet memories of being a fan during the 1960s and early 1970s.

         It certainly did that for me and it also brought back a personal memory that I only have because I have a tendency to hold onto some items from my childhood in the spirit of nostalgia. I knew that those items would come in handy one day.

         So, shortly after hearing the news, I went down to our basement and, knowing exactly where to look, I found this short school report that I had written in 1965 when I was in fifth grade that I have kept for almost 60 years.     

         I read the report and I have to say that the writing was pretty good (I assume my father edited it a bit before I turned it in as he usually did.) and I learned some things I had long since forgotten. 

         I wrote: “Most of Willie’s childhood was spent in his Aunt Sarah’s house in Fairfield, Alabama. While theirs was not a rich family, it was not poverty-stricken as many Negro (sic) families were in the South.” 

         I also noted that: ‘The San Francisco club [at that time the New York Giants] sent two scouts to the Barons’ headquarters to sign a first basemen named Perry. Instead, they returned to New York with an incredible kid named Willie Mays”. 

         There is, of course, so much more to the story of Willie Mays’ becoming a major leaguer, not the least of which is the fact that the Red Sox were seriously interested in signing him. But racism or at least the racist reputation of the Red Sox, the last team to include a black player on their roster, sadly undermined that possibility.

         So, I can only dream of what it might have been like to cheer for a Red Sox team with Carl Yastrzemski in left and Willie Mays playing centerfield at Fenway Park. I can only imagine that I would not have had to wait until 1967 to see the Red Sox play in the World Series. 

         But that brings up another thought about being a baseball fan in the 1960s. I rarely saw Willie Mays play.

         This was a time long before interleague play and cable tv offering the opportunity to watch games seemingly around the clock. (As I write this, a Wednesday afternoon game between the Padres and the Phillies is in the background). We can now watch highlights of all games online. Back then, in the “good old days”, we were limited to watching the Red Sox local telecasts on weekends and the NBC Game of the Week on Saturday afternoon.. 

         So, I only got the chance to see Willie Mays (and Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson and so many more) when the Game of the Week featured their teams or during the All-Star Game or the World Series.

         The limited menu of games to watch made it more special when we did have the rare opportunity to see games from Forbes Field or Connie Mack Stadium or Crosley Field. It might also explain why so many of us remember being glued to the TV for the All-Star Game and the World Series. Of course, it helped that those games were played during the day. Don’t get me started on the horrendous starting time for these games. Except during the years the Red Sox have been in the Series, I don’t think I’ve stayed up to see the end of more than a few World Series games in many years.

         So, my report on Willie Mays was based on research of one kind or another. The truth is that I probably had only seen him play a handful of times before I wrote that report. 

         I began this piece by writing about Willie Mays and wrote these last paragraphs about myself. But I won’t apologize. That is what baseball memories do for us- they make us think about who we were and what our life was like in distant simpler times.

But the story is really about the player. Willie Mays was, without a doubt, a great ambassador for baseball. His exceptional play on the field highlighted by 660 home runs and a .301 lifetime batting average and outstanding fielding (including what was perhaps the greatest catch in baseball history during the 1954 World Series) earn him the right to be called the best of all time. 

         However, the story doesn’t end there. Willie Mays’ class, his dignity and his understanding of what it meant to be in the public eye are as important, if not more important, to his reputation. He was not only a great baseball player. He was a great man and he was an inspiration to so many. I feel so privileged that I got to see him play- even if rarely- and more importantly, thank him for all he did to keep baseball meaningful for generations. 

This is the only elementary school report that I held onto for all of those years. Sure, it’s because it’s about baseball but also because it’s about a man who deserves life-long respect.

         I hope that future of generations of baseball fans will remember who he was as a player and as a man and that some of today’s and future generation’s stars will inspire the kind of admiration and respect that are being justifiably shown to the memory of the Say-Hey Kid. 

         His memory will always be for a blessing. 

One thought on “In Tribute to Willie Mays

  1. Sandor Slomovits

    Hi Rabbi, How wonderful to read about your feelings for Willie Mays. And that you held on to that childhood hero worship report. I read several articles about Willie Last night and was sad to read how much, and how flagrant the racism he endured, even after he was already a star in the big leagues. Your piece, a child’s view of a great man is a balm for all that. Thank you

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