Tim Barto: So long to the Say Hey Kid

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'The Catch' by Willie Mays. Photo credit: Wikipedia

By TIM BARTO

“It was Willie, Mickey and the Duke, Say hey, say hey, say hey”

~ “Talkin’ Baseball,” a song by Terry Cashman

One of the all-time great baseball players passed away Tuesday. Willie Mays, who roamed centerfield for 23 seasons with the New York/San Franciso Giants and the New York Mets died at age 93. 

Starting his professional career in the Negro Leagues, then earning Rookie of the Year honors in his first season in the Majors, followed up by two years of service in the U.S. Army. Upon his return, Mays became a perennial All-Star, winning two Most Valuable Player awards and a World Series championship. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.

Mays earned the nickname “The Say Hey Kid” because as a rookie he had difficulty remembering peoples’ names, so he would simply say, “Say Hey” when someone recognized him. It caught on and became part of baseball lore for one of the best five-tool players to don a uniform.

A five-tool player is a rare commodity. It means a player has 1) good fielding skills and 2) a strong throwing arm, and can 3) hit for average, 4) hit for power, and 5) run the bases well.

Willie Mays was a the perfect example of a five-tool player; so much so that many fans consider him the best all-around player the game has ever seen. 

As a teenager, my teammate Jim idolized Willie Mays; so, of course I would always tell him that he was probably the third-best centerfielder of all-time, right behind Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. This wasn’t said because I necessarily believed it (and most certainly not because I was a Yankees fan – I wasn’t), but because it rattled Jim’s cage and set him off on a tangent. And that – as with many a baseball argument – was the whole point. We’d argue back and forth, in between taking ground balls during freshman baseball practice, and I’d laugh . . . .until Jim threatened me with bodily harm. 

“Alright, alright. He was better than DiMaggio,” I would concede, “but not Mantle. Mickey wouldn’t have had to catch Vic Wertz flyball behind his back because he was fast enough to get in front of it.” This type of verbal heresy would cause Jim to respond with a flurry of expletives, much of which my naivete prevented me from understanding until I was an upperclassman.

Passionate and wholly unproveable debates are the prerogative of diehard baseball fans, and the ones over who was the best centerfielder or the best all-around player are the most fun. Ken Griffey Jr. is now added to that mix, and we older fans bristle at the audacity of young fans to challenge the sanctity of DiMaggio-Mantle-Mays debate. 

When I was a young boy in the late 1960s, my family moved from Ohio to the South Bay Area of California. I continued to root for Cincinnati, but the Giants played less than an hour’s drive north, so my Dad took us Candlestick Park to watch baseball (and to Oakland, across the bay, to watch the A’s). Even though Mays was in the twilight of his career, he was by far the most popular player and the face of the franchise. While most every team in the Major Leagues had a pink-skinned bobblehead representing their team, the Giants’ bobblehead had dark skin, and it was assumed that was an homage to Willie. 

In the summer of 1970, Mays was approaching 3,000 hits in his career. We went camping and, as usual, took a transistor radio with us so we could listen to games around the campsite. My big brother’s pretend favorite team, the Montreal Expos, were playing the Giants at home the day that Mays was sitting on 2,999. So engrossed in the moment, I hadn’t noticed that nearby campers caught wind of the broadcast and inched their way over to our site to listen in. When Mays punched the ball through for hit number 3,000, a cheer went up and it was only then that I noticed our camping neighbors were standing around listening.

After 21 and a half seasons with the Giants (in New York until 1957, and in San Franciso until 1972), Willie Mays was traded to the New York Mets. It was an attempt to allow him finish his career in the city in which it began, and it was an unpleasant experience, as Willie’s age began to show. He dropped flyballs and barely hit .200 in his final season, 1973. But the Mets won an improbable pennant, beating a far more talented Reds team in the National League playoffs to earn a trip to the World Series against the Oakland A’s. Willie, in a twist of irony, was returning to the Bay Area to finish out his career. 

My Dad purchased tickets to the Series as business perks, but allowed me to attend three games, including the game seven finale that would determine baseball’s champions. Late in the game, Mays came to the plate, and many fans (especially a star-struck eleven-year-old) figured this would be the great Willie Mays’ final at bat. He fouled off a pitch, and I recall thinking, “some lucky S.O.B. in the stands just caught a ball from Willie’s last at bat.” 

What a privilege is was to have seen in person one of the most talented baseball players ever (not as talented as Mickey Mantle, Jim, but pretty darn great). 

Tim Barto’s first love is baseball, and served as president and coach of the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks of the Alaska Baseball League. When not watching the Chinooks, he finds time to serve as vice president of Alaska Family Council. He wishes he still had that Willie Mays bobblehead from his youth.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Chicago’s Jack Brickhouse (Cubs & WSox) was hired for the WS and made the historic call in his iconic fashion, wondering if the catch might have appeared as an optical illusion to the fans. This all happened at the Polo Grounds, THE baseball field to be the measure of baseball weirdness — which is actually an asset of the game.

    Straight-away Center field was 483 feet, ending with steps into the Giants’ front office! Then 279 and 258 to the foul poles. Pop-gun range for Jr high players. And the “power alleys”? 450 & 449!

    And I thought the Dodgers playing at the LA Coliseum was weird! As originally configured in 1958, the Coliseum was only 250 feet to the left-field “screen”, which was 40 feet high. Deepest right-center field was 440 from the plate. Straightaway right field was a long ways away, too. It was barely 300 feet to the foul pole down the right-field line, but the fence extended out so quickly that it didn’t do the hitters any good. According to records, in 1958 only nine homers were hit in 77 games at the Coliseum.

  2. Thank Tim,
    Thanks for some childhood memories. I think Rolly Fingers was the pitcher in that A’s Mets game. I was 11 and my sister won $100 in the office pool, she was 8. Tony Gwynn was my player. RIP both of them

  3. Willie would wear a cap one size too big and then race out for a fly while letting the cap fly off his head.
    He did this to add entertainment & make his catches more exciting to fans, who he felt should be entertained.
    And entertain us he did!

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