Mets retire Willie Mays' No. 24 during Old Timers' Day

Club fulfills pact made 50 years ago: 'This was the time to keep that promise'

August 28th, 2022

NEW YORK -- For 50 years, the promise hung hollow, unfulfilled, leading many to believe the situation would never change. As the story goes, when original Mets owner Joan Payson traded for Willie Mays in the twilight of his career in 1972, she promised him he would be the last Mets player to wear No. 24. Acquiring Mays was important to Payson, who had built the Mets into the hollow space vacated by the Giants -- the team for which Mays would always be best-known. Bringing him back to New York meant bringing him home.

Three years later, Payson died. Mays had already retired following two unspectacular seasons with the Mets, and the franchise was entering a decades-long period of either ignoring its history or, in some cases, outright spurning it. Payson’s promise went largely forgotten. Three other Mets players wore No. 24, including Robinson Canó as recently as this season. A new generation of Mets fans began populating Shea Stadium and Citi Field, never having seen Mays play and feeling ambivalent about the idea of his number retirement.

For all those reasons, it seemed a dead issue until Saturday, when the Mets made a surprise announcement during Old-Timers’ Day that they were retiring Mays’ number. Because the 91-year-old Mays was recovering from a hip replacement, his son Michael traveled to Queens to represent him. A sold-out crowd received the news with an ovation. In a statement, Mays wrote: “I want to thank Steve and Alex Cohen for making this day possible and embracing Mets history.”

“Ms. Payson and my dad had such an amazing relationship,” Michael Mays added. “Her promises to him were important. So to come to fruition like this, something undone is done.”

In his two seasons with the Mets, Mays played a small role, but an impactful one. He hit his 660th and final home run with the franchise and delivered multiple RBI singles during the 1973 postseason, including one in National League Championship Series Game 5 and another in World Series Game 2. The Mets won both.

Cleon Jones, a teammate during Mays’ two years in Flushing, described the more intangible inspiration the Hall of Famer provided -- frequently taking the field despite badly swollen knees, for instance, or sprinting in from center field to back up even the most routine of plays.

“No disrespect to Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider, Hank Aaron, Clemente -- no disrespect,” Jones said, "but nobody could do all the things that Willie could do to win a game.”

As Jones spoke those words, various faces from other eras of franchise history filed into the press conference room at Citi Field, having just played in the first Mets Old Timers’ Day in more than a quarter century. They spoke openly of the team’s recent shift to embrace its history, coinciding largely with Cohen’s purchase of the Mets in late 2020. Former World Series MVP Ray Knight went as far as to criticize the previous ownership regime in explicit terms, before thanking Cohen for inviting him back into the family.

“This organization is totally different than it was when I was here,” Knight said.

The evidence was apparent in Mays’ number retirement. Under Cohen’s stewardship, and through the work of alumni relations head Jay Horwitz, the Mets have strived to undo the indolence of their past. Seven retired numbers now hang from the upper deck, three of those rising in the last two years alone. The Mets recently held a Hall of Fame induction and added more members to their Hall committee. Horwitz tracked down 65 former players and four managers to attend Saturday’s festivities. The managers, who account for more than a third of the franchise’s wins, joined Buck Showalter at the podium for his pregame press conference.

Other elements of Old Timers’ Day were lighthearted: Kevin Elster faceplanting in pursuit of a popup; Al Leiter playfully throwing behind Mike Piazza; Cliff Floyd strapping a video camera to his helmet and lacing a single; manager Bobby Valentine jogging out to the field wearing his infamous fake mustache. Participants ranged in age from 35-year-old catcher Josh Thole to 79-year-old pitcher Steve Dillon, who faced two batters. Several non-playing invitees were even older, including nonagenarian and original Met Frank Thomas. It all made for one of the most memorable days in recent franchise history, without even accounting for Mays.

“I’m not sure that we could have recreated this experience today over the next several years,” team president Sandy Alderson said in explanation of the decision to retire No. 24 on Saturday.

Going forward, Mets officials are undecided about making Old Timers’ Day an annual event, but whatever they choose, a greater trust now exists between the team and its fans that franchise history will remain central. Alderson defined that history as something that goes back further than the players who took the field Saturday, back into the earliest days of the franchise and the circumstances surrounding its birth. Back to Payson, Mays and a pact worth restoring.

“There has been a 50-year gap, if you will, between a promise made and a promise kept,” Alderson said. “We felt that on this occasion today, in light of all the players we had here, all the generations, that this was the time to keep that promise.”