Here’s the whole story about Willie Mays. But be prepared, because it’s a tale filled with drama and suspense. Okay, no it isn’t. Actually, it’s filled with stupidity and hurt feelings. And a sense of relief that caller-ID wasn’t yet available.
Willie was a baseball player, if you didn’t know. One of the greatest, in a game that tosses that word around in much the same way it shovels money into the pockets of owners, agents, and third-basemen. He started his career in New York in 1951, and ended it there twenty-two years later. In between was a fifteen-year detour out to Candlestick Park in San Francisco, but we can pretty much ignore that part. His nickname, from his earliest days in the majors, was the Say Hey Kid.
My favorite player was Mickey Mantle, outfielder for the New York Yankees. Willie and Mickey had begun their careers at the same time and at about the same age. But by the mid-1960s, Mickey was in a steady decline, while Willie was still at the top of his game. Like a fool, I got into frequent debates about who was the better player. Somewhere in my mind, I knew the truth. Plagued by injuries and dragged down by heavy drinking, Mickey retired before the decade was out.
In 1972, the Mets finished third in their division. But the big story was that, through a surprise trade with the Giants, Willie Mays was returning to New York, and joining the team. Now approaching the end of his career, he was there to boost attendance, which would help the Mets see more revenue and allow Willie to play in front of bigger crowds at home games. He’d already hit 646 home runs, and would add fourteen more before he was through – and this long before anyone had figured out how to inject muscle power directly into the arteries. He deserved the attention.
Retiring after the 1973 season, Willie kept his New York residence and stayed with the team as a hitting instructor. He also continued to strive for a balance between his status as a baseball legend and his strong desire for personal privacy. I’d gone to a few games while he was with the Mets, but I can’t say we’d really crossed paths.
I was a twenty-year-old, still in college, and working as a volunteer for the Leukemia Society of America. One of our activities was an annual marathon softball game. Held at a Little League field, it began at seven o’clock in the morning and ran until ten at night. In order to participate, we had to get people to sponsor us, pledging a specific amount for every inning played. We also accepted flat donations from spectators. As one of the organizers, I wondered: wouldn’t a celebrity attract more people, and more money? It seemed to work for car dealerships.
“I have the unlisted number for Willie Mays.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly, but then she said it again. My sister-in-law worked for the phone company. She was offering to help me contact somebody guaranteed to pack the bleachers with celebrity-mad potential donors! I also considered what it would mean to be able to say I was the one who got Willie Mays to come to our little game. That wasn’t what mattered, obviously. But still.
“You’d give me his number?” I asked. This is the beginning of the stupidity part. She said she would, as long as I didn’t tell anyone where I’d gotten it.
I looked at the piece of paper and realized it was a combination of his uniform number, with the digits just repeated. What a coincidence, I thought. Later that afternoon, I slipped away from the family, went into my parents’ bedroom, and quietly closed the door. After, nine or ten false starts, I dialed the number and waited. It rang a few times. Then I heard his voice.
It was Willie Mays. For some reason, I was surprised that when he answered the telephone, he said hello. That was how I answered the phone, too! We already seemed to have a lot in common.
I started to speak. “Mr. Mays…” That was weird, I knew, but to address him as “Willie” so early in our friendship would have been presumptuous. “I’m calling because I was wondering if you might consider appearing at a marathon softball game for the Leuk…”
“How did you get this number?” He sounded unhappy to hear from me.
With my brain doing cartwheels inside my skull, I began to explain that someone I knew worked for the telephone company, and then tried to switch over to my pitch about raising money for leukemia research. He wasn’t interested. He said he’d find out who gave me his unlisted number and have that person fired. Then he hung up. I hung up, too, but only after fifteen seconds of stunned silence.
“What a jerk,” I thought. But I couldn’t decide if the jerk was him or me. Looking back, I now realize that I had invaded his privacy, just as telemarketers disrupt mine on a daily basis. I didn’t know – and never considered – what might have been going on in his life at the moment I called. Maybe he wasn’t feeling well, or was in the middle of an argument with his wife. Maybe he’d just received some bad news, or had smashed his knee against the coffee table as he reached for the phone. All I knew was that Willie Mays had hung up on me, and that he probably wasn’t coming to the softball game. And that my sister-in-law might lose her job.
A couple of weeks later, I sent a letter to the Mets, asking that they forward it to one of their newest players. His name was Mickey. He’d been traded earlier that season, and he, too, was nearing the end of his career. Mickey Lolich had been an excellent pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. He’d even hit a home run in the 1968 World Series – an unusual accomplishment for a pitcher, and something Willie had never done. He answered my letter, and said that he’d try to come.
At the end of September, on a cloudy Saturday evening, a big man in a leather jacket rode his motorcycle to a small field in Congers, New York. He played a couple of innings, signed autographs, then rode back off into the night. It was a memorable thing to stand at home plate, holding a bat and facing a major league pitcher. I even managed to hit a home run off Mickey Lolich. True, he was throwing underhand, and he was dressed in street clothes and boots. And the fences were at Little League dimensions. But it was still a fine ending to a story that had begun with stupidity and hurt feelings. I’d had enough drama and suspense to last me for a while.
And say hey, one more thing: Nobody got fired.
* * * * *
Willie Mays was such an incredible fielder that he once made a play in the 1954 World Series that is still known simply as The Catch.