On this date in 1931, a black Alabama steelworker named after William Howard Taft and a young woman named Anna Sattlewhite had a son. The baby had good genes when it came to sports: The little boy's paternal grandfather, Walter Mays, had been a pitcher in local industrial leagues. His father was a semi-pro baseball player so quick in the field and on the bases that he was nicknamed "Kitty-Kat," later shortened to Cat. The baby's mother was a local track star and all-around athlete who led her Birmingham-area high school basketball team to three straight state championships.
They named their son after his father, William Howard Mays. The world would know him as Willie. He is now the oldest living ballplayer enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Most baseball aficionados would also describe Mays as "the greatest living ballplayer," an unofficial title that Joe DiMaggio clung to, probably long after it ceased being true.
Today, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, the tributes have come pouring in. My favorite might be the story written by Associated Press sportswriter Fred Lief about the popular songs Mays has inspired. AP's headline: "Baseball's sweetest song: Willie Mays, forever young, is 90."
No one is literally forever young, however, and the unromantic realists among us will recall how Willie hung on too long and stumbled around in the outfield as a New York Met in his early 40s. Mays remembered it, too: "I remember that last season I played. I went home after a ballgame one day, lay down on my bed, and tears came to my eyes. How can you explain that? You cry because you love her. I cried, I guess, because I loved baseball and I knew I had to leave it."
But May 6 is a day for joyous memories of the "Say Hey Kid," and I'll pass along two of them in a moment. One is a personal recollection from Willie's days in San Francisco, the other a poignant observation from the New York Daily News's David Hinckley.
Willie Mays belongs to no one state, no one generation, no one race. Born, bred and taught to play baseball in Alabama, he came to fame in New York, and reached the pinnacle of stardom in San Francisco. Although he played for just over a month in the Giants' top farm club in Minneapolis, Mays quickly became such a presence there that Giants' owner Horace Stoneham apologized in a newspaper ad to fans there for robbing them of seeing the budding star in action.
As I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mays was the subject of hero worship to most of the kids I knew. He certainly was for me. I learned later that not all San Francisco real estate was open to prospective black homeowners in those days. But among Little Leaguers of my generation -- white, black, Hispanic, or Asian -- the man was our north star.
Mays himself was inspired first by his father, Cat Mays, who was also his close friend; by Satchel Paige and other luminaries he played with and against while a teenage star in the Negro Leagues; by Jackie Robinson, for obvious reasons; and by Joe DiMaggio, the player he patterned himself after. DiMaggio-Mays comparisons were a bit delicate, for several reasons, starting with race. Like Mickey Mantle, the closest Mays had to a real-time rival, DiMaggio played centerfield for the New York Yankees. From the mid-1930s, when DiMaggio broke in, to the late-1960s, when Mantle's star faded, the Yankees were a juggernaut that appeared in the World Series an amazing 22 times, winning 16 championships. Mays played in only three World Series, winning one ring. So there was that. On the other hand, Mays' combination of power, speed, fielding, throwing, and hitting was unmatched. The prototypical "five-tool player," he made the summer All-Star Game his personal showcase.
I can make the case that Willie Mays was the best all-around player in history. Others can plausibly argue that that distinction belongs to Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds or Henry Aaron -- with Ken Griffey and Mike Trout entering the conversation. By some modern metrics of measuring ballplayers' performance, Mays doesn't come out ahead of Mantle. Those are fun conversations, but subjective ones, no matter what the analytics gurus claim. So I'll put it this way: I certainly believe Willie Mays was the best all-around player I ever saw, and I've been watching baseball for a long time. And that's not solely my opinion.
Years ago, at the National Press Club, I had a chance to talk to Larry Doby, the second African American ballplayer to break the color line -- and the first black player in the American League. Even though I was then a reporter in my 30s, I was briefly transported back in time and posed a kid's question, not a journalist's.
"Who was the best player you ever played with?"
"Willie Mays," he replied softly. "He was the best I ever saw."
According to my father -- I was too young to remember it -- the first time I saw Mays play, I became upset by fans giving Mays a hard time for something. How could anyone say anything bad about him? This was sacrilege, a view I expressed aloud. Hearing my lament, a man seated in the row ahead turned around to look at us.
"I'm Matt Carberry, sheriff of San Francisco," the man said to my father.
"I know who you are, Mr. Carberry," Dad replied.
Carberry, who knew Mays, looked at me and said, "Would he like to meet Willie?"
As Lou Cannon recalled, "He might as well have asked if you wanted to meet God."
So the sheriff took me down to the dugout, something unlikely to happen at a major league game today. Trained to be respectful, I put out my hand for Mays to shake, which he did, adding a smile and some friendly words. Riding home in the car afterward, I was uncharacteristically silent, and remained so when we arrived at the house. I only spoke when my mother told me perfunctorily to wash up for dinner.
"Are you kidding?" I said, casting an incredulous look at my mother while contemplating the hand that had touched Willie Mays. "I'm never washing this hand again in my life!"
A decade earlier, when 20-year-old Willie Mays was boarding with a family in Harlem while a rookie with the New York Giants, neighborhood kids got to do more than shake Willie's hand: He'd come home from a day game at the Polo Grounds and play stickball with boys in the street.
Or sometimes in the morning before a game. Think on that for a moment. New York newspaperman David Hinckley did and here's what he came up with:
"If you were a 14-year-old New York kid in the summer of 1931, you couldn't just round up some of your musical pals, knock on Irving Berlin's window and have Irv come out and write a few songs with you. If you were a 14-year-old aspiring vocalist in the summer of 1941, you couldn't just grab a couple of tenors, knock on Frank Sinatra's window and have Frank come join you for a round of harmony. If you were a 14-year-old kid in the summer of 1951, you couldn't just knock on Willie Mays' window at 9 o'clock in the morning and have Willie come out and play an hour of stickball with you. Well, actually, you could."
Sometimes, those games were followed by a trip to the soda shop where Mays would treat. Can you imagine? Hinckley noted that on Aug. 30, 1951, Willie hit two home runs in one game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at the Polo Grounds, then showered, went to his Harlem boardinghouse and homered in a stickball game later that day.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Mays!
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.