Saying Goodbye to the GOAT

My first baseball glove resembled a pillow more than a modern day baseball glove. It was a hand-me-down my aunt gave me. When I first saw it, my face fell. I couldn’t hide my disappointment. My dad—my aunt’s brother—thanked her for the gift. He seemed genuinely appreciative, which meant to me that I was stuck with this twenty- or thirty-year-old relic of days gone by.

On the way home from my aunt’s, we made a detour. Dad pulled up in front of Hayden’s Sporting Goods and we went inside. For a kid who loved sports, being in Hayden’s felt like I had died and gone to heaven. There were so many things to look at, so many things to touch. We made our way to the baseball aisle. The display of baseball gloves was like a work of art. And the smell of fresh leather was intoxicating.

My friend Kevin’s dad worked at Hayden’s and he showed us some of the gloves they had for sale. The first few were too big or too expensive. Then he showed us a baseball glove that, at that young age, became the love of my life. It was a light tan, Wilson Sporting Goods Willie Mays model glove. As my dad talked to Kevin’s, I held the glove to my face and took in the aroma. It smelled like baseball.

Kevin’s dad showed us how to break in the glove by placing a softball, not a baseball, in it and tie it up with rubber bands. He showed us how to oil it to keep the leather soft and supple.

On the way home, I held the glove in my arms like it was a newborn. We followed the directions we had been given to break it in, and then I waited. I wanted to take it outside, to show my friends, but Dad said I couldn’t take it out until the breaking-in process was complete. I don’t remember how long it took, but to me, it seemed like an eternity.

I remember getting up from watching TV to check on the glove. I don’t know what I thought might happen to it. I just wanted to see it. I checked on the glove before I went to bed, but I couldn’t stand the thought of being away from it, so I slept with it next to me in the bed. It was the most important possession I had in my life. It stayed that way for years.

Naturally, I had heard of Willie Mays, but since I now owned a Willie Mays model glove, I put in the effort to learn who Willie Mays really was. I saw him play against the Cubs occasionally on WGN and I saw his highlights on This Week in Baseball with Mel Allen. I read about him in Sports Illustrated and Sport Magazine. 

I once read a story about when Willie was first called up to the majors. He had originally played in the Negro Leagues with the Birmingham Black Barons, but had been signed by the New York Giants and assigned to their minor league team in Minneapolis. Willie was hitting great in Minneapolis, so Leo Durocher, the manger of the Giants, called him up to the big league team.

Willie didn’t think he was ready for the big leagues, and he said that to his manager. Durocher disagreed, and Willie proceeded to get just 1 hit in his first 26 at-bats, for a batting average of .038.

“I told you,,” Willie said to Durocher. “I can’t hit the curveball.”

“I don’t care,” Durocher said. “As long as I’m the manager of the Giants, you’re my centerfielder.”

That’s all Willie needed to hear. He didn’t have to worry about being sent back to the minors, and within three weeks his batting average had risen to .322. Turns out he could hit the curveball.

Willie had a presence about him, a grace that I admired. Even at the end of his career, when his body was betraying him and he was performing more out of habit than ability, other players seemed to have a reverence for him. They held him on a pedestal even when his performance no longer deserved it.

For years, I have heard the debates over who was the best baseball player to ever live. There are arguments for Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, even Barry Bonds, but none of those arguments have ever convinced me that anyone was better than Willie Mays. He was a great hitter who hit for average and power, a great fielder with a great arm, and he was a great base runner. Others may have been better at one of those things, but no one was as good as him at all of them.

The great Willie Mays died yesterday at the age of 93. He ended his career 50 years ago, which means that he stopped playing when I was just 14 years old. In one sense, it’s sad that in 50 years, I have not seen a better baseball player than Willie Mays. On the other hand, neither has anyone else.

RIP, Willie. Thanks for being such a wonderful part of my childhood.


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