Willie Mays celebration of life: Presidents, dignitaries, baseball greats remember his life and impact


SAN FRANCISCO — An estimated crowd of 4,500 fans joined friends, family, and a staggering list of Hall of Famers, lifetime achievers as well as the political elite to celebrate the life of Willie Mays on Monday afternoon at the Giants’ waterfront ballpark.

Former President Bill Clinton was a surprise arrival just as the event was beginning on the infield at Oracle Park. In his address to the crowd, he referred to himself as the “designated fan” who felt fortunate to spend some time in Mays’ company. Former President Barack Obama, who invited Mays on Air Force One during his term, recorded a message that played on the video board.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said that Mays “represented greatness like no other.” Former Giants star outfielder and manager Felipe Alou, 89, overcame mobility challenges to travel from Florida for the memorial service, took his turn at the microphone, and said, “I have two minutes. I need two months.”

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Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown got a laugh from the gathering when he said, “None of us in the city liked the Giants until Willie Mays came over.” One of the afternoon’s final speakers, Mays’ godson Barry Bonds, pointed to the sky as he concluded his remarks in a halting voice. “Like I said about my father, thank you, Willie. Thank you.”

Juan Marichal, Alou, Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, Dusty Baker and Dennis Eckersley all received ovations while being introduced from their seats on the infield. So did a long list of recent Giants that included Buster Posey and Hunter Pence. Film director Spike Lee was there in white framed glasses and a Mays throwback jersey.

But the most important guests of honor, the ones who might have meant the most to Mays, didn’t appear until the moment that the final speaker, his son, Michael, concluded his remarks. That’s when the center field gates opened and dozens of children scampered onto the grass and began to play catch.

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Junior Giants play catch on the field during the Willie Mays celebration of life. (Maddie Harrell / San Francisco Giants / Getty Images)

If you listened to all the testimonies and tributes, nothing meant more to Mays than inspiring a young person to smile and to succeed.

It’s why he’d change out of his uniform into street clothes after a Giants game and then go play stickball in the streets of New York. It’s why he invited neighborhoods of kids to his house for ice cream parties. It’s why he supported the Boys and Girls Club and the Willie Mays Scholars program. It’s why he did something even more impossible than hitting 660 home runs while playing so much of his career in windy and cavernous Candlestick Park or making a basket catch in the deepest reaches of the Polo Grounds: signing an extension to what was supposed to be a lifetime contract with the Giants.

Mays wanted a bigger stipend because he wanted more to give away.

“It’s all going to the kids anyway,” Mays told club president Larry Baer.

The wrecking ball came for Candlestick Park and the Polo Grounds. Those stages to Mays’ greatness no longer stand. Mays never played in the waterfront ballpark that is situated at 24 Willie Mays Plaza and that served as a backdrop for his celebration of life. But as the sun began to set, the golden and sideways light formed a seemingly intentional spotlight on center field. This place was built too late for Mays to showcase his greatness. But his appeal and his impact were so profound that they spanned generations. It would be easy to imagine Mays positioning the outfielders here, gliding to make catches in the gap here, flying around the bases here as his cap flew off around first base.

“I would have liked to see Willie Mays play center field here,” said former teammate Joe Amalfitano, who lent Mays his bat on the day he hit four home runs at Milwaukee. “Because right-center here, with him playing center field, would’ve been Death Valley.”

Giants Hall of Fame broadcaster and emcee Jon Miller started off the schedule of speakers by sharing a memory of one of Mays’ too-incredible-to-be-true accomplishments: the time he scored from first base on a bunt.

Mays had reached on a hit and the Philadelphia Phillies were playing an infield shift against Willie McCovey that left third base unoccupied. When McCovey put down a surprise bunt to the left side, Mays sprinted around second base and kept running around third. The most marvelous part, Miller said, was the context: It was the second game of a doubleheader, the first game had lasted 13 innings, and it happened in 1970 when Mays was three days away from his 39th birthday.

Mays did things at the twilight of his career that the most talented players in history could only dream of doing in their prime.

Miller said he asked Mays years later about that play. He wanted to know if McCovey had given him a sign. How else could he have gotten such a great jump and had such great awareness to keep running without the benefit of foresight?

Mays’ awareness and foresight, of course, were unmatched. He didn’t need a sign. As Miller relayed it, Mays told him, “I would have called timeout and ran to home plate and told him to forget about it.”

“That’s the secret,” Miller told the crowd. “Not only was he gifted but he took care of himself. And he might have been the smartest player who ever lived.”

