If you’re taking care of old business every week, then it must be Flashback Friday at Faith and Fear in Flushing.
Monday marked the 35th anniversary of Willie Mays’ debut as a New York Met. And the 35th anniversary of Willie Mays’ homecoming as a New York baseball immortal.
The two events were not coincidental.
The Mets weren’t picking up any old part-time OF/1B on May 11, 1972 and inserting him into the lineup against the San Francisco Giants to see what he had left — a home run to beat his former team right off the bat — three days hence. This wasn’t Julio Franco deeded a roster spot on egg whites, intangibles and the occasional pinch-hit. And by the same token, these weren’t the Houston Astros or Chicago White Sox or any random might-be contender making a potentially shrewd move to shore up its bench.
This was Willie Freaking Mays. This was the best player who ever played baseball maybe. Certainly in the discussion. They’ve been playing professional baseball since 1869. Think about that.
Willie Mays is one of the best players, possibly the best player, in a sport for which records and recollections have been kept and studied and obsessed upon for about 140 years. More than 16,000 men have been classified as major leaguers. If you were conducting a countdown of the greatest of the greatest, you’d discard all but a few fingers’ worth before attempting to properly appraise Willie Mays.
Willie Mays played in the National League because there wasn’t a higher league available. Willie Mays is in the Baseball Hall of Fame because there isn’t a more hallowed place to commemorate him. There is nobody alive, save perhaps for Henry Aaron, who has a plaque in Cooperstown who would accurately tell you he belongs on the same level as Willie Mays. Nobody.
Willie Mays played in two cities for two franchises. One franchise that represents one city chooses to acknowledge its history with Willie Mays by according him its highest honor, the retirement of his uniform number. One franchise that represents one city chooses not to.
The New York Mets…repeat…the NEW YORK Mets have abandoned a sacred civic responsibility. They have treated Willie Mays’ tenure as a New York Met and, just as importantly, the greatest baseball player to wear a New York uniform in National League play as a footnote for most of the past 35 years.
This treatment should end immediately. Willie Mays’ number should be retired by the New York Mets.
What’s that? He wasn’t the Willie Mays when he was a Met? I beg to differ. I am moved to this conclusion not only by my sterling memories of what it meant to watch Willie take Don Carrithers deep upon his return but also by a passage from a mid-’80s history of NBC’s Saturday Night, written by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. They explain that one of the least internally loved programs of SNL‘s glory days was the episode hosted by Milton Berle, long a comedy icon, by 1979 something of a has-been who had not received the memo he was no longer the Texaco star of stars:
Berle’s chief defender during the week was John Belushi, no mean mugger himself. Belushi worshipped Berle and repeatedly berated the writers for letting his idol down. “What a great man he is,” Belushi said, “and you guys are writing shit for this great man!”
I am John Belushi where Willie Mays the New York Met is concerned.
Go ahead. Tell me he hit .238 in 135 games in 1972 and 1973. Tell me that his 44 Met runs batted in place him four behind Keith Miller and nobody’s pumping for the retirement of 25, so why should we retire 24?
Tell me more. Tell me he fell down in centerfield in the World Series. Tell me he was a pet of Mrs. Payson’s, that he put Yogi Berra in an uncomfortable position, that his presence all but ended Tommie Agee’s career.
Tell me he was only a Met for two years.
I’ll tell you on most of that that I don’t care. Except for the last part. That I care about a great deal. Willie Mays was a Met for two years. Only two years? How about only two years more than he was anything else except a Giant? And that before he was packed up and off to San Francisco by a bumbling, probably inebriated Horace Stoneham that he was a New York Giant. That he was a New York treasure. That the reason he was back in New York for presumably good on May 14, 1972 was because it was universally recognized that nobody had ever touched the New York National League fan or graced a New York National League diamond like Willie Mays did between 1951 and 1957.
Roger Angell, in his brilliant brief history of the New York Giants for Holiday magazine in 1958:
Baseball writing is a language of superlatives, but the word “exciting” should be reserved for Mays alone. He is the most exciting player I have ever seen, even when he is only running down to first on an infield grounder…He is only twenty-six, and so far in the big leagues he has won titles for hitting, for homers, for slugging, for triples, and for stolen bases. I only hope they cherish him in California, even when he pops up in the eighth inning with a teammate on base. That happens, they should understand, because the Giants are almost always two runs behind in the eighth, so Willie has to try to put one into the seats. We’re going to miss him back here.
It’s not hindsight to suggest Willie Mays was the antenna atop the Empire State Building in his first go-round in New York. It was the Willie of the ’50s that established Willie Mays then and forever. He certainly burnished his immortality in San Francisco before Stoneham accepted cash and Charlie Williams to let him go, but he was a done deal as an immortal here, in New York, in a National League uniform from which the Mets co-opted half their team colors.
You can’t say that about Richie Ashburn or Warren Spahn, other Hall of Famers who stopped by to say hi as Mets. It’s not the same. The Mets don’t have to retire 33 for Eddie Murray just because he’s in Cooperstown. This is not about Cooperstown. It’s about something more. It’s about Willie Freaking Mays.
