Willie Mays: 1931-2024

Willie Mays: 1931-2024

By Dave Perry

A longtime fan of the San Francisco Giants, Dave Perry’s essay, “Willie”, appeared on this site in 2010 and was published in History As It Happens: Citizen Bloggers in Lowell, Mass which is available from Loom Press.  

Now, Dave has shared a new piece about Willie, in recognition of the Hall of Famer’s recent passing.

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Things can get lonely in right field. So you make it interesting.

One day at high school practice, you execute a perfect basket catch as you jog toward the sideline. Glove stomach high, palm up, the ball drops in, the mitt snaps shut. It felt good. It felt like Willie Mays.

“Hey, idiot!” bellowed the terminally sour coach, leaning on the slim fungo bat.  “If I see that again, Perry, you’re out.”

It would be a year later, but I did execute a nice basket catch during a game. Who was I going to listen to, some frustrated, joyless creep or my hero? (My other baseball hero, Roberto Clemente – the man who made right field cool — would perish less than a year later.)

Willie – whose very name evoked a certain permanent youth – was baseball.

“When they throw the ball, I hit it,” said Willie. “When they hit the ball, I catch it.”

I was a Giants fan by blood, a Mays devotee by choice,

When you move every two years as a kid, you seek security and consistency beyond people. You make the friends you can, of course, but you’ll be leaving. So there are other things. Major league baseball was a pastime, of course, but Willie Mays also made it an art.

He WAS the game, a superhuman worker, brandishing five tools reporting for work with love for the game. You can’t squeeze love into numbers but he had both.

A Bay Area native, I was always glancing homeward, especially for annual summer vacations. And I always followed my Giants from afar.

First among all, was Mays. The windmill swing, the cap flying off as he headed for second, the slightly bowed legs, the right thumb sticking up along the bat as he gripped it.

He was the field general of the team. Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Fuentes, Alou….Heck, even Tom Haller.

Speed power, smarts. He believed for decades that every base was there to be swiped and everything between the right and left field lines was his property. He dove, he crashed, he smiled getting up. And he did it a lot, including playing 150 games for 13 consecutive seasons.

And then, after a couple years with the Mets, Willie was gone.

At some point, I traded one windmill for another, enthralled by Pete Townshend’s guitar.

I never met Willie Mays, but my dad did.

 

My son texted the news of Mays’ passing Tuesday evening.

I set out to find the autograph. There has recently been much fiddling with a mass of things I have saved over the years.

Racing, I suppose, to beat the devil.

I am not one to look back. I am not one for reunions. Old times are old times. Whatever is there is there, and you can’t change it unless you have a really good eraser and know the town clerk. I sort of remembered seeing the autograph in a small book my dad carried in his flight bag.

A former Navy pilot and squadron commander, Ron Perry (whose birthday would have been Tuesday) joined United Airlines in 1968. He soon discovered that United flew baseball charters and he piloted some of them. I have a few baseballs signed by teams thanks to this. My dad would find the team rep, ask if this was okay and they’d pass a baseball around the cabin.

It was not just baseball. I remember when he told me he’d flown “a rock band” called The Doors. Were they anyone I knew?

Yes, and you got their autographs, right?

We did not speak for two days.

 

At last, I found the Mays signature, on a handout photo tucked in a scrapbook I had unearthed a few months ago, right next to the photo signed by Gaylord Perry.

The scrapbook is a catch-all, holding everything from some family pictures (apparently, there does not exist a photograph of me between 1969 and 1977 without a middle finger carefully hidden therein) to my Mile Swim certification card, the business card from The Redeye Blues Band (we were so intellectually above rock music we could not actually play our instruments), concert announcements clipped from the Sunday New York Times, and a program from the Dec. 15, 1972 performance by Uriah Heep, Manfred Mann and Elf (whose lead singer was listed as Ronnie “Padavona,” not yet changed to Dio) at New York’s Academy of Music.

The signatures must have been from 1970 or ’71. I remember the feeling when the two signed photos were handed to me. He got some others to sign the autograph book. McCovey, of course, Bob Bolin, Mike Murphy, Ken Henderson, Bob Barton….

He left the cockpit to spend a few minutes with Mays, who was completely charming and curious about my dad’s job.

In my search for the Mays autograph, I came across something else. After my dad passed away in 2008, my brother sent a few boxes of stuff I never asked for. There was a 4-by-6-inch address book in one of the boxes. And here it was again.

My dad knew his ways around the streets of San Francisco growing up and he and his buddies would spend a lot of time trying to get into Seals stadium, at16th and Bryant. Beyond that, I don’t know much. My dad didn’t talk much about himself. Only my kids could open him up.

But here was the autograph book he kept. The Seals Con Dempsey, Tommy Fine, Jim Walsh, Dino Pestelli, Jack Macdonald. Each signer was accompanied by a clipped newspaper headshot, in alphabetical order. The big “get” seems to have been Pittsburgh Pirate Ralph Kiner, the hall of famer and longtime broadcaster who in ’47 led the majors in home runs with 51. Enclosed with Kiner’s signature is a ticket for a (pre-season) game at Seals Stadium on March 25, 1948. He got into that one.

Years later, we’d watch Mets post-games and the Kiner’s Korner wrap-up. Dad never said a word.

And I will never know more than that.

I guess he didn’t care much for looking back.

Rest in peace, Willie.  And dad, happy Father’s Day and happy birthday.

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