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WooSox Remember Willie Mays

June 21, 2024

Willie Mays––one of the greatest all-around players to ever play the game of baseball––passed away on June 18, 2024. He was 93. Known as the “Say Hey Kid”, Mays amassed 660 home runs, 3,293 hits, 2,068 runs, and 1,909 RBIs throughout his legendary career. The baseball icon was a 24x

Willie Mays––one of the greatest all-around players to ever play the game of baseball––passed away on June 18, 2024. He was 93.

Known as the “Say Hey Kid”, Mays amassed 660 home runs, 3,293 hits, 2,068 runs, and 1,909 RBIs throughout his legendary career. The baseball icon was a 24x All-Star, 2x MVP, 12x Gold Glove recipient, Rookie of the Year, and 1954 World Series champion with the New York Giants.

Off the field, the Godfather of Centerfielders was well decorated. Mays served in the US Army during the Korean War and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barak Obama in 2015.

Mays was a transcendent player, remembered for his remarkable blend of offensive talent and other-worldly defensive ability. His most impressive play, known simply as “The Catch”, occurred during the first game of the 1954 World Series at the Polo Grounds.

On Thursday, Mays’ San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals played in the first MLB game at Rickwood Field––the oldest ballpark in the United States and the site of the final Negro Leagues World Series in 1948. The game celebrated the Negro Leagues and now, the life and legacy of Willie Mays.

Born just outside Birmingham, Alabama, Mays began his professional playing career with his hometown Birmingham Black Barons at the age of 17. The team shared Rickwood Field with the all-white Birmingham Barons––who were a minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox between 1948-1952.

Just one year after Jackie Robinson broke the color line on April 15, 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Red Sox scout George Digby went to see Willie Mays play.

Spending more than 60 years with the Red Sox––and half a century as a scout––Digby was responsible for most of the United States’ southern region. He helped the Red Sox sign well-over 50 players during his career, with the most famous being Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs.

On a trip to Birmingham to see the Red Sox affiliate, a friend of his told him he had to see Mays play. In a conversation with the Society for American Baseball Research, Digby recounted the story:

“I went and looked at Willie Mays play, and I said, ‘Well, this guy’s got a lot of ability.’ He was a skinny kid at that time, but he could do everything. So, I went to the general manager of the Birmingham Black Barons, and said to him, ‘How much would you want for Willie Mays?’ And he said $4,000. So, I told our people what I could get [him for], but they didn’t want to break the color line. The Phillies and the Red Sox were the last to break the color line. And they didn’t want Willie Mays and you know what Willie Mays turned out to be.”

The chance of signing Willie Mays is possibly one of the greatest what-ifs in Red Sox––and baseball––history. If Mays had signed with the Red Sox, the team could have assembled an outfield featuring Mays and Ted Williams. With two of the most prominent hitters to ever play the game, maybe it wouldn’t have taken 84 years to win the World Series.

WooSox President Dr. Charles A. Steinberg is a baseball legend in his own right, being part of the Red Sox first World Series victory since the Curse of the Bambino in 2004 while winning three other World Series championships (1983, 2007, 2013).

Before returning to the Red Sox in 2012, Steinberg spent five years working in Commissioner Bud Selig’s office on several programs. One of the initiatives was the Civil Rights Game––an annual event that occurred from 2007-2015 to honor the history of civil rights in America.

In 2010, Steinberg and Selig were at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati for that year’s game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds. The WooSox President vividly remembers encountering Mays––along with two other all-time greats––before the event.

“Here’s this scene where I’m standing with Bud Selig, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays,” Steinberg said. “You stop hearing the conversation because your mind is shouting to you, ‘Oh my goodness, I cannot believe I am standing next to these three players while standing with the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.’”

For someone who has spent his entire career in baseball, it has become almost normal for Steinberg to stand alongside the greatest figures to ever step foot on a baseball diamond. But, in this instance, the Baltimore native found himself starstruck to be in the presence of the Say Hey Kid.

“If I were to try and recall what the conversation was, I couldn’t do it,” the WooSox President continued. “I can’t tell you that I remember what Willie Mays said. I just remember feeling like I was 10 years old with trembling knees, standing in a circle of five people where I am clearly the answer to the question ‘What is wrong with this picture?’”

It is difficult to quantify the magnitude of standing near a living legend. How can you, when there are few people in the history of baseball that transcend the fabric of life. Babe Ruth. Jackie Robinson. Ted Williams. Nolan Ryan. Mickey Mantle. Cy Young. Ken Griffey Jr.

And, of course, Willie Mays.

The Say Hey Kid was one of the first showmen––inspiring generations of ballplayers with his energy, charisma, and passion for the game. His story is immortalized with the best that baseball has ever seen, and his memory will live on forever.

“I think he helped teach generations of players that it was cool to be happy, that it was cool to have fun, it was cool to play with exuberance,” Steinberg said. “I think we see more of that today...He played with a joie de vie––I think baseball owes him a debt of gratitude. Not only for being fabulous and a champion and one of the greatest players ever, but he did a lot to teach you how to play baseball.”

Before their matchup with the Columbus Clippers on June 19, the WooSox remembered Mays by playing “Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)” and showing The Catch on the videoboard. Afterwards, a moment of silence was held for the Say Hey Kid.