COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The Mets assigned uniform No. 24 to Rickey Henderson in 1999, contrary to the wishes of Joan Payson, the matriarch of the franchise from 1962 until her death in 1975. At one point in the early '70s, Payson, once a minority shareholder of the New York Giants, promised the great Willie Mays that he would be the final Mets' No. 24.
Her promise was broken in 1990, when wholly unremarkable first baseman Kelvin Torve wore 24 for a few days, not long enough, evidently, for Mays to learn of the sacrilege. But Henderson was a bigger name, and a bigger fuss occurred in the spring of '99. Henderson had worn 35 with the A's, but changed to 24 and after moving to the Yankees in 1985.
He acknowledges now that he opted for 24 with the Yankees because Mays had worn 24 in the same city.
The fuss in Port St. Lucie faded after a few weeks, but Mays had not been heard from in that period. He was in Phoenix with the Giants. I called him 16 straight days, leaving a voice mail message each time. Finally, he responded. The phone in my condo rang late one afternoon. Mays spoke, unsure of himself:
"Marty. . .Noble? . . .Do I know you?"
I said: "Well, yeah, you should, I've been talking to your phone for two weeks."
I then explained that he I had covered him during his brief tenure with the Mets, and that I had introduced him at the 1995 New York baseball writers' dinner. It was the inaugural year of the "Willie, Mickey and the Duke" Award, which our chapter has presented annually to players forever linked in our memories. The three New York center fielders of the '50s were the first recipients.
Since then we've celebrated Spahn and Sain, Dent and Torre, Mookie and Billy Buck and, of course, Thomson and Branca. It's a cool award.
I had called Mays in November of 1994 to tell him of the award and to invite him to sit on the dais with Mickey, Duke and other baseball dignitaries. He was quite touched by the very notion of an award with his name on it.
"You know," he said, "my name's on nothin'. They got Cy Young's Award, that Babe Ruth League, that Sandy Koufax League, and a league for Musial and one for Mickey. They got an award named after Hank. But nothin' for Willie."
He accepted the invitation and spoke emotionally from the podium the night of the dinner. His gratitude was obvious, his pride had been effectively stroked.
So five years later, I could say -- "Yes, Willie, you do know me."
Willie returned to the dinner in 2011, wearing his Giants cap, savoring the Giants' World Series championship, sitting in the audience so he could be among the fans of the city that always had embraced him. I went to his table to welcome him. He chatted briefly before he was surrounded by people with pens, napkins, scraps of paper and cell phone cameras.
I met Mays -- by chance -- between the 1995 and 2011 dinners, and after the 1999 telephone calls. It was during Hall of Fame weekend. I was leaving breakfast at the Otesaga hotel. I passed a stairway, and there was Willie Mays, coming down from his room. He still was walking well and without assistance. Our eyes met, then he stared off into space for an instant. Then he greeted me:
"Aren't you the guy I don't know?"
"Yes, that's me," I said.
I had a second breakfast that morning, shared it with the greatest living player. Bacon and eggs, orange juice and wonder.
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With apologies to Mr. Cub
Gary Thorne, the emcee of the induction ceremonies, introduced Ernie Banks and played with Banks' signature phrase. Alternate wording: "Let's induct two."
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Anybody else notice?
Ron Santo wore No. 10 with the Cubs and in his one season with the White Sox.
Barry Larkin wore No. 11 with the Reds.
And each is a member of the HOF Class of '12.
The minutia note that comes with this realization is that Santo wore a number other than 10 in 1960, his rookie season. And Larkin wore a number other than 11 for his first two seasons, 1986 and 1987. In each case, the other number was 15.
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Ground control to Major. . .
Through the years, we have heard precious little from the lips of Lefty. Steve Carlton long ago put his personal embargo on dealing with the media. He seldom was impolite, he merely preferred that his half of a conversation be inaudible. For that and other more tangible reasons, Carlton earned a reputation for being "out there." Inquiries about him often began with, "To which planet do we send his mail?"
Tim McCarver's other half is less rigid these days. An exchange of pleasantries happened during an evening get-together in the Hall Saturday. An acknowledgement of his pending departure happened at the Otesaga bar later that night. And Sunday night when last call was about to disappoint those gathered at the bar, Lefty walked over to a small pack of people from the journalism business to bid us adieu. And, as he spoke, we conformed that his mailing address zip code must, in fact, have at least two dozen digits. He said: "You have to paint yourself into the future to make sure you get there."
No one argued with that. Then he seemingly identified what part of human intelligence he was expounding. He said: "Quantum entanglement."
And "good night to you too, Lefty."
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60 feet, six inches
We do not know, thank goodness, in which locale the tombstones of Carlton and McCarver will be. But the baseball world playfully recognizes that the two will be 60 feet, six inches apart after they're done with the work on this planet. The distance from the rubber to the plate is all that will separate Lefty from the man who became his personal catcher.
And at least once before that time comes, a similarly placed reunion will happen. The Phillies intend to salute McCarver's receipt of the Ford C. Frick Award on Aug. 11. They play the Cardinals at home that day. And the Cardinals, of course, were the other primary team in McCarver's career. Carlton pitched for both teams. Indeed, the two spent 12 seasons as two-city teammates.
Larry Shenk, the media relations director emeritus for the Phillies, thought up this one. McCarver will throw out the first pitch that day. And Carlton will be his catcher.
"I'm not sure the distance still will be 60 feet, six inches after I make my pitch," McCarver says. "Doesn't 55-five have sort of the same ring to it?"
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McCarver revels in sharing this anecdote. He was speaking at a dinner at which he was to introduce Carlton. He spoke of Ryan's fastball and the nose-to-toes curve of Koufax. They were the best he had seen. Then he mentioned the slider and said Carlton's was the best.
After the program, McCarver noticed his other Hall of Fame battery mate, Bob Gibson, urgently moving through the crowd. He needed to deliver a message to his friend. A simple correction is what it was: "Best left-handed slider," he said.
If the issue persists - and of course it does, but only for laughs -- McCarver should have been at the bar Sunday night. Gibson and Carlton, Sliders one and two -- though not necessarily in respective order, embracing. When Gibson turned to leave, the topic of sliders hadn't been mentioned. But he softly said, "Mine was better."
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com.