NEW YORK — Willie Mays sat on the stage of a grade school auditorium on the site of the old Polo Grounds, addressing a room full of attentive kids. A larger-than-life black-and-white photo of himself playing stickball served as the backdrop.
He was to give the “A” students a dozen baseballs along with three cream-colored, vintage 1951 jerseys, with “Giants” written across the front in script and his old number on the back. Discovering he was one baseball short, Mays pulled out a $100 bill and handed it to Kendryck Taveras, a very surprised fifth-grader.
“I’d rather have the $100,” the grinning 11-year-old said. “I’m going to save it.”
The Say Hey Kid gave these kids a day they’ll never forget.
“This is my neighborhood!” the 79-year-old Hall of Famer said to loud applause and one of a number of standing ovations. “They don’t know me. They wasn’t here when I was playing ball.”
And then he painted a picture of what it was like, back when the ground where P.S. 46 stood was home to the famous No. 24.
“Right up the street here, St. Nicholas Place,” he said, gesturing, remembering back six decades ago.
Another time, same place for Willie, likely the greatest living baseball player.
“I used to have maybe 10 kids come to my window. Every morning, they’d come at 9 o’clock,” he said. “They’d knock on my window, get me up. And I had to be out at 9:30. So they’d give me a chance to go shower. They’d give me a chance to eat breakfast. But I had to be out there at 9:30, because that’s when they wanted to play. So I played with them for about maybe an hour.”
Mays was back Friday where his big league career, bringing along the San Francisco Giants’ World Series trophy celebrating the team’s first title since 1954. In a charming talk, with Giants managing general partner Bill Neukom and President Larry Baer sitting in the front row, he made the “Willie, Mickey and the Duke” era of flannel uniforms seem real and vibrant in this iTouch age.
The kids had studied Mays’ life ahead of the assembly, and Taveras even wrote a biography about him, learning that he played in the Negro Leagues.
“It was cool!” he said after meeting the famous player.
Baer called the stickball photo of Mays his favorite image in sports.
“Weaving a legend to come back to where he made his mark and taking that trip through time made me cry,” Baer said. “It’s such a return to an innocent time — after a game or before game, you’re by the ballpark playing ball with the kids?”
Mays talked about the famous trio of center fielders: himself for the Giants, Mickey Mantle across the Harlem River with the Yankees and Duke Snider over in Brooklyn with the Dodgers.
“We would go to the All-Star game and Mick and I would laugh at Duke,” Mays recalled. “And we would laugh at him all the time and say, ‘Hey man, you can’t play this game. We’re better than you.'”
Most of all, it was the neighborhood memories that made the connection.
“There was a drugstore on the corner, and I used to go buy ice cream every day. That was day games,” he said, wearing his black-and-orange “SF” cap. “Night games I started at maybe say 4:30 or 5 o’clock. And they were always there to make sure that I would be there for them. I had a good time playing stickball.”
Called up to the Giants in 1951, Mays was on deck when Bobby Thomson hit probably the most famous home run in baseball history, the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” that won the pennant over Brooklyn.
The Giants moved west in 1957, and the Polo Grounds was demolished seven years later to make room for the Polo Grounds Towers. The kids knew that on the very same site they now learned math, Mays and others had created many famous baseball statistics. But a personal appearance made it real.
With Harold Reynolds serving as master of ceremonies and Arthur Tappan School Principal George Young serving as host, the students sang spirited renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
Mays reminded the kids that their parents were their heroes, not athletes, and they should extend their education for as long as they can. Six children came onstage to ask him questions.
The Giants asked permission from the Yankees and Mets to hold the event in their territory. A team that makes sure to celebrate its own history — during November’s World Series parade, Mays rode in the same 1958 Chevy convertible he used in the celebration when the Giants moved to California.
It was a morning for tying together eras.
“What we’re tying to do with this is get some of our old-time fans to pass that loyalty on to younger fans here in New York,” Neukom said. “You could love the Mets and Yankees and still care about the Giants, who started here.”
Most interesting was Mays’ answer about his relationship Leo Durocher, Mays’ first manager on the Giants. A famously flamboyant bon vivant, Durocher was suspended by Commissioner Happy Chandler in 1947 for “association with known gamblers” and married actress Laraine Day.
Mays called Leo his mentor, and guide to Hollywood’s elite — from Frank Sinatra to Sammy Davis Jr. to Cary Grant.
“Every movie star I wanted to meet, Leo knew,” Mays said. “I wanted to meet Dean Martin. We went to the studio, I got him. OK. Then Cary. Then Sammy. Then I said I wanted to meet Frank. He said, ‘No. No. No. You can’t meet Frank.’ He said, ‘You’ve got to go to Frank’s house and say, “Frank. I’m here. I’m want to do your yard.” And then Frank will say either, “Get out of here, boy!” or “Bring him in!'” So that was how I met Frank.”