What a sensation it was in 1972 to have him here. To see the greatest ballplayer in the game in a Mets uniform…at nine years old I was stunned. I didn’t know about the New York background except what I learned on the fly. That this was considered the right thing to do made his appearance in orange and blue that much sweeter. That he uncorked a flair for the dramatics on the occasion of our reacquaintance, hitting the home run that made the difference in a 5-4 win over San Francisco made him a Met in my eyes and sealed his New York birthright.
Y’know, if the Mets, amid handing him several going-away prizes on the night of September 25, 1973, had favored him with a uniform top and said “no New York Met will ever wear Number 24 again,” nobody would have blinked. Nobody would have argued against it based on his relatively brief stint with the club. Nobody would have brought up his batting average. He was Willie Mays. He was New York. He was the New York Mets as much as any player was those two years to those of us who watched in awe as we became schooled in the Giants-Mets connection. Nobody blinked after 1976 when the Brewers honored Henry Aaron that way, retiring 44, not because he’d been much of a Milwaukee Brewer in the 1970s but because he’d been so much a Milwaukee Brave in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Henry came home after his detour to Atlanta. Henry is still at home in Milwaukee in a manner of speaking. He works for the Braves and the new owners there are going to increase his role but they make a fuss over him in Wisconsin. As they should. As should the Mets of New York over Willie Mays. But they don’t.
I don’t know why, not really. Is it the famous Wilponian Dodger obsession? Is it Willie’s occasional quirkiness that some have called surliness? His departure under idiotic circumstances (he was a greeter for Bally’s and was suspended from baseball while he was a come-and-go Mets coach)? His recapture by Peter Magowan and the Giants? I’m not asking the new stadium be named for him, just that he have a bit of acknowledgement inside it.
Besides, who wears 24 for us? Nobody. Nobody could without a really compelling backstory. Two Mets have been issued the digits since 1973: Kelvin Torve in 1990 (accidentally, it was admitted, and he was switched out of them quickly) and Rickey Henderson in 1999 and 2000. Henderson will go to the HOF in a couple of years if he doesn’t unretire his body as he’s reportedly seriously considering, but it’s only the same Hall that Mays is in in name. Rickey was a great. Willie is an immortal. Besides, Rickey, his Wild Card contributions notwithstanding, did not establish himself in New York. If Rickey wants to come back as a Spring Training instructor, let him wear a windbreaker (or let Willie sign off on a Cooperstown exemption). Notice that except for Rickey’s St. Lucie cameos, nobody’s worn 24 these past seven seasons.
Corey Ragsdale of Binghamton, Greg Mullens of Savannah and Geofrank Parra of Venezuela are all Mets minor leaguers listed as 24 on their respective rosters. They can not wear 24 any longer. That’s absurd. No Met minor leaguer wears 37, 14, 41 or 42. None should wear 24. Unless he’s Willie Mays.
Nobody is, but he remains the standard. Willie hasn’t played for 34 years but when you want to describe a megatool outfielder, who do you invoke? Not long ago, an unnamed scout quoted in the Post compared young Carlos Gomez to Willie Mays. Carlos Gomez plays now, just got here. Willie Mays played long ago. He’s still here, in the baseball mindset. It should be made official that he was here, in New York, with us.
Does Keith Hernandez deserve the honor of having his number retired? I think so. Does Gary Carter? Maybe. Darryl Strawberry? Dwight Gooden? Mike Piazza? Tug McGraw? And if Tug’s 45 is taken out of circulation, what of the 45 worn by John Franco? And if Piazza’s 31 goes, does it go for Franco, too? And wait a sec, how about Pedro Martinez? What does he wear? And Gary’s 8 was Yogi’s. What do you do there? And what about Davey Johnson?
Great questions. We debate them endlessly. I truly believe that if I wanted to generate oodles of comments on a slow day, I’d just run this headline…
Retire Numbers? My Cable Company Sucks More Than the Yankees
…because those are the three topics that always get Metsopotamians going. At this moment, though, I’m not interested in retiring 17 (though they should have done that long ago) or any of the others. I’m interested in taking care of 24. I can’t get Willie’s homecoming out of my head. It’s 35 years later and it’s still breathtaking. The greatest New Yorker, albeit by way of Alabama, comes home and plays the hero. The greatest New Yorker says goodbye to America as a Met because he was a Giant and thus forever links two glorious chapters of National League history. Willie’s on deck for the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff. Willie’s speaking to a crowd that’s Gotta Believe.
There have been 812 Mets in 46 seasons. There have been two who deserve to be called baseball immortals. One is Tom Seaver. One is Willie Mays. There is no defensible way either of their numbers could be worn again by New York Mets. There is nobody like them. We can only hope we have one or two right now who will join them under that umbrella, but right now the umbrella covers just Seaver and Mays. Seaver’s 41 is retired. Mays’ 24, for all it means to baseball and meant in this city, deserves to be.
I wish somebody who makes these decisions would understand that which is self-evident.
Next Friday: Way on the other side of the Hudson to the No. 6 song of all-time.