Tributes to Willie Mays, Baseball’s ‘Say Hey Kid’

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Among the tributes to Willie Mays was this graphic from the San Francisco Giants

If you’re under perhaps 65 years of age, you may not fully grasp just how phenomenal a baseball player Willie Mays was. And while his career statistics on the indispensable Baseball Reference website reveal plenty of numbers in boldface, indicating that a player led his league in that particular category, unless you saw him play, you may not truly appreciate just how dominant he was. Not surprisingly, four of his individual season home run totals are in bold as are five of his slugging percentage numbers. But then you notice that he led the National League in triples three times and was the NL’s top base stealer in four consecutive seasons.

Mays’ accolades include two Most Valuable Player awards—he finished in the top 5 nine times—12 consecutive Gold Glove awards as the league’s—the game’s, really—top centerfielder, 19 consecutive seasons as an All-Star for the New York (and later, San Francisco) Giants (plus one, ceremonially, during his final season when he finished his marvelous career in a New York Mets uniform), and Rookie of the Year when he was a 19-20 year-old.

The flashy player’s fielding prowess includes “the catch,” his over-the-shoulder grab that took place on the sport’s biggest stage, in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. [It’s so iconic that it has its own Wikipedia page, simply called “The Catch (baseball).”]

His somehow elegant uniform number, 24, was perfectly suited to him. Mays, for decades, was considered baseball’s unofficial Greatest Living Player. He retired after the 1973 season with a lifetime batting average of .301 and 660 home runs, still sixth all-time, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979. Mays died today (June 18, 2024) at age 93. Though most of his peers have already left us, Major League Baseball, numerous teams, many of its legendary players, and other celebrities including many classic rock legends, offered tributes to the “Say Hey Kid.”

“Statistics do not do him justice,” said veteran broadcaster Bob Costas. “You had to see him play. He exuded joy. He wasn’t just incredibly great.”

Ken Griffey, Jr., a fellow centerfielder, and one of baseball’s best players of his generation, called the news of Mays’ death “devastating. He pulled me aside at age 17 and established a mentorship that few people have. I’m so grateful for the time that I spent with him. He’s a true Giant on and off the field.”

Huey Lewis, who has been tied to the Bay Area for decades, wrote, “So sad to hear about Willie Mays. National Treasure. So glad I got to spend time with him. We played golf twice. Sweet, funny, generous, and such humility. The greatest baseball player of all time. They don’t make em like that anymore. RIP”

From Derek Jeter, “One of the best to ever play the game and even a better person. Thoughts and prayers are with Willie’s family and loved ones.”

In a post-game interview, the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge, who grew up in northern California and was a childhood Giants fans, said, “I was a big Willie Mays fan. I wanted to play like Willie and make those catches like he did. The numbers he put up on the field and what he did are impressive, but him as a person and human being… he was bigger than baseball.”

Books about Willie Mays are available here.

Related: Musicians and other celebrities we’ve lost in 2024

Greg Brodsky

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