May 5, 2016

Willie Mays "The Sey Hey Kid": The Mets Years (1972-1973)

In 1972 the Giants franchise was losing money, and owner Horace Stoneham was in debt. He would not be able to pay Mays' his big salary. So after negotiations with the Mets Willie was traded back to New York for pitcher Charlie Williams & $50,000.

At first he did not know all the details & was upset at the trade. He felt betrayed by the Giants organization after all his years of dedicated service. He felt a bit better after Stoneman tried to explain that it was done for Mays’ best interests as well as the team’s financial situation.

New York Mets owner Joan Payson was a huge fan of Willie and had tried to purchase his contract years earlier for one million dollars, but Stoneham refused the offer. The Mets gave Mays a ten year contract at $ 175,000 a year, and after retirement $50,000 for life. They also offered him a position as a coach upon his retirement.

Willie’s return to New York was surrounded excitement & fan fare. The fans & the media went wild with his return to the Big Apple. Mays was now forty years old, in the twilight of his career and no longer the superstar player he once was.

METS CAREER: The Say Hey Kid made his Mets debut on May 14h, Mother’s day 1972, batting leadoff & playing in centerfield against his former Giants team mates. In his first at bat he strutted to the plate to a huge Shea Stadium ovation & drawing a walk off Sudden Sam McDowell. As fate would have it, Willie hit what turned out to be the game-winning home run in the 5th inning off pitcher Don Carrithers. The Shea crowd went wild as he circled the bases in a dramatic heroes return.

His next start was May 18th against the Montreal Expos, although he went hitless, he walked & scored one of the two Mets runs in the 2-1 win.

Next he homered off Steve Carlton in the 8th inning at Veterans Stadium, a two run blast that also proved to be the 4-3 game winner. On that same road trip Mays had two more multi hit games at Wrigley Field. On May 25th, he singled in the top of the 14th inning in a 2-2 tie, driving in Wayne Garrett with the winning run. Amazingly in his first dozen games back in New York,  he drove in three game winning runs, had six hits & drew eleven walks.

As June began, he drew five walks in his first three games. On June 16th in a game at Cincinnati, Mays singled off Gary Nolan in the 7th inning tying the game at one. In the top of the 9th he was at bat when Reds pitcher Gary Nolan threw a wild pitch to score Bud Harrelson.

That month in 16 games played, he had eleven hits & drew 13 walks. On June 30th he hit a solo HR, against Tom Walker the Montreal Expos in a 7-3 Mets win.

In July he made his first trip back to the West Coast. In Los Angeles on July 20th, his 5th inning double off the Dodgers Al Downing, proved to be the winning run in a 2-1 Gary Gentry victory.

Then came his big return to San Francisco the next night. At first manager Yogi Berra announced Mays would not be playing in the first game. Mays approached Berra & told him he thought he should play, since the fans were awaiting his return. In his first at bat the fans cheered him & rooted for a hit. Old number 24 said it felt strange being in a visiting uniform in San Francisco, as well as having fans cheer for him exiting the visitors' dugout.

In his first two at bats he grounded out, but later in the 5th inning he hit a two run HR off pitcher Jim Barr. The two run HR put the Mets up 3-0, in yet another glorious Mays moment. Yes, the Bay Area crowd cheered for Willie once again, even though he was now on the visiting team.

When the Mets returned home, Mays had a  three hit night against the Expos on a July 29th, loss. On August 4th, Mays hit a 1st inning solo HR off the Cubs Ferguson Jenkins, then added two more RBIs later on leading Jim McAndrew to a 3-1 win.

On August 12th he helped Tom Seaver & the Mets to a 2-1 win at Wrigley Field, as he homered off Cubs pitcher Burt Hooton. Mays also hit two doubles & walked. He homered the next day as well,  once again off Ferguson Jenkins, in a 7-4 Mets loss. He then hit another later that week, for his final round tripper of the ’72 season #654.

Willie played well with the Mets that season, although the age was catching up with him. He felt manager Yogi Berra was using him too much and even took a short leave of absence without telling anyone.

In the month of August he hit four HRs & had six RBIs, including two three hit games. In the final month of the season , a tired Mays only played in seven games but did get six hits.

For the Mets that year he hit a respectable .267 with 52 hits 8 HRs 9 doubles 19 RBIs 43 walks & a .402 on base % in 69 games played. His on base percentage was the best on the club, he also had the teams second highest slugging % (.446%) behind Rusty Staub.

In the outfield he made just three errors in 113 chances with three assists & a .973 fielding %.

