New York Mets acquire OF/1B Willie Mays for P Charlie Williams
I was just a lil’ boy when the New York Mets acquired Willie Mays from the San Francisco Giants to bring him back to New York for the end of his majestic, Hall of Fame career.
“Willie Mays was the best all around center fielder I ever saw play the game. Period. End of story.”
That’s what my 73 year old father told me recently as we talked about baseball over a cup of coffee and cocoa on a snowy day after Christmas in Western Pennsylvania where he was born and raised before moving to metropolitan NYC in 1961.
Willie was acquired by the Mets on May 11, 1972 for pitcher Charlie Williams, who, in a twist of irony, was born in Flushing, New York – - the only Met to ever be born in Flushing.
Willie Mays may well have been, arguably, the greatest center fielder to ever play the game. Many who saw him play, including my own father, even say he was the best all around player.
My Dad, who loves Stan Musial, said he thought ‘Stan the Man’ might have been better, but sipping slowly and after some reflection, he said, “that’s hogwash”. His own memories had been skewed by the bias of favoritism and time. Stan Musial was great, but Willie Mays was the best. That’s the beauty of baseball…we all have our favorites and opinions…
Willie was well past his prime when he was dealt to the Mets. Horace Stoneham, owner of the Giants, who had moved the Giants to San Francisco when the Dodgers left Brooklyn for LA at the end of the ‘57 season, was running into financial problems in the early seventies, and the Mets, owned by Mrs. Joan Payson, loved Mays. It was a perfect match. So, Willie came back to New York in exchange for Charlie Williams. (It’s a wonder Stoneham didn’t try to obtain more from the Mets. No doubt he tried.)
In his first game as Met, on May 14th 1972, Willie was penciled into the lineup leading off and playing first base against, you guessed it, the San Francisco Giants at Shea Stadium. Willie walked and scored on a Rusty Staub grand slam in the first inning off Giant pitcher Sam McDowell.
After the Giants rallied to tie the score off Met starter Ray Sadecki, Willie came to the plate against Giant reliever Don Carrithers in the bottom of the 5th and proceeded to hit a game winning home run. The Mets won 5-4. As Casey Stengel would have said, “Amazin’ Amazin’ Amazin‘ ”!!!
Over the ensuing 1 ½ years Willie Mays became a leader on that Met team and helped the team to the ‘73 pennant. He was a shadow of his former self as a player, but was always a threat because of his ability and flair for the dramatic.
He commanded the respect of everyone that played, and opposing managers never wanted him batting in tight games as a pinch hitter.
There are many recollections from Mays’ fans. As for me, I remember a weeping Mays on his tired knees begging the home plate umpire to call Bud Harrelson safe in Game 2 of the 1973 World Series. As a young boy, I was in awe, asking my dad why Willie was crying. To this day, I recall looking back in the chair as I sat on his lap, to see my father with tears on his cheek. It left an indelible impression on me, as I’ve only seen my father cry on few occasions in my whole life. Two of those after his parents passed and once more after my mom’s father passed away.
I asked my father this past day after Christmas, why he cried that day, and he told me,
“Son, it was one of the more poignant moments I’ve ever seen. A grown man, who’d accomplished so much, and had been one of the best, with Father Time galloping away with his skills, on his knees pleading for the chance to go out a champion”.
Ultimately, the Mets lost that series, and Willie his chance to go out a champion. The opportunity absconded by a bad managerial decision, an injury to his teammate Rusty Staub, and Father Time…How sad…What could have been…
After having a 3-2 lead The Mets were in a position to bring home their second World Series triumph in four years. Alas, upon returning to Oakland, Met manager Yogi Berra decided to bypass George Stone to pitch Tom Seaver on short rest. A decision that has left many Met fans befuddled to this day.
Willie went on to be a coach for the Mets from ‘74-’79, ending his tenure and affiliation with the club as a hitting instructor in 1979.
Then Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, in one of the more foolish decisions he ever made, suspended both Willie and Mickey Mantle in ’79 for being associated with casinos’ in Atlantic City NJ. Neither of them endorsed gambling, they were just trying to make extra money through endorsement deals as greeters to customers. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, realizing the foolish decision made by Kuhn, rescinded the suspensions in 1985.
So, on this new year 2010, for those who can’t remember, I implore you to go to your elders and ask them to share their thoughts on the “Say Hey Kid”.
And never forget that Willie Mays, arguably the greatest to ever play the game, was a New York Met, if only for a brief moment in time…