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How Willie Mays, the "Say Hey Kid," inspired generations with his talent and exuberance, on and off the field

Harold Reynolds on Willie Mays' legacy
Harold Reynolds on Willie Mays' legacy, favorite memories 04:25

Long after "The Catch" and his 660 home runs, and the daring sprints around the bases with his hat falling off, Willie Mays could still command a room like no other.

Mays was a frequent visitor to the downtown ballpark in San Francisco at 24 Willie Mays Plaza with his statue outside the stadium. He would often hold court with his contemporaries and the younger generation of players who hung on every word said by a player they were too young to have ever watched play.

His commanding voice and high-pitched laugh were recognizable anywhere. He was simply the "Say Hey Kid" from his days patrolling center field at the Polo Grounds in the 1950s, when baseball ruled New York City, to his death at age 93 on Tuesday afternoon.

As Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. said: "He'll always be the godfather of all center fielders."

There may be players who hit more home runs, won more Gold Gloves, had more hits and captured more World Series titles than Mays. But there never was — and probably never will be — a player as dazzling and entertaining as he was for more than two decades on both coasts.

World Series MVP Award-Mays Baseball
In this March 2, 1964, file photo, San Francisco Giants' Willie Mays is all set for workout at the baseball club's training camp at Casa Grande, Ariz. RDS / AP

With a hat too small so it flew off his head as he raced around the field and his signature basket catches, Mays was a showman who could do it all as the consummate "five-tool player." Perhaps no one combined the ability to hit for both average and power, to run the bases, field and throw like Mays did during his career spent mostly with the Giants in New York and San Francisco.

"Willie could do everything from the day he joined the Giants," Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher said. "Mays could do all the things you look for in a player better than anybody I ever saw."

While Joe DiMaggio famously insisted on being introduced as the "Greatest Living Ballplayer" until he died in 1999, that title had really been held by Mays for more than a half-century.

The numbers are staggering: 660 homers, 3,293 hits, 6,080 total bases, 2,068 runs scored, two MVPs, and 24 All-Star games despite missing nearly two full seasons serving in the Korean War. There were also 12 Gold Gloves even though the award wasn't even handed out his first five seasons in the majors.

Willie Mays of the San Francisco Giants in 1961
In this April 30, 1961, photo, San Francisco Giants star outfielder Willie Mays proudly displays four baseballs representing the four homers he hit against the Milwaukee Braves — tying the record of four homers in a single game held by nine other major league players at the time.  DVN / AP

But it was his joy that truly was infectious and inspiring, whether it was on the streets of Harlem where he famously played stick ball games with local kids before heading to the nearby Polo Grounds for his real job with the Giants or at the ballparks around the National League.

"You wanted to play like Willie and make those catches that he did," Yankees slugger Aaron Judge said. "The numbers he put up on the field and what he did are impressive but him as a person and him as a human being is even bigger. He was bigger than baseball. He was something special and the baseball world is definitely going to be missing a great one."

His greatness is best described by the reverence his contemporaries had for him.

"He played the game as if he was the only one out there," Hall of Famer Ernie Banks once said. "His eyes would light up. His energy would kick in and he'd be ready to go. I had the privilege of watching and playing against a great talent.

"He played so hard, it inspired me to get out there every game. I couldn't wait to play the Giants and watch him."

Willie Mays autographing baseballs in 1956
Willie Mays takes up the task of autographing baseballs in the New York Giants dressing room after their game with Milwaukee was called because of rain on Sept. 16, 1956.  AP Photo/John Lindsay

As a baseball-loving kid, President Biden says he was inspired too. "Like so many others in my neighborhood and around the country, when I played Little League, I wanted to play centerfield because of Willie Mays," Mr. Biden said in a statement Wednesday. "It was a rite of passage to practice his basket catches, daring steals, and command at the plate – only to be told by coaches to cut it out because no one can do what Willie Mays could do."

Mays' ability to inspire went far beyond the baseball field. He was born in 1931 in segregated Alabama, began his professional career in the Negro Leagues and became one of the early Black stars in baseball and the first Black player in the majors to be captain of his team.

But he also endured racism from his time in the minors in the previously all-white Interstate League and in San Francisco when he and his wife were initially rejected when they tried to buy a house in an exclusive neighborhood.

But later in life, he became almost universally loved.

"It's because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for president," President Barack Obama said when he gave Mays the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

In his statement, President Biden said of Mays, "He not only entertained, above all, he inspired millions of people of all races to help break through the color line of sports, and to break through the conscience of the Nation. ... On this day, we remember Willie Mays as part of the long-line of Black patriots who have helped us see a better version of ourselves as Americans and as a Nation."

Mays played his career when baseball truly was the American pastime and baseball's best players were the biggest stars in all of American sports.

He was honored in song from Terry Cashman's "Talkin' Baseball (Willie, Mickey & The Duke)" that remembered the great New York center fielders of the 1950s with Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider to the 1955 classic by The Treniers: "Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song") that perfectly encapsulated his style:

"He runs the bases like a choo-choo train

Swings around second like an aeroplane

His cap flies off when he passes third

And he heads home like an eagle bird."

San Francisco Giants legend Willie Mays dies at age 93 09:00
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