Inside baseball

Willie Mays talks about stickball in Harlem, today's best players and his ban from the game.

Published July 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I got to see both sides of Willie Mays, the ebullient and the bitter, the generous and the forbidding, when I interviewed him before a Giants game in early June. He'd said no the first time I'd asked to speak with him, and then I pulled every string I had, asking Peter Magowan, Dusty Baker and Giants broadcaster Lon Simmons to intervene for me. It worked; he said OK -- and then stood me up, with no explanation, the first time we were scheduled to talk. But the next time he was there as promised.

There's an extra excitement in the Giants clubhouse when Mays is there. Visitors, Giants staff and even some of the players seem to get a kick out of it. I ran into Dusty Baker's 74-year-old father, Johnnie B. Baker Sr., outside the clubhouse, and he got excited when I told him I was there to see Mays. "Willie Mays is here? Where is he? I've got to say hello." The two men greeted one another warmly, but with a touching formality, as "Mr. Mays" and "Mr. Baker," the one awed by the star's celebrity, the other respectful of the older patriarch's seniority. They compared aches and pains, and the 68-year-old Mays shook his head, "Well, I have longevity. My daddy's still alive."

Mays signed some autographs for kids who happened to be hanging out, and then walked me into clubhouse manager Mike Murphy's tiny office, where I sat, tape recorder in my outstretched hand, and we talked when we weren't being interrupted by visitors. I asked how he felt about the title "greatest living baseball player," which Joe DiMaggio had reportedly demanded be used whenever he was introduced for public appearances.

"I don't know what Joe wanted, but I don't have a problem, if he wanted to do that. He was my hero. Joe was the best all-around player. Joe was the best. I only played against him once, in the '51 Series."

I ask what current players he would put in the same league as himself and DiMaggio, and he answers quickly: "There's only two guys you could put there: Griffey and Barry" -- Ken Griffey Jr. and Mays' godson, Barry Bonds -- "for all-around. A lot of guys put numbers on the board, but only those two do it all." He's equally unequivocal on the question of his best play ever: "The catch off Bobby Morgan in Brooklyn was the best catch I ever made. Jackie Robinson and Leo Durocher were the first people I saw when I opened my eyes. Jackie came out to see if I caught the ball. He was a very good competitor."

But he thinks it's silly to try to pick a best season. "I didn't think like that, about best seasons. What if you thought '97 was your best year -- what would you do now? I never looked back. I couldn't dwell on last year's season. I always looked forward. I never worried about what other people were doing -- except the guy I was playing against."

Then Giants broadcaster (and ESPN celebrity) Jon Miller popped his head in, mock-introducing himself to his old friend Mays, who deadpanned, "Hi, I'm Jim Brown."

While they bantered, I saw Mays' humor, and his legendary profanity, which he kept in check the rest of the time with a female reporter. Miller confided that he was known for his "Willie Mays stance" when he played Little League, and Mays, not believing that the portly broadcaster had ever picked up a bat, demanded the names of his teammates.

"I said I played Little League," Miller averred.

"I heard what the fuck you said," Mays came back. "I wanna know who played with you."

"Nobody," Miller confessed. "Nobody who was any good."

Miller relates that when he was in New York recently, he saw somebody filming a TV commercial with Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter playing stickball. Mays explodes in laughter: "Jeter don't know about no stickball, he never played in his whole life. He's a good ballplayer, but where's he from? Michigan? Maybe he plays hockey, but he don't know stickball."

I ask about his stickball-playing days as a rookie. "We played with a mop handle, cut the top off. The stick was small; the ball was small, too. We played it in Birmingham, we called it something else altogether, ragball or something. It was different, we threw the ball in the air. We'd steal mops, we'd cut them off. We'd play on 155th Street in Harlem, we'd play in between the cars. And if you hit it over the roof you were out." I ask why, and he cackles. "Because you'd lose the ball! You got to hit the ball for location.

"I played stickball in the morning, around 10, for about an hour. There was a bunch of kids. They'd come and knock on my window, 'cause my window was on the ground level. I could walk from where I lived down the street to the Polo Grounds. So I'd buy the kids ice cream, then go to the ballpark. I did that all year in '51, and in '52 till May, when I went into the military." I mention that manager Leo Durocher had problems with his stickball, and he smiles.

