'Say Hey Kid' Willie Mays says goodbye to Mets fans and baseball

New York Mets Willie Mays
New York Mets Willie Mays / Focus On Sport/GettyImages

On September 25, 1973, the Say Hey Kid said “goodbye to baseball” on the night he was honored, for the first time, at Shea Stadium. Willie Mays officially said goodbye to world of baseball for the final time on June 18, 2024, at the age of 93.

Willie was so frail that he couldn’t attend the ceremony when the Mets would honor him a second time, nearly 50 years later, on August 27, 2022, when the club officially retired his uniform No. 24.

Willie made a name for himself as a New York baseball icon as a member of the New York Giants before they made the move to San Francisco. He was in New York long enough to endear himself to local fans and became a third of the lore of NYC centerfielders – Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. All three would become Hall of Famers…yet it would be pretty much considered that Willie Mays was the best all-around player in the game.

Baseball lost one of its greatest players with the passing of Willie Mays on Tuesday

Willie’s stats, All Star appearances, Gold Gloves are all well-documented and are mere numbers in describing Willie Mays. And those stats were probably not helped by the ballparks he called home – the Polo Grounds and Candlestick Park – two of the worst hitters’ parks in their eras.

I got to see him play when I was very young when he would come to Shea with the San Francisco Giants. He would get a standing ovation. Always. He was loved and respected.

By the time he came back to New York in May of 1972, he was way past his prime. He wanted to retire following the ’72 season but was convinced to come back. Willie was a part of the World Series team of 1973…the “Ya Gotta Beelieve!” Mets. But it was the worst season of his career, and it was often tough to watch.

To understand the kind of player Willie Mays was…think of Ken Griffey, Jr…or Mike Trout…or even a Mookie Betts. He was a five-tool player when there were no five-tool players. He defined the five-tool player.

He was one of the highest paid players in the game. His highest salary? $150,000…for the best all-around player to ever play the game. It’s hard to fathom…given what the minimum salary is today ($740,000).  For the record, New York Yankee Aaron Judge’s 2024 salary is $40,000,000. Judge makes double per game than the highest Willie ever made in a season.

In retrospect, the lack of long-term security is probably what kept Willie playing that final season with the Mets, and led to his suspension from Major League Baseball when he, along with Mickey Mantle, became a spokesperson for an Atlantic City casino (although they were mere faces to meet and greet and sign autographs).

Willie Mays will always be remembered for what he was, the greatest centerfielder in New York, the most exciting player in Major League Baseball history…and, even though he only played 135 games at the end of his illustrious career, as a fan favorite of Mets fans.