I apologize for sounding like a carnival barker, but please sign up at secondacts.bulletin.com/subscribe to get free posts delivered to your inbox each week and read past articles. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
This is a story about a boy and his childhood hero. The boy is, or more accurately I suppose was me. My hero was Willie Mays, the baseball legend and arguably (and it would be a lively argument) the greatest to ever play the game.
A handful of players hit more career home runs than Mays's 660. Many more had a higher career batting average than his .301. There were probably better defensive outfielders, though not a lot. And what an arm he had! He could throw a baseball like some ancient deity hurling lightning bolts. No one, but no one, could do it all as well as, nor with the athletic flair and balletic grace of Number 24.
But this is not a story about baseball or sports. Not exactly. It's about a child and a hero. It's about the importance of heroes to children, and about what becomes of a hero in the eyes of a child when that child grows up.
I became a baseball fan when I was so young I can't even remember when it began. Maybe 4 or 5, which functionally means all my life. I was born in San Francisco and until I was 7, my family lived in Oakland, California. There was no Oakland baseball team then. The A's still played in Kansas City in those days (they would move to Oakland in 1968). So my baseball allegiance went to the San Francisco Giants. The first baseball game I ever went to was at Seals Stadium, an ancient minor league ballpark that was not far from the gleaming structure where the Giants now play.
Like probably most young Giants fans, my favorite player almost automatically Mays, then at the peak of what would be a long arcing peak of his career. It was not part of my conscious consideration at the time, but looking back, I think it mattered too in that pre-civil Rights Movement era that Mays a Black man. In those years, there were no strong Black figures on popular TV, in fact, none I can think of. There were no Black movie stars. Only a few prominent Black public officials, and, in any case, none I would have known of. Muhammad Ali would become that icon, but he wouldn't come along for several more years. And, even then, boxing wasn't baseball, which was by far the most popular spectator sport in America.
When my family moved to Los Angeles, my older brother, Keith, happily transferred his baseball loyalty to the Dodgers. I remained militantly faithful to the Giants. And even Keith's new allegiance, baffling to me, did not dim his fealty to Mays.
When I started playing Little League baseball, I tried mightily to imitate Mays's batting stance, the left foot closer to the plate, right foot pulled back, poised in a coiled, closed stance. It felt cool to emulate my hero, but it had no practical value. I wasn't a very good hitter.
Somehow my dad got to know Mays. My father was a doctor, a dermatologist, and I think Mays went to another doctor in the Bay Area who had been a medical school classmate of my dad's. Whatever it was, the connection was made.
One Saturday afternoon when I was about 10, my dad put Keith and me in the family car and drove over to the Ambassador Hotel. We took the elevator up to a floor, went to a door, knocked and were let in. Willie Mays, dressed in a bathrobe, was lounging on the king sized bed. It was like being ushered into the private sanctum of God himself. My dad introduced us to Mr. Mays, then pulled up a chair and they started talking.
As I recall, the Giants were playing the Dodgers that same evening, so Mays had the day free. I stared and stared at the man laying casually atop the bedspread. It was thrilling, but also a little scary. It's far less intimidating to worship a hero from afar. Being here, in person with the great man himself, was almost more than I could stand and yet I wanted this time to never end.
At some point, I must have noticed the television was on. The NBC national baseball game of the week was playing. The game of the week was a big deal in those pre-cable days. It was a rare chance to watch a baseball game other than the handful between the Dodgers and Giants which were the only ones broadcast locally.
During a break between innings, I heard the announcer Curt Gowdy say: "Next week's game of the week will be the San Francisco Giants, with the great Willie Mays playing (I don't remember who).”
I looked from the TV to Willie Mays and back and forth a few times. He was engrossed in conversation with my dad, seemingly oblivious.
I remember thinking: "They're talking about him on television ... right now ... and he doesn't even notice or care."
To me, that was the epitome of being cool. To be so self-assured, so comfortably detached that the effusive accolades being uttered on television about you were no more worthy of notice than a beer commercial.