"Leo didn't want me to play there -- he didn't want me to get tired. But it was good for me, playing with the kids was good. That's how I learned to hit the breaking ball. Guys would bounce the ball to you, and you'd have to hit it, and sometimes it would bounce this way, that way. That's a breaking ball. I could hit anything that moved -- the change-up, breaking ball, curveball."

Mays is happiest reminiscing about great plays and games and players of years gone by. His hearing's going, but his memory for baseball detail is incredible. Miller tells a funny anecdote about a hit Mays got off Mets pitcher Jon Matlack, and Mays volunteers, "I remember that game! They beat us 7-1. It was a change-up; I could always hit the change-up." He recalls a legendary extra-inning doubleheader against the Mets and volunteers, "Galen Cisco pitched eight shutout innings, and then in the ninth gave up two runs," remembering like it was last year, instead of more than 30 years ago.

At that point manager Dusty Baker dropped in, apologized for interrupting, and told Mays that someone from the players' union had phoned to ask if Mays would host an awards ceremony that had in the past been graced by Hank Aaron and Joe DiMaggio.

"Why didn't they call me?" Mays demands.

Baker smiles. "He was afraid to call you."

"Tell him to pick up the damn phone," Mays retorts, then asks for the number.

And about a minute later, in walks Giants star Barry Bonds, (Mays played with Bonds' father, Bobby, in the Giants' outfield in the late 1960s and early '70s). They have a cryptic exchange; it seemed Mays was trying to put Bonds in touch with someone who'd pay him for an appearance. "Guy didn't call you?" Mays asks. "OK, I'll call him. I don't wanna hold you up. I'll let you know." The $10 million-a-year-superstar leaves, and his godfather shakes his head: "He's gotta earn some money? He needs money like he needs a hole in the head. Give me the money. Why'm I tryin' to get him fuckin' money?"

Then Miller says goodbye, mentions he's going to England for vacation when the season's over and jokingly invites Mays to come along. Mays says a quick no. "I ain't never been to Europe. I like it over here. What am I goin' over there for? What am I gonna do over there? It's cold in England." He notices Miller isn't wearing a jacket (you need one at Candlestick, even in June) and insists, "Where's your jacket? The Giants didn't give you a jacket? I'ma bring you a heavy jacket, Bally's is always givin' me jackets. You need a jacket."

When we get back to our conversation, I ask if he would like to have managed. He says no. "I didn't think I would be a good manager. Maybe I had too much expectations, I just felt I wouldn't be good at it, and I don't like to do anything I'm not good at. I know the game, but I don't think I could sit there day in and day out and watch baseball. Even when I was playing the game, I used to get up, come in the clubhouse, walk around. I couldn't watch it all. Maybe I was nervous."

Periodically Mays would lapse back and forth from past to present tense when talking about his playing days, which ended 26 years ago. Asked about his favorite manager, he insists, "I never had a favorite manager. I never had a manager that bothered me. As long as they leave me alone." I mention reading he'd feuded with Clyde King, the Giants manager in the late '60s who tried to make him bat leadoff, and he shrugs. "Clyde didn't bother me, he just was the type of guy who didn't tell me the truth. We just had problems, that's all.

"I got along with all of them. As long as they leave me alone out on the field. I could do things on the field a manager couldn't tell me to do, because a manager doesn't know what I can do -- sometimes I don't even know myself. Bill Rigney and I had a problem the first year. When a new manager comes in they have new ideas. When I talked to him I said, Bill, just leave me alone, and after four or five months, he did. And we would become very, very good friends."

But the conversation took a bad turn when I asked about the years he was banned from baseball, and it never righted itself.

"I wasn't out of baseball long. It was two years. Two years. It was short."

I acknowledge it was a brief period.

"Well, say it, then. Say what it was: Two years. I was only out a year and a half, really."

And the interview went south from there. When I tried to change the subject to happier times -- last year, when the Giants announced they would name the plaza outside their new ballpark "Willie Mays Plaza," and build a statue there in his honor -- Mays got even more ornery.

"Wouldn't it be moving for you if you had a statue put up of you? You wouldn't appreciate that? Anybody who'd have a statue put up about him, and don't appreciate it, then there's something wrong with the person. I'm kind of curious why you'd ask me a question like that. I'm having a statue built while I'm alive to see it, and I think it's tremendous."

It was a bad moment; in 20 years I've never had an interview turn so sour. I apologized to Mays for upsetting him, and wrapped up the interview.

"It don't matter. You'll write what you want to write. I'm just me, I'll be me from day one till the day that I'm gone. That's just me."

By Joan Walsh

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