Willie felt the age catching up to him, in Spring Training 1973 he asked his old friend/coach Herman Franks to come down & take a look at him. Franks was convinced if he didn't get hurt, Mays could play well  enough for another year. He had trouble at some work outs as his legs tired easily & he'd have to tape them up. He had issues with manager Berra, not knowing if he was going to play that night or what outfield position he would play.

In the 1973 Mets pennant season, Willie served as a tutor to the younger players and played as a reserve outfielder behind Don Hahn in center.

In the second game of the season, he singled home the winning run in the bottom of the 9th off Philadelphia’s Dick Selma giving the Mets a dramatic 3-2 win over the Phillies. He hit under the .100 mark until the end of April, when he had three hits over a two game span in a series at Atlanta.

He only saw action in two games during the month of May. On June 5th in Cincinnati, he stole his last career base #338, it was the only base he’d steal on the season, this coming at age 41. It was stolen off the Reds backup catcher Bill Plummer, who was in that day for Hall of Famer Johnny Bench. On June 9th Mays hit a third inning HR against Al Downing, & the Los Angeles Dodgers to break a 2-2 tie at Shea Stadium. He also scored two runs that day as the Mets went on to win it 4-2.

In July, Mays had his best month, with 15 hits including a six game personal hit streak. He hit a pair of HRs with four doubles & eight RBIs in that month. He also had two pinch hits, playing in 18 games (64 at bats) overall that month.

On July 4th he hit a HR in Montreal, having his second straight two hit day. On July 15th he hit career HR #658 in Cincinnati. On July 17th Willie came to bat as a pinch hitter for Wayne Garrett in the top of the 9th inning with two men on in a game at Atlanta. Mays delivered with a two run single scoring Jim Beachump & Ted Martinez with the winning runs off Atlanta’s Tom House.

On August 3rd he hit HR #659 off St. Louis’ pitcher Diego Segui, a three run shot at Shea Stadium, helping the Mets to a 7-4 win.

On August 17th he hit his last career HR, #660, a solo shot off the Reds Don Gullet, also at Shea Stadium.

His last regular season career hit also came at Shea Stadium, on August 29th against the San Diego Padres, it was career hit #3283. He didn’t see much action during the Mets September stretch run for the NL East title, going 0-6 in only three early September games.

Willie Mays Night: On September 25th, 1973 a New York crowd of 54,000 turned out to say goodbye to Willie, on “Willie Mays Night” at Shea Stadium. With tears in his eyes, he told the crowd, “I look at those kids over there fighting to win and I know one thing …..Willie it’s time to say Goodbye to America”.

The Mets gave him a new car and many of his old NY Giants team mates came out to greet him. After the speech he broke down & shed tears. After all the great years it was tough to say goodbye. Before returning home to the Riverdale section of the Bronx where he was living, Mrs. Payson convinced him to stay at the ballpark with the guys to make it easier.

In his final season, he only batted .211 with 44 hits in 209 at bats, 6 HRs 10 doubles 27 walks &25 RBIs. As the Mets celebrated their NL Eastern title at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Mays was doused with champagne by his young team mates as he went out a winner.

Post Season: Willie made his first appearance on the field as part of a peace contingent who went out to left field after the Bud Harrelson Pete Rose brawl In Game #3.

The Shea crowd had thrown anything they could find down at Rose, & manager Sparky Anderson pulled his Reds off the field. The Mets were in jeopardy of forfeiting the game unless peace was restored. The crowd cheered as they saw Willie come out, along with Tom Seaver, Yogi Berra, Bud Harrelson & Rusty Staub.

He did not play until the final Game #5, when he came to bat as a pinch hitter in what would turn out to be his last at bat in New York. He nodded & tipped his cap, as the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Even Reds catcher Johnny Bench gave Willie a way to go pat on his butt as he came to the plate. Mays did not disappoint, chopping a base hit off the plate to drive in a run putting the Mets up 4-2.

He would eventually score as the Mets went on to clinch the pennant, upsetting the Big Red Machine while advancing to the World Series.

Manager Yogi Berra kept Mays in the game, and he was on the field to celebrate & run for his life from the fans as they stormed the field. In the clubhouse he celebrated once again for a final pennant winning time.

Willie returned to the Bay area as the Mets faced the Oakland A’s in the 1973 World Series. In his 15 years playing in San Francisco it was his first time he ever played across the Bay in Oakland. The Bay area crowd gave him a long standing ovation as he was announced during the pre game team introductions.

