History lights up when we can connect it to the ballpark down the block. At this point in the story of baseball, the idea of people who, within living memory, have laid eyes upon the likes of Willie Mays in the uniform-wearing flesh is staggering.

I feel wisps of this when I someone in the generation bumping up against my own has one of these moments with a Boomer or a member of the Silent Generation. My godson was beside himself with wonder when he discovered that my mother once saw Jackie Robinson at Crosley Field. Jackie Robinson was in a movie. Everybody knew who he was. How on Earth had someone as right-here as his grandmother ever see him actually exist?

Today’s Legends

Just as I couldn’t hear enough stories of taking a streetcar to watch a ballgame in the dead middle of a Cincinnati neighborhood, someday my nephews and their offspring will look upon me with awe because I can confirm that I do indeed have memories of watching Johnny Bench behind the plate in Riverfront Stadium. (I do plan to have those memories intact by that point.)

Today’s legends are tomorrow’s school reports. And it’s difficult to fathom for those of us who simply accepted this perpetual VIP as part of the cultural landscape. Part of us.

That is why pictures and stories such as this began flooding social media as soon as the news broke. See, he was here. Mays touched the bases at both Crosley and Riverfront, entwining his story with ours and batting .276 against the franchise in the process. But those are just the statistics. These are merely the facts and the numbers.

Such observations help to place an institution into perspective, provide a baseline for appreciation. But the stamp is sometimes impressed over such a wide emotional and social swath for so long that it hides in plain sight. Wasn’t there always a Willie Mays?

I am often uncomfortable when a person passes on and then, only then, do people flood the comments with appreciation and stories of how said person saved a life or changed a career. I tend to gush in real time, much to the extreme discomfort of the subject, but the very fact that effusive thanks and appreciation are cause for embarrassment should give us pause. Why aren’t we making this a normal part of a Tuesday afternoon?

Marking Time

Sometimes the love bursts forth from the bowels of the internet–no one quite knows why or where–but suddenly pop culture goes on death watch and decides to hasten the eulogies. Not so long ago, Betty White was minding her own business in sitcom retirement when all of a sudden she became the multigenerational top pick to host Saturday Night Live. Most recently, Dolly Parton became the agreed-upon Boomer of the hour. Nicholas Cage has been there for at least a decade.

We sometimes grasp the fleeting nature of icons at the odd moment, because in the back of our minds we’re all well aware that someday soon they’ll exist only in archival footage.

But in certain cases, the lauds and thank-yous trickle in over a lifetime, and the outpouring upon a single news report is just a rehash of what was already said and awarded. Out in the culture, we’re all just kind of marking time from one era passing to the next; when I heard that John Williams is 92 years old, for example, and every time I hear his music or his name I wonder how much more awesome we can tell him he is.

It’s never enough, is the thing, with the giants. They brush against so many lives, are so deeply embedded in so many childhoods that all we have left when the time comes is to sit on the couch with one another and agree to go around and tell our story. Because everybody has one with such people.

The Mythology of Baseball

The loss of Willie Mays, however, seemed something of a surprise. He was already so enshrined in the narrative and black-and-white mythology of baseball that younger generations were surprised he was still alive and those who saw him play were surprised he no longer was.

Everyone who saw him in box score, and those who followed after, were part of that story. After all, wasn’t there always a Willie Mays?




27 Responses

  1. LDS

    I miss the game from those days. It seemed like most played for the love of the game. Today, the players seem to be chasing the big contract more than anything. For every EDLC, who seems to genuinely love baseball, there are many more who are motivated by other things. And eventually, I suspect he’ll succumb to the greed. But we’ll always have our memories of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and many others who played before free agency.

    • DW

      I’m 39, so not old enough to have watched those guys, but certainly agree…not many left that play for the love of the game. Too much greed and self-promotion.

  2. Oldtimer

    The 1960s were the Golden Age of baseball.

  3. Bill Small

    I went to a Reds – Giants game at Crosley Field for my friends 10th birthday in 1968. In the 13th inning of a scoreless tie (with about 12 people left in the stands…a cold night), Willie invited we three 10 year olds into the Giants dugout, only to be stopped by a looming security guard. But he did give us all autographs and talked with us for a few minutes. A day I’ll never forget. The Reds lost in 21 innings, 1-0.

    • Bill Small

      I went to a Reds – Giants game at Crosley Field for my friends 10th birthday in 1968. In the 13th inning of a scoreless tie (with about 12 people left in the stands…a cold night), Willie invited we three 10 year olds into the Giants dugout, only to be stopped by a looming security guard. But he did give us all autographs and talked with us for a few minutes. A day I’ll never forget. The Reds lost in 21 innings, 1-0.

      Correction, Sept 1, 1967. I guess it was the kids 9th birthday.

  4. Jim Walker

    One of the first baseball newsreel or film clips I saw on TV as a kid was Willie’s over the shoulder catch with his back to the plate in the far reaches of the old Polo Grounds where the Giants, the New York Giants, played their home games.

    Willie and the other great players of his generation represent a connection to my past. They were the players spoken of in hushed tones by my father, uncles, and grandfathers gathered around in a circle of chairs on the back lawn listening to Waite Hoyt call the Reds game as summer days faded to night.