I must have floated out of the room when we left.
Over the next few years, I would see the Giants play in L.A. many times. Mays was something to see. When he came to bat, there was electricity in the air, even in Dodger Stadium. I loved his signature “basket catch.” When an easy fly ball was hit to him in center field, Mays would position his glove face up at belt level, like a basket, as the ball traced its arc through the sky and then dropped snugly into his possession. This wasn't just sport. This was art.
Several times, Mays came to visit at our home. Before settling down to adult talk, he would toss a baseball with us or shoot hoops in the driveway. The photo below shows me (skinny kid on the far right), my brother and a few friends shooting baskets with Mays, resplendent in a pastel yellow dress shirt and tie.
On another occasion, at someone else's home, playing catch with Mays, he tossed a curveball that bent like a bow. Willie Mays could throw a curve! Who knew? Now I knew. Another time, he casually handed me one of his gloves, a glove he has actually played with. It might as well have been a diamond. Years later, when my parents moved houses, they put a lot of their things in storage including the glove. It was never seen again, which to this day still upsets me.
When I was 17, I went off to college back East. It was hard to follow a West Coast team in those days because they played so late. You didn't know anything about it until the next day. But my interests had shifted anyway away from baseball to college, girls, partying, politics, a million other things. I was only dimly aware that Mays's career was winding down. The Giants traded him to the New York Mets in 1972. I saw a photo of him at age 42 stumbling around in the outfield down trying to catch a fly ball. It was sad. I wondered: Why did he not have the sense and self-respect to retire before humiliating himself like this?
Mays did retire after the 1973 season and became a Mets special coach for several years.
In 1981, the Yankees were in the World Series. My mother suggested I call Mays to see if he could help me get tickets. She gave me his phone number.
I called him. He was very nice, said, yes, he could get tickets. He'd call me back.
I never heard from him.
A couple of months ago, I was writing a Bulletin article about the 70th anniversary of Bobby Thomson's dramatic 9th inning home run that beat the Brooklyn Dodgers, sending the New York Giants to the World Series (they lost to the Yankees). Willie Mays, then a 20-year-old rookie, had been on-deck when Thompson tomahawked a Ralph Branca fastball into the left field stands, the fabled "Shot Heard Round The World." I wanted to get Mays's recollections of that moment. He was now 90 years old.
A sports journalist friend was able to get an email address for Mays's friend/executive assistant. I wrote to her, asking if he was available for an interview. I mentioned that he had known my dad and that I'd known him a little when I was a child. I attached the basketball photo from our front yard.
The assistant replied very kindly but firmly that he was not doing interviews. She went on, "He remembers your father and the fact that he 'messed around' with 'you kids.' What memories and reflections YOU must have!! Pretty heady stuff for a little kid, playing pick-up basketball with Willie Mays! The memories of those days must be wondrous. What times you must have had!!"
I just looked up the word "hero" via Google. It says a hero is "a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities."
Then I wondered: do we outgrow our childhood heroes? When do we become aware that even our heroes are, in fact, imperfect, flawed human beings like everyone else? "Buffalo Bill's defunct," wrote the poet e.e. cummings. When and why do we cast off our heroes, sometimes even turn against them, as if they had somehow tricked us into believing in them? Why do we need heroes? And who are the authentic ones in our lives?
For many years, I gave up on having heroes. I guess I thought that's what it means to be an adult, just as a child who stops believing in Santa scorns it as "little kid stuff."
In 1991, my father died very suddenly. He was just 74. His death haunted me for a long time. I would dream about him, sometimes so vividly that when I awoke I was stunned to realize it had not been real. In time, a long time, it came to me. I'd had another hero all along, all my life. I had somehow missed it. Maybe because I had been looking in the wrong direction. I idolized and idealized Willie Mays. I cherish the memory of the purity and innocence of that devotion. But in middle age, I finally figured it out. My real hero, my lasting hero, was not the great baseball player lounging on the bed at the Ambassador Hotel. He was the man sitting in the chair talking to him.
Cover photo credit: Getty Images