He even got the start in Game #1, due to Rusty Staub being sidelined with an injury he suffered running into the wall in the NLCS. As fate would have it, Mays got the first hit of the World Series, a single into left field off Ken Holtzman. Again the home crowd cheered him as a vistitor.

He came in as a pinch runner for Rusty Staub in Game #2 with the Mets ahead 6-4 in the 9th inning. The A’s would tie the game, and Mays would go on to play centerfield in the extra innings. It was a sad scene when he lost the ball in the sun then tripped & fell down in centerfield. America was heartbroken, as NBC announcer Curt Gowdy said on the original broadcast; it was so sad watching the one of the greatest outfielders ever, struggle as father time caught up with him.

In the top of the 10th inning, home plate umpire Augie Donatelli made a bad call, calling Bud Harrelson out at home plate. Harrelson had attempted to score on a sac fly by Felix Millan. Catcher Ray Fosse clearly missed the tag, but umpire Donatelli was in the wrong position to make the call & had fallen down. Mays was the on deck batter, and the everlasting image of him pleading on his knees with Donatelli is one of the most memorable sights of that World Series.

As he came to bat in the 12th inning, he still went out a winner, getting the last hit of his great career. It was a single to left that broke the 6-6 tie & of course as fate would have it, turned out to be the games winning run.

Quotes: “As I stepped into the batter’s box, I called time & said to Oakland catcher Ray Fosse- gee it’s tough to see the ball with that background. I hope he don’t throw me no fastballs. I don’t want to get hurt.”

Willie then waited on Rollie Fingers fastball and singled to center. "I just felt I couldn’t let those kids down. They hadn’t seen me when I was young but they expected me to set an example.”

Honors: Willie Mays won four MVP Awards, played in a record 28 All Star Games, winning 12 straight Gold Glove Awards. Mays is fourth on the All Time HR list with 660 HRs. He finished his 22 year career playing in 2992 games (9th all time) batting .302, with 3283 hits (12th all time) 523 doubles (42nd all time) 140 triples (64th all time) 338 stolen bases (118th all time) 1464 walks (21st all time)  & 192 intentional walks (16th all time). 

Willie scored 2062 runs (7th all time) with 6066 total bases (3rd all time) a 384 on base percentage, a & .557 slugging percentage (20th all time).

Defensivley the great Mays played the most games in centerfield (2829) & is first all time in putouts (7039). He is second in double plays turned from center (59) fifth all time in assists (57) making 138 errors (3rd all time).

Retirement: After his playing days, he served as a Mets coach & instructor through the 1979 season. He helped tutor many of the young outfielders that came through the Mets organization in those years. He also worked for the club & MLB in the public relations area.

After Mrs. Payson died, M. Donald Grant ran the team into the ground, refusing to give in to the new free agency.

Grant wanted Mays to come on road trips, a practice he had not been doing. He wanted him to stay for games, another practice he wasn't doing on a regular basis. The original Mets deal had Mays coach before a game & in batting practice, usually leaving when the game began.

Grant had Joe McDonald take notes on when Mays arrived & when he left. An agreement was reached where he worked with the young players, stayed at games until the 4th inning & appeared at some of the farm teams sites.

By 1975 Phil Cavaretta was brought in as the team's first official hitting coach & Mays felt like a spare part. He still appeared at banquets & charity functions with the Mets through 1979. He was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in 1979 while still in the Mets family.

In 1980 he took a job at the Park Place (now Bally's) casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. While there, he served as a Special Assistant to the President and as a greeter. Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle was also a greeter during that time. When he heard of this, Bowie Kuhn, Baseball Commissioner, suspended both men from involvement in organized baseball.

Peter Ueberroth, Kuhn's successor, lifted the suspension in 1985 after the two stepped away from the casino buisness.

Since 1986, Willie Mays has served as Special Assistant to the President of the San Francisco Giants. His #24 is retired by the Giants and he is honored with a statue outside their ballpark.

Willie returned to Shea Stadium in 2008, for the closing ceremonies of Shea Stadium. He kneeled down and touched home plate with his hand, in a very touching moment to long time fans like myself.

In 2010 the definitive Willie Mays biography, Willie Mays the Life, the Legend by James Hirsch was released. He was proud to see his old Giants team win the 2010 World Series, their first championship since Mays’ 1954 MVP season.

In the off season he joined members of the Giants family on a trip to New York with the World Series trophy, available for public viewing to longtime Giants fans.

He repeated this in 2013 after the Giants won another World Series. centerfieldmaz was lucky to be attendance for the fantastic event, thanks to the NY Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society led by Bill Kent .

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