The Death of Willie Mays
Willie Mays died today.
“The great centerfielder, whose cap flew off every time he ran the bases was cut down by a sudden heart attack.” The radio newscast reported as I stepped out of my shower.
“He played centerfield,” the newsman said, “for San Francisco, formerly the New York Giants.”
An understatement, I thought; a slight, even. He didn’t play centerfield, he ruled it. Willie Mays defined the position.
“Mays ranks fifth on the all time home run list,” the voice continued, “currently led by his godson, Barry Bonds.”
Barry Bonds, I said aloud, though I was home alone. My lips twisted into scorn. Nothing like Willie, godson or not. Willie would’ve been first, the greatest home run hitter of all time, if he hadn’t played in that windy hellhole, Candlestick Park, on blustery Candlestick Point, at the edge of San Francisco Bay. Plus he was in the army for two years. No one has to go to the army now. Not professional ballplayers, anyway.
My father grew up a Giants fan. Mays was his favorite. He told me stories of Willie playing stickball in the street with kids near the old Polo Grounds, smashing a pink rubber ball into the shape of an egg with one whack of the broomstick bat. And that famous catch in the World Series.
“Over his back. No one else could’ve done it.” Dad would look up, his back turned toward me, waiting for the invisible ball to drop. “And he held the man from scoring!” Dad pivoted on his left foot, reared back and threw. He stood there, watching the sliding runner just getting back to the bag. “No runs scored.” Dad raised his hand, thumb up, crouching to get the angle right. “You’re out!” He smiled at me and closed his eyes.
I knew the Giants solely as a team from San Francisco that came into New York every June and August to play against the Mets. Their departure in the fifties for the West Coast was not a sore point for me. I hadn’t been abandoned as my father had. Nonetheless, Dad still embraced the San Francisco Giants and so they became our family team, all of us following my father’s lead. He’d take me and my younger brother and a few of my cousins — only boys — to a couple of games each year. We’d arrive at Shea Stadium hours before starting time, hoping for autographs from the players as they took batting and fielding practice. A few players would come over to the stands, sign whatever was thrust into their hands, spit tobacco, and then go back to shagging fly balls and joking with each other in the bright light of summer. Dad sat watching, a newspaper and soda in his hands, pants rolled to the knees, shirt open to the warmth of the day.
Willie came to the railing only once in all those years. His cap was off, his thinning hair revealing a sweaty, shining scalp. Willie’s career was near its end.
“There’s Willie.” My father pointed to the man we both loved. “Go get his autograph.”
I tossed my sandwich into my brother’s lap and ran down cement steps toward the field railing. Kids shouted his name and clamored to be seen. Willie looked into the sun, smiling. He wiped his brow with his glove. But as I neared, Willie suddenly turned. He trotted back to the outfield, raised both his arms from mid-center, and waved. He was done signing. I called his name but already he was too far away, in the middle of the outfield, a white haze of sky and the deafening roar of jets streaming into their landing pattern over Shea, the passengers yearning for home. Willie caught a few more fly balls at belt level, judging the arc, watching it nestle into his glove as if it were a floating leaf. He flipped the ball back to the infield with ease and grace. Perfect. As he returned to the dugout he waved once more and smiled. I took a picture from the stands, though I could barely identify Willie’s face in the subsequent photo. He was so far away.
My father always kept that picture propped in front of the wedding portrait on his bedroom dresser. When Dad died, I thought I’d take the photo for myself. The week after Dad’s burial I spent a few hours looking through belongings, searching clothes and his papers. I found my father’s birth certificate and the army discharge, a few pictures of me and my siblings as infants. But the photograph of Willie Mays I’d taken years ago on that beautiful afternoon, a small figure lost in a sea of green, a man already aware of his end, had disappeared. I looked again a few weeks later, but still couldn’t locate the lost photo. I asked my mom if she’d seen the picture, but she never knew where it had gone.