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Willie Mays is turning 90, and no mistaking that number. It strikes with the clarity of a line drive. Mays played in a sport measured by milestones — 3,000 hits, 500 homers, signposts he passed and then some — and now here’s one more.
On Thursday/Today, when baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer is serenaded with renditions of “Happy Birthday to You,” it might be time to expand the playlist. A player of such infinite variety deserves as much.
There’s plenty to choose from. References to the Giants center fielder cut across the years and the 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 a Joe DiMaggio fan. His song, released in 1985, is one of hope on a day when all seems possible: “We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field/A-roundin’ third, I’m headed for home/It’s a brown-eyed handsome man.” The “brown-eyed handsome man” streaking to the plate is a tribute to the 1956 song of the same name by Chuck Berry but may well be the Say Hey Kid himself.
Fogerty goes on to sing of a player riding the bench and dying to get into the game. He summons a pantheon of outfielders: “So say, `Hey Willie, tell Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio/Don’t say it ain’t so you know the time is now.” Finally, there is the plea and the heart of the song: “So put me in coach, I’m ready to play today/Look at me, I can be centerfield.” Mays, no doubt, would understand.
“Talkin’ Baseball” came out during the major league strike of 1981. It’s anchored around talk — fierce arguments across boroughs and barstools — about whether Mays, Mantle or Snider was the better centre fielder in New York during the 1950s. Cashman’s vote is clear: “And me, I 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 refrain. And the song ends this way: “? (Say hey, say hey, say hey).”
Even Snider wasn’t about to argue. In 1979, Mays was the only player elected to the Hall of Fame by the baseball writers, with Snider finishing second. Snider said at the time, “Willie more or less really deserves to be in by himself.” The Duke joined Mays in Cooperstown the next year.
Just about everyone saw something in Mays. Maybe it was the dash around the bases, his cap flying. Or the slashing hits to all fields. Or those 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 an inning, carrying the ball as if it were a wounded bird. Or maybe the sheer joyful lyricism of the name “Willie Mays.”