This happened in 1966 or 1967; I can’t recall exactly. I was nine or ten years old and living in suburban New York, but for some reason had decided that the San Francisco Giants were my team. I converted my friend Jonny to my new religion and we became hardcore fans, suffering through the Golden Bridesmaids Years of McCovey, Marichal and the deity himself, Willie Mays. We nagged our parents to take us to at least one Mets-Giants game a year. The first one was on my birthday in 1965, at which Mays hit his 17th homer of the month of August, setting an NL record for the month that still stands today. (Sosa tied it in 2001.) We were delirious. The Giants won, 8-3. The Giants won every game at Shea we went to -- they were good and the Mets blew chunks until ‘69. It was always a happy occasion to see a Mets-Giants game.
But one of our visits was unique. It turns out that Jonny’s dad knew someone who knew someone who knew Jim Davenport and, miraculously, it was arranged that we would be introduced to Mr. Davenport and allowed access to the Giants clubhouse before one of the games we attended. I wish I remember all of this better, but this is the best I can do: First of all, he couldn’t have been kinder. My recollection is that we met on the field during infield practice and he later took us into the clubhouse, but I must have that backwards because I distinctly remember the Giants players being in various states of undress while we were in the locker room with them. In any case, he shook our hands and spent plenty of time with us while we gawked at him and the rest of our heroes. Once we were ushered into the clubhouse he let us hang out with him at his locker. I remember that Jesus Alou had the locker next to Davenport’s. He smiled at us, but said little; I’m pretty sure his English wasn’t great. I remember being impressed by the rattiness of his underwear – I guess I expected all of the players to be immaculate from head to toe; instead, they were just a bunch of regular dudes getting ready to dismantle the Mets yet again. I saw Marichal hanging out alone at his locker. Jim Ray Hart was joking around with some guy I didn’t recognize. And there, sitting in the middle of the clubhouse in a white T-shirt, playing cards with three other guys, was Willie Mays.
It was intimidating. We were desperate to approach, but too awestruck to do so. Besides, he wasn’t exactly giving us an approachable vibe. Some of the players were outwardly friendly and/or curious about us, but Mays and the other card players were doing their own thing, absorbed in their game. They weren’t unfriendly, they just weren’t inviting.
Eventually, it was time to go. We got several of the guys to autograph our programs while we in the inner sanctum, but we struck out with Willie. By which I mean we never even got to the plate – we were just too reluctant and nervous about intruding on his world.
After walking us out, Davenport got ready to say goodbye to us, but he could tell that we were disappointed about something. "What’s the matter?" he asked. We mumbled something along the lines of "Oh God Willie Mays he was right there that’s so amazing but we never got to say hi or get an autograph or anything …" He nodded and said, "Let me see what I can do." Back into the clubhouse he went.
A few minutes later he emerged with two brand new baseballs, freshly autographed in red ink by Willie Mays. Not quite as awesome as meeting The Man himself would have been, but a very nice gesture by both Davenport and Mays, and one that we deeply appreciated. For weeks afterward, Jon and I told our friends about our amazing Giants adventure and showed off our Willie Mays baseballs.
I wish I could say I still have mine, but (say) hey, I was only nine or ten and had no real understanding of its worth or cosmic importance. One day later that summer a bunch of us were playing baseball and we needed a new ball. I never hesitated. To me, baseballs were meant to be used for the act of playing baseball, and I had a baseball we could use. We kids played on asphalt as well as grass, and it didn’t take long -- probably only a month or two – for the cover of my Willie Mays autographed ball to become soiled and scratched, to make the transition from brilliant white to sort-of-greenish to a sickening gray/brown. Scratches and small tears covered its surface, eating at Willie’s autograph until it ultimately disappeared completely. By the end of the summer the ball was useless as either sports equipment or totem, and I was completely unable to distinguish it from the rest of my scuffed up baseball collection. Besides, autumn was approaching and it was time for football.