A legacy beyond stats: Everyone has a Willie Mays story at Monday’s celebration of his life

The Willie Mays statue outside Oracle Park in San Francisco. Fans joined friends and family of the late ballplayer for a celebration of his life July 8, 2024. (Cole Reynolds/Bay City News)

Moraga resident Alice Brinckerhoff’s first memory of Willie Mays was listening to his games crackling through a transistor radio. Former President Bill Clinton remembers listening to Mays like that, too.

“I never got to see The Catch,” Clinton said at Mays’ public celebration of life Monday, referring to the late San Francisco Giants star’s signature play. “I just heard it.”

As a ballplayer, Mays is considered among the greatest; he leads the Giants in almost every statistical category, from hits to home runs. But there was a refrain amongst many speakers who memorialized Mays, who passed away on June 18 at age 93: Willie Mays was more than any statistic. And as a few thousand fans filed into Oracle Park to remember Mays alongside family and friends, it became apparent that everyone seemed to have a Willie Mays story.

Fans began to gather outside the Willie Mays Gate at Oracle Park in San Francisco on July 8, 2024, almost two hours before a ceremony honoring the late ballplayer. (Cole Reynolds/Bay City News)

“Many great stories could be told for each of you about your relationship with Willie Mays,” former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown said during the ceremony.

Winston Ficklin, of El Cerrito, stood in a line that wrapped around the west side of Oracle Park before the ceremony began. Ficklin remembers sitting on his porch as a kid in the 1960s, his great grandfather and a radio next to him. When Mays’s name came across the air, his great grandfather told him that, like Willie, he’d make it in baseball too, Ficklin said.

Ficklin didn’t know it at the time, but his great grandfather’s premonition would come true. He got drafted out of El Cerrito High School and spent nearly a decade in minor league baseball. And when professional coaches switched his position from shortstop to center field, Ficklin said he liked to think that he had a bit of Willie Mays in him.

Ficklin attributes his career to his great grandfather, and to Mays, who inspired his belief in him. He came to Oracle Park on Monday planning to honor them both. And when Ficklin told his mother where he was spending his Monday, he said it brought them both to tears.

“Ma, I’ve got to go over and represent great grandpa,” Ficklin remembers saying to her.

For many families at the celebration of life, Willie Mays was something shared between generations. Clinton joked that in 2000, he orchestrated a meeting with Mays in an Oracle Park box in an attempt to impress his daughter. The game ended up getting rained out, but he said he was able to talk baseball with Mays for hours.

“I was like a kid in a candy store,” Clinton said.

But decades before, he had shared a different version of Mays — one synonymous with fighting housing discrimination off the field — with his own grandparents. Clinton said his grandparents tried to instill in him a philosophy of equal rights between races. It was in Willie Mays that young Clinton saw that philosophy embodied.

“Look at that,” Clinton remembers his grandfather saying. “That’s what happens when people with talent have a fair chance to show how gifted they are.”

Fans videotape former President Bill Clinton speaking at Willie Mays’ celebration of life, July 8, 2024 at Oracle Park in San Francisco. (Cole Reynolds/Bay City News)

For Moraga resident Brinckerhoff, her Giants fandom continues to this day. She said it’s been a family affair from the beginning. The start of it, she said, was seeing her father jump and clap as Willie Mays’ games came through the transistor radio — usually attached to his hip, usually when they were grooming their yard together.

“I can still remember the leather strap that held it to his waist,” Brinckerhoff said.

By the time she had a kid herself, there wasn’t a need to explain who Willie Mays was anymore. Mays’ legacy was etched into the internet and memorialized in YouTube videos so much by then, that Brinckerhoff’s son learned about Mays and the Giants all on his own.

Her fandom lapsed in the 90s, but when her son got into the Giants, he brought her along with him. Now, as a family, they “bleed orange and black,” she said.

“There are some people on this earth should never die,” Brinckerhoff said. “[Mays] should be one of them.”

Even though everyone had a Willie Mays story, there were still enough to go around on Monday.  The audience cheered Brown and Clinton as they left the podium after peppering the crowd with more than 10 minutes of stories each. Same with former President Barack Obama, who delivered pre-recorded remarks on the stadium’s jumbotron.

“There are some people on this earth should never die. … [Mays] should be one of them.” 

Alice Brinckerhoff, Moraga resident and baseball fan

When Giants broadcaster Jon Miller introduced Hall of Fame catcher Joe Torre, he told the story of Mays hitting a home run while giving Torre a restaurant recommendation at the same time. Torre then stepped to the podium and pretended to tear up the index cards containing his remarks.

“[You] stole my story,” Torre chided Miller. “That was my closer.”

But Torre was able to ad-lib to the end of his speech, simply swapping in another Willie Mays story in place of the one Miller had just told.

“[Mays] left enough for all of us to hold on to,” Torre said.

The post A legacy beyond stats: Everyone has a Willie Mays story at Monday’s celebration of his life appeared first on Local News Matters.

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