Today is Willie Mays’s birthday. He is now the oldest living member of baseball’s Hall of Fame. Many of his contemporaries have died in recent years, so it’s wonderful that Willie is still around at age ninety to remind us of the golden era of baseball.
In his prime, there wasn’t a more exciting player than Mays. He could do it all on a baseball field, plus he had the flair of an entertainer. He didn’t just make the routine catch while playing centerfield for the Giants, it was always his trademark basket catch. His glove would be set at his waist, facing skyward, waiting for the fly ball to drop into his hands. He made the game of baseball his art. Willie Mays was Picasso on the grass.
It was in the mid-1960s that I was allowed to go to Wrigley Field without a parent. The trip from my north suburban home was easy; just two short train rides. All games were played in the day time. You would leave your house at around noon and be back home in time for dinner. The Cubs and Wrigley Field were my mother’s baby sitting service.
It was a great time for a young boy to see major league baseball. Besides the freedom of being away from your parents, there were so many legendary players. Henry Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax and, of course, Willie Mays.
One summer afternoon, a bunch of the guys decide to head to Wrigley to see the Cubs play the San Francisco Giants. For many of us, it was the first time we were able to see Willie Mays play in person. I have no idea what the score of the game was, I only remember that we were in awe of the greatness of Mays.
After the game, we decided to try to get some player autographs. We waited for the Giants to come out of their locker room and get on their team bus to head to their downtown hotel. The first man out is Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal. Remember his high leg kick delivery? We got his signature before he got on the bus. Next came another Hall of Famer, big Willie McCovey. Number 44! Stretch! We got his autograph, too. Finally, here comes the man everyone is waiting for….the Say Hey Kid…number 24…Willie Mays.
But, Willie isn’t stopping to sign autographs. He’s also not getting on the team bus. Willie starts running east down Addison Street.
I’m not giving up. There has to be a way to get to Willie. My thought was Willie was thirty-something years old. I’m twelve or thirteen. A kid my age has to be able to outrun an old man. So, I start running, too. I’m in a foot race down Addison Street with Willie Mays.
Imagine my disillusionment and despair when Willie widens the gap between us. After a block of running, I could barely see him. After another block, he was long gone. I slinked back to my friends without Willie Mays autograph.
That day wasn’t the only time I saw Willie Mays play, but it is the one I remember the most. I’m sure there were other days where he played better. There were other days where I did get his autograph. But, like so many other things in life, the first time is the one that sticks in your memory.
So happy birthday, Willie. I hope it was a great celebration. I wish you as many more birthdays as you want. Here’s to you continuing to run down Addison Street. I’m sure that even now I wouldn’t be able to catch you.