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Tributes cascade in for Willie Mays, ‘the godfather of center fielders’

Baseball greats, politicians and commentators express sadness and admiration for 1 of the best to ever play the game
President Obama and Willie Mays aboard Air Force One. (Photo credit: Obama Threads post)

He wasn’t the first Negro Leagues alum to play Major League Baseball, but he was among the most impactful. The tributes that are pouring in for Willie Mays, baseball’s “Say Hey Kid” who died Tuesday at the age of 93, leave no doubt about that.

Perhaps there was nobody closer to Mays in baseball circles than his godson, Barry Bonds, whose father Bobby played in the same outfield with the Hall of Famer.

“I am beyond devastated and overcome with emotion,” wrote Bonds, who hit his major league-leading 762nd and final career homer in 2007, on his Instagram account. “I have no words to describe what you mean to me — you helped shape me to be who I am today. Thank you for being my Godfather and always being there. Give my dad a hug for me. Rest in peace Willie, I love you forever. #SayHey”

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The mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, summed up what Mays meant to her city.

“To a native San Franciscan, some things just go without question: it’s foggy in the summer, cable cars go halfway to the stars, and Willie Mays is the best there ever was,” Breed wrote on X. “It was an unbelievable opportunity of a lifetime to meet someone like Willie Mays. I remember hearing about the struggles that he endured because he was black, and what he overcame to become an icon on the field and the greatest baseball player of all time. He was from a generation who faced segregation and racism, a generation that paved the way so that many of us could have the freedom to thrive. Willie Mays meant so much to this city as a player, but also as a leader, staying involved in San Francisco and the Giants organization long after he retired from the game he loved. Willie Mays will forever be the greatest of giants in the story of San Francisco.”

Mays’ loss was felt just as intensely across the bay, where Oakland Athletics assistant general manager Billy Owens said he was devastated.

“Say Hey was everything,” Owens said. “He’s right there with Muhammad Ali as the greatest athlete. The excellence was documented. The style can never be duplicated. His power, speed and grace is forever unique. ‘The Catch’ still captures the imagination almost a century later. Willie was New York and San Francisco. I’ll watch the game at Rickwood Field this week and imagine Willie doing basket catches in center field and hitting homers into the stratosphere. Rest in peace, Say Hey Willie Mays.”

Former major league shortshop Jimmy Rollins, perhaps best known for his time with the Philadelphia Phillies, wrote this about Mays: “Willie Mays #24 was a legend amongst legends. I am blessed to have spent a few weeks around Willie and I can tell you this, baseball lived deep inside of his heart and he could trash talk with the best of them! Thank you Willie.”

Tribute game in Birmingham, Ala., becomes a fresh memorial

Mays died just before the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals were to play in a tribute game Thursday in Birmingham, Ala., where Mays first played pro baseball with the Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. Sports commentator Skip Bayless wrote: “RIP Willie Mays. I can’t tell you how many childhood nights he ruined for me when his Giants played my Cardinals. He could beat you with homers and doubles and bunts and speed and range and glove and arm. No one ever had 5 greater tools or greater mystique. Say hey, sir.”

Ken Griffey Jr., no slouch himself in center field, called Mays “the godfather of center fielders. … My heart is on the floor. That’s the best way I can describe it.”
In the 1950s in New York, which at that time was home to the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants, there was always a debate about who the greatest center fielder was — Mays, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees or Duke Snider of the Dodgers. Mays didn’t directly declare himself the best years later, when he talked to the Contra Costa Times in 1979. But he did weigh in.
“When you come down to it, there have been better hitters, better runners, a lot of people who could do some things better than me, but I was a complete player,” Mays said. “That’s the key word, complete.”
Said Chicago Cubs manager Craig Counsell, “[Mays] should be on the Mount Rushmore of baseball players and a legend in our game. I got to meet him a couple times and he was the kind of person, along with Hank Aaron, frankly, that just made you nervous, because of how great they were.”
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