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The Story of 24
“People judge you all kinds of ways. Let them say what they want. Be your own judge. Trust your heart.”
WILLIE MAYS WAS twenty-six years old and the most exciting player in baseball when the Giants moved from New York to their new home in 1958. San Francisco, however, was Joe DiMaggio’s town.
DiMaggio was a native son born to Sicilian immigrants who settled in the fishing community of Martinez before relocating across the bay to San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, where young Joe and his brothers played ball on the sandlots.
After emerging as a local legend with the San Francisco Seals of the old Pacific Coast League, especially amid his 61-game hit streak as an eighteen-year-old in 1933, DiMaggio became a New York Yankee, the heir to Babe Ruth, and hit in 56 straight games and won nine World Series. He played through 1951, the year Mays broke into the big leagues.
After the Giants arrived in San Francisco, DiMaggio’s celebrity didn’t vanish. Some locals welcomed the team but were unconvinced of Mays, who had earned his claim to fame in New York. That Mays played DiMaggio’s position in DiMaggio’s ballpark in DiMaggio’s town made it difficult to be accepted at first.
They didn’t know me. At that time, I felt they still wanted Joe to shine. He was from San Francisco and went on to play for the Yankees. They thought nobody else could play center field except him. That’s what I got out of it. I think sometimes they wanted somebody else to be the leader of the ballclub.
Mays was learning what Mickey Mantle had gone through in New York. Following the great DiMaggio is no easy task. But unlike Mantle, who was DiMaggio’s immediate successor on the Yankees, Mays appeared in San Francisco twenty-three years after DiMaggio last played for the Seals.
Still, a full generation later, Mays took the Seals Stadium field and wasn’t fully appreciated. As wacky as it now seems, there were boos. Not always. Not rampant. Not consistent. But boos nonetheless. There were media criticisms. Not because he wasn’t fantastic. Not because he wasn’t the best player on the field. But because he wasn’t DiMaggio, because he was the face of the franchise that displaced the beloved Seals, because there was hesitation to immediately adopt a New York star, because (at least for some) of his skin color.
And also because of Orlando Cepeda and other young players emerging from a rich and diverse minor-league system.
“Well, it’s because they billed him so high,” said Cepeda, who was named the National League’s top rookie with the 1958 Giants. “San Francisco had been a Triple-A town, not a big-league town. They had never seen Willie play every day. But when they saw Willie play every day and saw him do the things he could do on the field, things changed. Because the things Willie did on the field in those days, nobody else did. Still today, I don’t see players doing what Willie did.”
Cepeda was the toast of San Francisco, having never played with the Giants in New York. He was twenty years old when breaking in, just like Willie. It was a strange dynamic, not everyone quick to embrace Mays, but most cynics eventually came to their senses and welcomed his one-of-a-kind talent. Cynics who didn’t were ignored as contrarians who simply wanted attention.
Race was a factor, of course. Before his first season in San Francisco, Mays and his wife tried to buy a house in an upscale San Francisco neighborhood and were denied because they were African American. After a storm of publicity and intervention from the mayor, they eventually bought the house, but a year and a half later, someone threw a bottle through the front window with a hate note inside.
Apparently, it was okay for the great Mays to tirelessly represent the city and region and delight thousands of fans every night so long as he didn’t live in certain people’s neighborhoods.
“That was 1958 when he came to San Francisco, and 1958 was 1958. We’re past some things. We’re not past everything,” said Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, who grew up in Oakland and whose father took him to Giants games in those early years. “There were some writers who were critical and didn’t want to give Mays his due because he was from New York. I didn’t see DiMaggio play, but he was the golden boy of San Francisco. You’ve got to remember that. For a lot of people, Mays was the guy who was taking his spot.”
Mays didn’t see it that way. He had nothing against DiMaggio. In fact, as a kid growing up in Alabama, he idolized DiMaggio and wanted to emulate his all-around game.
I looked up to Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio. I read about them in the papers. They were on the front page all the time, all over the headlines, Stan the Man, the Splendid Splinter, Joltin’ Joe. Great outfielders, great ballplayers. This was before Jackie Robinson. I liked Joe and wanted to be like Joe, a guy who could do everything on a baseball field.
When I came out west in ’58, they always talked about Joe being the San Francisco guy. There was no other center fielder except Joe. I didn’t say anything or let it bother me. I just moved on and played. They didn’t know that Joe was my guy, too. In the ’51 World Series, he hit a home run, and I’m out there in center field clapping.
I don’t remember doing too many things wrong, but what am I doing out there clapping for this man? I had to catch myself. I always wondered why nobody took that picture.
Over time, most if not all of San Francisco warmed to Mays, and why not? He no longer was in a New York uniform or playing home games in the Polo Grounds. He was in his prime and fully dedicated to San Francisco, where he lived year-round and was active in the community. He was inspiring a game, a nation, and many a generation and being called the greatest all-around player in the history of baseball, an American icon, a treasure, a hero.
What’s not to love? Beyond the on-field athletic brilliance—no one was more gifted in so many areas or played with such artistic swagger—Mays, a major-leaguer just four years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers, was known for his personal strength and integrity. While sports in general and baseball in particular have been plagued by scandals over the years, Mays’ story is honorably refreshing. He gives his life to charitable causes, especially involving children and public safety, as a philanthropist through his Say Hey Foundation and other avenues, a calling that dates to his playing days—in 1971, he was the first recipient of what became known as the Roberto Clemente Award, a prestigious philanthropic honor named after the great ballplayer who died in a plane crash trying to aid victims of a Nicaragua earthquake.
Willie Mays’ number 24 was retired by the Giants, whose ballpark is at 24 Willie Mays Plaza. (San Francisco Giants)
“I didn’t dream about being president. I dreamed about being Willie Mays until I realized I couldn’t hit. The presidency thing was the farthest thing from my mind. Being a ballplayer wasn’t,” said former president George W. Bush, who grew up in a baseball family and owned the Texas Rangers before becoming governor of Texas and then president. “I was an aspiring young kid. I collected baseball cards. I was just a baseball guy. I loved the game. Still do. When friends of mine and I bought the Rangers, it was like living the dream to be involved with Major League Baseball at that level. So Willie in many ways cemented my love of baseball. He was aspirational for me. I didn’t know much about him other than the fact he was a great baseball player. And to think he came out of Alabama and battled his way through the segregation era and went into the Army, he’s a man of remarkable talents but also remarkable drive.”
Bush was born in the summer of 1946, as was former president Bill Clinton, the first two baby-boomer presidents, both with an early love and appreciation for baseball and both captivated by Mays, an immensely popular celebrity among the first generation that emerged after World War II. The country turned its attention to leisurely activities just as the Golden Age of baseball arrived, and Mays was at the forefront not just as the game’s premier overall player but the most entertaining.
Copyright © 2020 by Willie Mays and John Shea