Loss of Mays leaves Giants heartbroken in Chicago

June 19th, 2024

The Giants took the field at Wrigley Field with heavy hearts on Tuesday night, when franchise icon died at 93, two days before the club was slated to travel to his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., to play a special regular-season game in his honor.

San Francisco manager Bob Melvin, who grew up in the Bay Area idolizing Mays, learned of the news prior to the club’s 5-2 loss to the Cubs, though many players didn’t find out until they saw the Cubs pay tribute to Mays in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s game. A photo of Mays was displayed on both video boards as fans in Chicago cheered the man who is widely regarded as the best all-around player in baseball history.

“It’s heavy hearts, not only for the Bay Area and New York, where he started, but the baseball world,” Melvin said. “This is one of the true icons of the game.”

The Hall of Famer’s passing is expected to add even more emotional heft to Thursday’s “MLB at Rickwood Field: A Tribute to the Negro Leagues,” which will take place at the same place where a teenage Mays began his professional baseball career with the Negro Leagues’ Birmingham Black Barons in 1948.

“It really [stinks] that it happened two days before we’re playing at Rickwood Field,” Giants right-hander Logan Webb said. “But we’re going to play in his honor. Willie is the Giant, right? He is the guy. We’re going to play for him.”

Mays was a transcendent star who spent 21 of his 23 Major League seasons with the Giants, serving as the most prominent link between the New York and San Francisco eras. “The Say Hey Kid” won two National League MVP Awards, appeared in 24 All-Star Games and captured 12 Gold Glove Awards while captivating generations of baseball fans over his iconic career. The epitome of a five-tool player, Mays hit .301 with 660 home runs, 1,909 RBIs and 3,293 hits and holds the all-time record for putouts by an outfielder with 7,108.

He was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015, making him only the fourth baseball player to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor.

“I am beyond devastated and overcome with emotion,” wrote Mays’ godson, fellow Giants great Barry Bonds, on Instagram. “I have no words to describe what you mean to me – you helped shape me to be who I am today. Thank you for being my Godfather and always being there. Give my dad a hug for me. Rest in peace Willie, I love you forever. #SayHey.”

Even after he retired following the 1973 campaign, Mays remained synonymous with the Giants, who immortalized him with a bronze statue in front of Oracle Park, located at 24 Willie Mays Plaza. Before he began to deal with health issues that restricted his mobility in recent years, Mays was a frequent guest in the Giants’ clubhouse, often taking time to chat with players before games.

“Obviously, really sad news,” Giants right fielder Mike Yastrzemski said. “We know that Willie lived a great life. I was fortunate enough to meet him and have some great conversations with him. I’m just praying for his family and everybody that had a relationship with him. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s a life to be celebrated, that’s for sure.”

Yastrzemski said his favorite memory of Mays was when the baseball legend told him he “had no business” playing right field when he was first called up by the Giants in 2019. Mays thought Yastrzemski should have been playing center field instead – high praise coming from someone who made perhaps the most famous defensive play of all time, an over-the-shoulder catch to rob Cleveland’s Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series at the Polo Grounds.

“It’s about as good of a compliment as you can get,” Yastrzemski said. “The things that he did, we’ll never see again. I truly believe that. He was such a talented player, and he played the game as purely as anybody could. I’m glad there was film for it, because it’s something that is going to be watched and studied for the rest of time.”

Like Melvin, Giants pitching coach Bryan Price grew up watching Mays throughout his childhood in the Bay Area and vividly remembers the pain of losing the Giants’ superstar to the Mets in 1972. He finally got a chance to meet Mays when then-Reds manager Dusty Baker facilitated an introduction in the late 2000s and still cherishes the photo he has of that indelible encounter.

“These are the moments you never forget, being around someone you grew up admiring,” Price said. “He’s the type of player you could never really use as a role model to say, ‘Hey, I want to be the next Willie Mays,’ because you already knew that there was no one that was going to ever reach that level. It was an unattainable level of play and ambassadorship for the game and love and spirit of baseball. No one connects the Bay Area to baseball more than Willie Mays.

“The loss in and of itself is huge. That being said, we were blessed to have him for 93 years. I think most Giants fans, as much as we mourn the loss, we’ll be able to celebrate the fact that we had him for so long.”