May 4, 2021 Updated: May 5, 2021 7:32 p.m. Comments 4 (SFChronicle.com)
“Ready for that Giants series? I hate those guys,” my friends clamored in ancient times as we discussed our beloved Dodgers. “You, too, right?”
Yep, sure do, I’d nod. Gotta hate those Giants. Except I really didn’t. “Hate” is a terrible word in general, and Willie Mays got me over it for good.
The marvelous thing about Mays, as we celebrate his 90th birthday, is that he stands for something deeply relevant — almost as if he’s still playing. It’s a brand of appeal that touches not just us codgers who witnessed Willie in his prime, but anyone who loves the game and cherishes those precious gems of validation.
For decades on end, Babe Ruth’s name was a staple of America’s sports conversation, even among sandlot kids who knew little more than the sound of it. I’d like to think Mays ascended to that lofty standing, as in, “Nice catch — but he’s no Willie Mays.” As much as I feared him during those games at the L.A. Coliseum and Dodger Stadium, I was quite content setting aside hatred for reverence, feeling only slightly less awed by Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson and Bob Gibson, among others.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mays helped prepare me for a life in sportswriting. It’s great to be a passionate fan when you’re a kid, but journalistic adulthood demands perspective, the broader stroke, an appreciation not of teams, but of stories, settings, individuals. As lucky as I was to be a Dodgers fan growing up, attending the triumphant World Series of 1959, ’63 and ’65, something came over me when I moved north to attend Cal.More for you
Now I was watching Mays in his home ballpark, along with Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and the rest. It wasn’t long before the Dodgers struck me as a bunch of guys named Grabarkewitz. Whatever story loomed largest, across the entirety of the major leagues, that’s the one that mattered.
Opposing players were in awe of what Mays accomplished at Candlestick Park, for the whole of it seemed damned near impossible. The great Roberto Clemente once mused about feigning illness when his Pirates got to San Francisco, just to avoid the humbling experiences looming in the wind and chill. And Mays arrived in San Francisco during an especially rich period of the game’s history, especially in the National League, where players of color flourished and elevated the game’s appeal beyond measure.
When Maury Wills stole bases — a record 104 in 1962 — you got the feeling he could do so at will. Clemente had an arm that appeared blessed by a higher power. Willie Davis ran from first to third like a cheetah, all grace and blinding speed. Curt Flood roamed center field in a manner suggesting anything, any catch was possible. Orlando Cepeda crafted an off-field stroke to such perfection, it became his signature as a power hitter. Dick Allen, known as Richie back then, belted home runs destined for someone’s front yard.
I mention these things individually because they were all part of Mays’ theatrical showcase. They say Joe DiMaggio was this type of player, and I’d never demean the great Joltin’ Joe, especially around North Beach. But I have to think Mays was superior with his speed and arm — DiMaggio called it “the greatest I’ve ever seen” — and although DiMaggio was the unquestioned master of the strike zone, fanning about as often as a lunar eclipse, Mays really set himself apart as he set to win over highly judgmental fans in both New York and the Bay Area.
Remember that Mays was a pure showman, wanting to “give the fans a little extra,” as he once said, and thus susceptible to Ruthian moments of failure. And yet, over the stretch of six seasons crucial to his reputation — 1954 (returning from military service) through 1959 — he did not strike out more than 65 times while averaging 661 plate appearances per year. So here we find a showstopping entertainer and a fine-tuned technician. (Comparisons among players valued for their all-around skills: Mike Trout’s 184 strikeouts in 2014 and Ronald Acuña’s 188 in 2019.) For all of that priceless flair, Mays was deeply committed to staying on top of the opposition, revealing few traces of vulnerability.
I would advise every fan, even those familiar with Mays’ ascent through the Negro Leagues and minors, to entertain a thirst for more. Watch and read everything made available, and by all means devour John Shea’s biography “24,” the definitive work from Mays’ perspective. You’ll gain even more insight into what everyone knows to be true.
He was the perfect ballplayer. Hate Willie Mays? Craziest thing I ever heard.
Written By Bruce Jenkins
Bruce Jenkins has written for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1973 and has been a sports columnist since 1989. He has covered 27 World Series, 19 Wimbledons and many other major events, including the Super Bowl, World Cup soccer, NBA Finals, four major golf tournaments and U.S. Open tennis championships.
He graduated from Santa Monica High School in 1966 and UC Berkeley with a B.A. in journalistic studies in 1971.