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Dusty Baker, Joe Amalfitano, Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou and Jon Miller speak during the ceremony. (Tony Avelar / San Francisco Giants / Getty Images)

There were several recurring themes among the 15 speeches that were interspersed with musical interludes in a program that ended nearly 45 minutes past its scheduled time. One of the most prominent running themes: For all of Mays’ unmatchable all-around talent, his legacy and his universal impact were about so much more than that.

“Willie Mays gave me the chance to realize what real greatness is,” Clinton said. “It’s a curious combination of intelligence, dedication, the will to win, and a fundamental humility to believe that the effort is the prize, a gift he leaves us all with and that I hope we can all share and cherish.”

Brown touched on the impact that Mays had on housing policies after he endured racial discrimination when trying to buy a house in San Francisco in the 1960s. Clinton spoke of Mays’ powerful, unifying force as he attracted fans of every color and ethnicity on both coasts during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

“He (wasn’t) just amazingly gifted but he was incredibly intelligent,” Clinton said. “He understood the game he was playing, the game he loved, what he had to do to get better, and how to help other people … and to open the minds and hearts of people who might have otherwise missed the chance to become a little better and help us along on our eternal mission to make our union more perfect.”

Obama’s recorded remarks lasted four minutes and touched on Mays’ greatness on the field as well as his legacy as an important figure in American history.

“Whether you were Black or white, everyone could appreciate Willie’s unbridled enthusiasm, his work ethic, his inherent dignity and graciousness,” Obama said. “Willie’s popularity would change racial attitudes in a way that political speeches never could. It made people reexamine how they viewed their fellow citizens, and the imperative of true equality, and helped pave the way for the civil rights revolution that would move us toward a more perfect union.

“Not many athletes can claim that kind of impact. In a very real sense, Willie Mays’ career was one of the foundation stones that would ultimately allow someone like me to even consider running for President of the United States. Which is why I consider the opportunity to have gotten to know Willie over the years, and to say thank you to him, to be one of the great joys of my life.”

Perhaps the most heartfelt remarks were from those whose names never appeared in a major-league box score. Jeff Bleich, Malcolm Heinicke and Dr. Phil Saddler, three of Mays’ closest friends, shared personal memories and anecdotes from the star player’s post-baseball life.

Heinicke called Mays the “king of the one-liner” and told a story about the time that they attended a meet-and-greet banquet fundraiser. Mays shook every hand, signed every autograph for two hours, and answered every curious question. When someone asked him how he’s stayed so fit and trim later in life, Mays pointed to his plate of steak and potatoes that he hadn’t touched.

“You all ask me so many questions,” he said. “I don’t got any time to eat.”

“If there was a Gold Glove for joy,” said Heinicke, “Willie would have a platinum one with diamonds on it. You fans were his lifeblood and you gave him as much joy as he did you.”

Mays was the son of an iron foundry worker in Westfield, Ala., and earned a diploma from the local high school in which his degree was in dry cleaning. That diploma might have represented all the opportunities he lacked and all that he would have to overcome to succeed in life. Yet Mays framed the diploma and displayed it on the wall in his Atherton, Calif., home. From his teenage years in an industrial town that no longer exists, and where his only opportunities appeared to be baseball or dry cleaning, Mays would go on to live a life in which he met with every living U.S. President, as well as the Queen of England.

The people he most cherished, according to Bleich and Heinicke, were “people who didn’t want anything from him but his friendship.”

Bonds, one of only five major-league players to hit more home runs than Mays, fought back tears behind sunglasses as he spoke of his godfather.

“Willie taught me about the game of baseball and what he gave to me like a second son,” Bonds said. “Mentorship, unconditional love, and yes, the butt kicking when I needed it. And then love again, like a father. But I didn’t know after all these years, turning 60 in July, what Willie was truly giving me until now. Forever memories. Forever memories.”

Mays’ son, Michael, concluded the program by saying he felt “like a rookie facing Marichal” before cracking a smooth one-liner, telling Clinton that he would play a little saxophone when a jazz duo played in between speeches.

“The Say Hey Kid, where triples go to die, the man they invented the All-Star Game for, the guy who never met a stranger — there’s been hundreds of quotes about my father over the years but there’s only been one Willie Mays,” Michael Mays said. “Dad says you play this game for the 25th guy, the one who needs the most help. And you win when nine come together. That’s Willie Mays analytics.

“Now I know most of you have come here to say goodbye, have your closure, but for me not so much. His presence is visible everywhere. I’m filled and fueled with pride for your continual outpouring of love for him … duty bound and in good company to help forward his mission of uplifting those most in need.

“One kid at a time.”

(Top photo: Tony Avelar / San Francisco Giants / Getty Images)





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