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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    Remembering Willie Mays

    The passing of Willie Mays last month affected me for two principal reasons: 1. I was young when I first learned about him and now I'm old; and 2. Mays was a wonderful man whose principal legacies were his excellence and goodness.

    On Norwich's west side in 1962, Black baseball fans loved Mays and respected Mickey Mantle. White baseball fans, including me, loved Mantle and respected Mays. Who was better? Mays or Mantle? Or Mantle or Mays? The two superstars, who began and finished their impressive careers in New York City, have their names forever linked together. Although Mantle was stronger and likely faster than Mays, his lack of personal discipline stunted his career, making Mays the victor in their friendly rivalry. Next to Babe Ruth, who was a pitcher and a position player, Mays is the best player in baseball history.

    A top prospect from the Negro leagues, Mays played 22 seasons in Major League Baseball's National League, from 1951-1973. He played for the New York Giants, the San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets. He won four National League pennants and one World Series championship. He hit 660 home runs, which placed him third on the all-time list behind Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron at the time of his retirement. He finished his career with a lifetime batting average of .302. He was a perennial All-Star. He was a spectacular outfielder with a powerful throwing arm. He missed much of the 1952 season and all of the 1953 season serving in the United States Army. He spent many nights early in his career playing stickball on the streets of Harlem with the neighborhood kids.

    Civil rights activists in the 1960s criticized Mays for not speaking out forcefully for racial justice. The activists noted that other top Black athletes such as Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke directly and challengingly on the subject. Mays believed that being a reliable man who played good baseball every day advanced the cause of racial justice throughout the country.

    On Aug. 22, 1965, an ugly brawl erupted in Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Early in the game, Giants pitcher Juan Marichal and Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax were brushing back opposing hitters with hard fastballs to put the hitters on the defensive. Seeing enough, the home plate umpire warned both pitchers that the next brushback pitch would result in an ejection from the game. Knowing that Koufax hated brushing back hitters and only did so to protect Dodgers hitters from brushbacks, Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro decided to take matters into his own hands. With Marichal in the batter's box (pitchers hit in those days), Roseboro, after a Koufax pitch, fired the ball back to Koufax, buzzing or nicking Marichal's ear.

    Marichal responded by hitting Roseboro at least twice on the head with his baseball bat. Bedlam broke out with fistfights on the field. Mays rushed from the Giants dugout, stripped a menacing bat out of another Giants player's hand and then walked Roseboro off the field to the Dodgers dugout, preventing further injury to him. Mays injected peace to a situation where there was none.

    When the Giants visited Dodger Stadium a few weeks later, a sell-out crowd gave Mays — their public enemy No. 1 — a rousing standing ovation. Roseboro missed only two games. Marichal was suspended for eight games. Incredibly, Marichal and Roseboro later became friends, with Roseboro advocating for Marichal to be voted into the Hall of Fame. Marichal served as a pallbearer at Roseboro's funeral in 2002. Marichal said at the funeral service that "Johnny's forgiving me is one of the best things that happened in my life.“ The example that Mays set on that awful day laid the foundation for forgiveness and reconciliation.

    Like many aging superstars of his generation, Mays hung around baseball one year too long, probably to collect a few more paychecks. Mays was paid handsomely ($180,000 per year; $1.2 million in 2024 dollars) which was far less than the exorbitant amounts paid to mediocre and star players today, even when adjusted for inflation. In his final season, 1973, Mays batted .211 and hit 6 home runs. The end was near.

    One iconic picture of Mays, taken during the 1973 World Series, shows him on his knees pleading with an umpire to reverse a bad call against the Mets. Although Mays was not involved in the questionable play, seeing him on his knees with his resignation and disappointment etched in his face spoke volumes about his future in baseball. He retired a few days later at the age of 42. By that time, the baseball fans on the west side of Norwich — Black and white — loved him.

    Well done, Willie Mays.

    Rest in peace.

    Mark Shea is a retired attorney from Moodus.

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