    Willie’s passing as with the recent passing of my father’s last remaining sibling, an aunt, makes that connection seem both more tenuous and more precious.

    Say Hey!

  5. Mark Moore

    Stories become legends which become myths. It’s the natural progression of great memories like Mays evokes. Seeing the newsreel of “the catch” again this week brings that up whether or not you saw it live. And it cements the eventual myth.

    I have some memories of Mays at the tail end of his career wearing a Mets uniform. We lived outside NYC and as kids we were the Miracle Mets in some version or another. An older brother was a die-hard Mays fan.

    Ah … what memories can mean. Thanks for this one, MBE.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I keep trying to wrap my head around how one day we’ll probably have to account for seeing Elly in person.

  6. Daytonnati

    I can still smell Crosley Field. Beer and hot dogs and peanuts. Back in the days of doubleheaders on one ticket, you could go down to the tunnel under the stands and wait for players to return to the field for the second game and try for autographs. I had a great haul one day when the Cardinals were in town with Bob Gibson, Red Schoendienst, Julian Javier, and Leo Cardenas, and Jim Maloney. Unfortunately, we were all waiting on Stan the Man, who knew that and sailed by with a wave and a universal “maybe later kids.” Stan didn’t seem like the Man after that? Got Bill Mazeroski from the bleachers one time. Always loved Maz after that.

    I was at the last game ever played at Crosley. I was a senior in high school and drove down from Dayton with a good friend. Watched them dig up home plate and put it on a helicopter to be airlifted to Riverfront. The Reds won that night in a great game against, you guessed it, Willie and the Giants. I think Lee May and Johnny hit back-to-back homers in the 8th to tie and go ahead. I think, but am not certain, that Juan Marichal may have started that game? I do remember seeing him pitch at Crosley. I never saw Sandy K and that is one regret. Did see Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks and Roberto Clemente and Richie Allen and Johnny Callison, etc. etc. Not to mention Frank and Vada and company …

    • Jim Walker

      My uncle (dad’s brother) was at that final Crosley game. He had a photo collage of the home plate ceremony on the wall of his living room. The viewpoint was from slightly above field level about in front of 1B. I have no idea if he or his wife took the pictures or whether they were commercial but they were real attention grabbers.

    • Jim Walker

      I saw Clemente climb the RF fence at Crosley and leap off and up to try to make a catch. I do not recall whether he caught the ball, if it went for an HR, or if it ended up in play. However, from that day forward I hoped to wake up to news in the morning Enquirer or on WLW that the Reds, who seemed to trade a lot with the Pirates then, had pulled a big deal to bring Clemente to the Reds.

    • Oldtimer

      I was there at Crosley on June 24, 1970 and at Riverfront on June 30, 1970. We had Husman’s season tickets at both games.

  7. Rednat

    Willie Mays was the greatest player i ever saw in person. Althoigh i will say the reds games i went to the reds seemed to contain him as best as possible.

    But he was the ultimate ” do it all player”. The classic “5 tool ” player. Plus he was durable to boot. The most comparible players the reds had were Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson but even this Reds fan has to admit they were not quite at Willie’s level.

    But with his passing who do you, MBE, consider the greatest living ball player now?

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I’m so happy for you that you were able to see him in person. I don’t know who I’d pick, because there’s no one who can compare to him as an all-around player. But if we can go to position players, I’d say Koufax or Bench.

  8. CFD3000

    Eric Davis, Johnny Bench, Barry Larkin, Pete Rose, Joey Votto, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Ken Griffey, Jr., and maybe just maybe Elly De La Cruz, and quite a few more giant Reds have flashed through my days rooting for a team that was never my home town nine, but has always been at the center of my summer evenings. And I’ve seen them play against so many more of the titans of baseball – Albert Pujols and Lou Brock, Mookie Betts and Carl Yastrzemski, Reggie Jackson and Shohei Ohtani and that’s without even mentioning the pitchers.

    None of those are quite as good as Willie Mays, because the Say Hey Kid was just as wonderful as the Splendid Splinter, Hammerin’ Hank and even the Bambino himself. But I have been blessed to watch them all make this sport that is not easy at all look as simple as a child’s game and with the same joy that I found when I first stepped between the foul lines. And one of the greatest gifts of baseball is that Willie Mays and Joltin’ Joe and Stan the Man and Yogi and Lou Gehrig and The Flying Dutchman all live on in our memories, our measure of greatness, and our love for the game. We are all a little richer because there was and will always be one and only one Willie Mays.

    Thank you for reminding me Mary Beth of some of what I love most about baseball.

  9. jmb

    Willie Mays admitted to using performance-enhancing substances. He said his trainer gave him his pill before every game. He didn’t know what it was, but it gave him energy, he said. People interested in the debate over PEDs know about this. Personally, I don’t think this tarnishes his image (it was a different time), though we should also not sweep it under the rug. For the record, I support the HOF in not allowing players of the PED era into the Hall.

    • Mark Moore


      I believe the drugs allegedly in question in that era were “speed”. So any effect they had on the alertness of the players pales in comparison to the steroid PED’s of the more recent era that actually bulked players up, helped them “heal” more quickly, and extended their natural talent to accelerated levels.

      Sweep it under the carpet? Not at all. If the allegations are to be believed, their usage was very wide spread. But, as noted, it isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison by any stretch.