Willie Mays is one of the few actual superheroes to ever grace the world. Oh sure, he didn’t save nations or halt moral turpitude, but he inspired fans of the game in ways that no player had ever done before or since.
Maybe it was the emergence of national TV broadcasts at just the right time when he was in his prime. Maybe it was that he seemed to be in his prime for 20 years. Whatever the reason, he captured hearts and minds of just about every baseball fan of his time.
Last Monday, Mays met with Kevin Pillar in the clubhouse and went over how to maintain a fielding glove. Look at this picture of Pillar — he’s been a Giant for just a few weeks, talking to a former player whose last game in the field was played 16 years before he was born, and he looks to be completely in awe.
"It’s so cool to be able to say that Willie Mays put my glove on. Willie Mays’ hand was in my glove." --@KPILLAR4— San Francisco Giants (@SFGiants) May 5, 2019
Kevin Pillar met Willie Mays on Monday: https://t.co/ya2VRMFubC#SFGiants pic.twitter.com/zjm995txR6
This is the people’s champion carrying that energy with him wherever he goes through all of time.
Since I never got to see him play and only got to look at the highlights and figure out who he is based on the public figure he is now, my main thought about his legacy, besides being the greatest Giant, is that his persona is such that he didn’t need other people to build his legend. He made it himself.
One thing I used to wonder was why pundits and talking heads don’t revere Mays the same way they did Hank Aaron or Babe Ruth and I think it just comes down to personality and distance. The elder sportswriters are passing off what their fathers and grandfathers told them about The Babe and Hank Aaron is just a quieter person. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it leaves more to the imagination, giving writers and people who cover the sport more room to editorialize or just fantasize. A legend passed through oral history and a quiet man can be whoever the writer wants them to be.
Willie Mays has always been who he is and it has left it up to us to decide what we think about him. I’ve often wondered why Willie Mays is the greatest baseball player of all time doesn’t have the same slight majority consensus that Mike Trout is the greatest baseball player on the planet right now does and it always seems odd to hear people who are paid to watch the game and know its history sometimes express mild surprise at the list of Mays’ accomplishments.
It seems pretty straightforward to me. Willie Mays is the best we’ve ever had. That won’t be the case forever, but there will never be another one like him and for that reason he’ll always have his own place in history. That’s all we ever need from a hero.
Happy Birthday, Willie Mays!