He is the last one, not so much standing but sitting, at his own table, with his autograph in silver ink on the top. It is there Willie Mays holds court in the Giants’ spring training clubhouse, reflecting upon a past inextricably linked to the present.
Part of a trio, connected by greatness and proximity in the days when New York had three teams and baseball was all flannel uniforms and grace.
“Mickey, Willie and the Duke,” a lyric from “Talkin’ Baseball,” which evoked a Golden Age of the game in New York.
But Mickey Mantle died more than 15 years ago, and Duke Snider, “The Duke of Flatbush,” on Sunday at age 84. We are left with Mays, who took his talents to the city by the Bay and, like the other two, took his place in the Hall of Fame.
“We never had no rivalry between us,” Mays said the other afternoon when Snider’s passing was mentioned. “The three of us would talk among ourselves when we would all go to the All-Star Game.
“We used to kid each other. I would call up Mick, and say, ‘We got that little guy from Brooklyn [Snider] coming over.’ Mick says, ‘You go up to him and find out what he’s hitting, and when he tells you, I’ll say, ‘I don’t think so, Willie.’’ We’d laugh. The Duke was a really nice man.”
The laughter echoes. Mays will be 80 on May 6. He’s had physical problems, not unusual for someone about to enter his ninth decade, but looks good and offers, “I try to stay as healthy as I can.”
The authorized biography with James Hirsch, released a year ago, sold well and opened avenues into Mays’ life previously closed. After all, as he reminded, “I just don’t like talking about myself.”
So we will talk about him. Next month, it will be 50 years since Mays, then playing for the San Francisco Giants — who along with the Brooklyn Dodgers came west in 1958 — hit four home runs in a nine-inning game at Milwaukee.
“I should have had five,” Mays said, embellishing the statement with a smile. “Hank Aaron caught it going over the fence.” Well, of course. Who else but Aaron could stop Willie Mays?
“Those were good days for me,” recalls Willie.
These days he’s just as interested in the failings of Tiger Woods — “Why did he change his swing?” laments Mays — as his own successes.
“People now sometimes don’t know a lot of what I did,” said Mays. “I don’t like to brag about things. I just do it, especially with kids. I’m not a rich man, but if I can help them I will.”
He means financially, indigent families. It’s another kind of help Mays rarely gives. Unless asked, and young ballplayers, although all around him, hardly ask for advice or tips.
“If they don’t ask,” said Mays of the current Giants players, “I don’t bother them. I’m not going to go up to them [and] say anything, because I don’t know how they’re going to react. I played a long time ago. But I do know the game.”
Indeed. And we know we have treasure in Willie Mays, now very much one of a kind.
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.