Willie Mays turns 90, and is not wrong. It strikes with the clarity of a line operation. Kan …
Willie Mays turns 90, and is not wrong. It strikes with the clarity of a line operation. Mays played in a sport measured by milestones – 3,000 hits, 500 homers, signs he passed and saw some – and now there’s one more.
On Thursday, when baseball’s oldest live Hall of Famer is serenaded with renditions of “Happy Birthday to You,” it may be time to expand the playlist. A player of such an infinite selection deserves just as much.
There is a lot to choose from. References to the Giants center fielder cut through the years and genres – rock, pop, folk, country, rap, hip hop.
The two most frequent mentions come in what have become ballpark anthems: John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” and Terry Cashman’s “Talkin ‘Baseball (Willie, Mickey & The Duke).”
Fogerty grew up in San Francisco, his father being a Joe DiMaggio fan. His song, released in 1985, is a hope for a day when everything seems possible: “We are born again, there is new grass on the field / The A-round is third, I am on my way home / it is a brown-eyed handsome man. The “brown-eyed handsome man” who reaches for the record is a tribute to the 1956 song of the same name by Chuck Berry, but may well be Say Hey Kid himself.
Fogerty continues to sing about a player who runs on the bench and dies to enter the game. He summons a pantheon of outfielders: “Say, ‘Hi Willie, tell Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio / Do not say it’s not like you know the time is now.’ Finally, there is the prayer and the heart of the song: “So put me in coach, I’m ready to play today / Look at me, I can be midfield.” Mays would no doubt understand that.
“Talkin ‘Baseball” came out during the main league strike in 1981. It is rooted in conversations – violent arguments over neighborhoods and bar stools – about whether Mays, Mantle or Snider was the better midfielder in New York during the 1950s. Cashman’s voice is clear: “And me, I’ve always loved Willie Mays / Those were the days!” Mays also gets top billing in the title, and when the names of the trio are sung in the chorus. And the song ends like this: “… (Say hello, say hello, say hello).”
Even Snider was not about to quarrel. In 1979, Mays was the only player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame by baseball writers, with Snider as number two. Snider said at the time: “Willie more or less really deserves to be in himself.” The Duke joined Mays in Cooperstown the following year.
Just about everyone saw something in Mays. Maybe it was dashing around the bases, and his hat flew. Or slashing hits to all fields. Or the stickball games with kids in Harlem not far from the old Polo Grounds. Or the gentle tap of his glove before a basket catch and his run back to the infield after a inning, carrying the ball as if it were an injured bird. Or maybe the happy lyrics of the name “Willie Mays.”
Those who run the playlist on Mays’ birthday have options other than Fogerty and Cashman.
Chuck Prophet’s “Willie Mays is Up at Bat” deserves a listen. The song is from the “Temple Beautiful” album from 2012 which honors San Francisco, the city the Prophet calls home. It begins as a kind of hymn: “I hear the church bells ring, Willie Mays is up on bats / I hear the audience go astray, all he did was put on his hat.”
A number of references to the City of the Prophet follow, and not all the texts passed the odor test by fact checkers. Even the Prophet acknowledges that he did not get everything right. Like this line: “And the only thing we know for sure is that Willie always swung for the fence.”
So many ways to refute the claim. But Game 7 of the 1962 World Series will do. Fighting bats and subsequently Yankees 1-0 in ninth. Matty Alou is on first with two out. Mays, barely swinging for the fence, laces a double in the right field corner. Alou, skeptical of Roger Maris’ arm on the right, screams for a stop at third. It sets up a scary finish for the Giants when Willie McCovey shows off to second baseman Bobby Richardson.
Bob Dylan, who grew up in the Minnesota town where Maris was born, had a soft spot for baseball. He wrote about the musty Jim “Catfish” Hunter in the song “Catfish.” Several years earlier, in 1963, his “Freewheelin” album I Shall Be Free. In it, President Kennedy asks a full “what do we need to make the country grow.” Dylan jumps from one cultural touchstone to another. And right along with bagels, pizza, Sophia Loren and Charles de Gaulle, this line is: “What do you do with Willie Mays.”
For Joe Henry, it was tantamount to asking about the soul of the country – “this terrible and this angry country.” Released in 2007, “Our Song” is a meditation on a lost America that opens in his imagination with Willie Mays and his wife who want to buy garage door springs at a Home Depot in Scottsdale, Arizona. Henry is close enough in the aisle to hear May say, “This was my country / this was my song.” In Henry’s narrative, Mays is a mythical figure, “bent by the burden of endless dreams / his and yours and mine.”
But let’s increase the volume for this birthday cry. Run-DMC will do the job with the song “What’s Next” from 1993. A couple of bored boys walk down Broadway in New York with “many lovely ladies who look our way.” How to answer? How to summon just the right amount of cool? Simple: “Play as Willie May’s all-star and” Say hello. “”
The Wu-Tang Clan did the same in “For Heaven’s Sake” in 1997. This is someone whose “razor from the sun burns through shades” and who glides like “floating crafts on the Everglades.” But when it comes to judging everything hip, the Wu-Tang Clan is clear: “Yo, hey, my rap-style swing like Willie Mays.”
But if the birthday greeter wants to recognize a familiar voice, it’s “Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)” by The Treniers. Mays himself was part of the song from 1955, which was included on the soundtrack for the documentary “Baseball” by Ken Burns from 1994:
“He runs the bases like a choo-choo train
Swings around others like a plane
The hood flies off when he passes third
And he goes home like an eagle. ”
The Baseball Project takes listeners on a reverie through the fog of the season in “Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays”: a father and son at a Dodgers-Giants game at Candlestick Park to watch Mays meet Sandy Koufax; a jump to 1973, with Mays now at the New York Mets and letting a ball go through his legs; and then a return to Polo Grounds and black-and-white footage of Mays’ overbearing catch and spin throw in the 1954 World Series. “Sometimes I dream of Willie Mays,” reads the text, “and the sun comes out, and the mist rises, and he is there.”
Yes he is. So congratulations on the day, Willie Mays. Blow out the lights, and like an eagle, fly home.
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