'Thank you, Willie': Giants show up for Mays celebration of life

July 9th, 2024

SAN FRANCISCO -- Giants dignitaries past and present gathered at Oracle Park to honor the late, great , who was feted during a two-and-a-half-hour public celebration of life on Monday night.

Mays, who died on June 18 at age 93, received final military honors for serving in the United States Army during the Korean War, with two service members playing “Taps” before presenting his son, Michael, with an American flag.

Mays’ godson, Barry Bonds, and several other Giants alumni, including Juan Marichal -- the franchise’s last living Hall of Famer -- Felipe Alou, Dusty Baker and Joe Amalfitano were among those who gave speeches paying tribute to the “Say Hey Kid,” whose No. 24 served as a backdrop to the memorial service. Other baseball luminaries in attendance included Commissioner Rob Manfred and Hall of Famers Joe Torre, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Eckersley and Rickey Henderson.

Two former U.S. presidents even weighed in, with Bill Clinton making a surprise appearance and Barack Obama sending his thoughts via a video message.

“There’s never been a better representative of baseball’s magic than Willie Mays,” Manfred said. “He dominated the game in every way. He didn’t merely play, he captured imaginations. He never allowed his meticulous preparation to prevent him from showing the joy the game brought him. He inspired generations of players and fans.”

One of those fans was Clinton, who grew up rooting for the Cardinals and loved listening to baseball games on the radio during his childhood in Arkansas. Clinton remembers hearing “The Catch” -- Mays’ famous over-the-shoulder grab to rob Cleveland’s Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series at the Polo Grounds -- on the radio, though his admiration for the Giants legend only grew once he got to know him later in life.

When Clinton last visited the Giants’ waterfront ballpark in 2000, he hoped to impress his daughter, Chelsea, by watching a game alongside Mays, but those plans changed when the scheduled matchup was rained out. Still, Clinton ended up chatting with Mays, Barry and Bobby Bonds for three hours, which made him feel “like a kid in the candy store.” He and Mays also played golf together, with Clinton sharing that Mays beat him even with a set of golf clubs that was held together by masking tape.

“Willie Mays gave me the chance to realize what real greatness is,” Clinton said. “It’s a curious combination of intelligence, dedication, the will to win and a fundamental humility to believe that the effort is the prize -- a gift he leaves us all with and that I hope we can all share and cherish for the rest of our lives.”

Obama was too young to watch Mays play in his prime, but he credited Mays with helping to bridge racial divides with his greatness on the field, which spanned from coast to coast after the Giants relocated from New York to San Francisco in 1958.

“Willie’s popularity would change racial attitudes in a way that political speeches alone never could,” Obama said. “It made people reexamine how they viewed their fellow citizens and the imperative of true equality and helped pave the way for the civil rights revolution that would move us toward a more perfect union. Not many athletes can claim that kind of impact. In a very real sense, Willie Mays’ career was one of the foundation stones that ultimately allowed someone like me to even consider running for president of the United States.”

Obama presented Mays with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and also gave him a ride to the 2009 All-Star Game on Air Force One, which he described as “one of the greater joys of my life.”

“Let me tell you, as president, it was rare for me to be the second-most important guy on Air Force One,” Obama said. “But with Willie on board, it wasn’t even close. The flight attendants kept passing me by to ask, ‘Can I get you something else, Mr. Mays?’ As far as I was concerned, that’s exactly how it should have been. That’s who Willie Mays was from start to finish. A man who inspired admiration and affection without ever having to break a sweat. That’s why his influence lasted long after he played his last game. And that’s why those of us who were lucky enough to know him, the Say Hey Kid, will miss him so very, very much.”

Bonds’ voice broke as he thanked his godfather for giving him “forever memories” and treating him like “a second son” throughout his life. Bonds credited Mays and his father for teaching him everything he had to know about baseball, with most of those lessons coming on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at a golf course in Half Moon Bay.

“Thank you, Willie,” Bonds said. “Willie, 55 years ago, you put your arms around a 5-year-old boy and said, ‘Hey kid, you’re coming with me.’ And I knew at that moment what I wanted to be. That was a professional baseball player, like my father and Willie.”