The Time I Hired Willie Mays

McCormack & Dodge scheduled a User Conference for its customers in San Francisco in August 1983. I was asked to find a luncheon speaker.  Usually, we chose someone from the business world, academia, or the military, such as Admiral Grace Hopper (who was one of the best speakers I ever saw.)  I decided to try to get Willie Mays to speak.  Willie was a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and was one of the best to play.  I did not know whether he would be available, affordable – and even a good speaker.

So, how can I contact Mays? I had heard about the Willie Mays Say Hey Foundation, so I naively called and left a message for Mays to call me.  A few days later, I was surprised when I saw a pink message slip on my desk that Willie Mays had called me and left a telephone number.  I called the number and was shocked that Mays answered the telephone.  I explained what I was looking for, and he told me that our budget was lower than his usual fee, but since the meeting was in downtown San Francisco, he thought he could do it.

Later, his agent contacted me, and we firmed up the date for the speech.

I was contacted a few weeks later by a person from the Say Hey Foundation who informed me that the San Francisco Giants and Mays had finally patched up their differences, and the Giants were going to hold a uniform retirement ceremony at Candlestick Park, where the Giants then played their games.  Even though Mays played parts of 21 years with the Giants, of which 15 were in San Francisco, there was friction between them, and the Giants still had not retired Mays’ uniform number ten years after he stopped playing baseball.  Some of that was due to Willie (and Mickey Mantle)  taking a job as a greeter with a casino. I was asked if I wanted tickets to attend the game, and I could not say “yes.”  I was provided four tickets.  I took my son and invited two of our customers.

The ceremony was scheduled for Sunday, August 20. I was shocked that the tickets were for seats on the field next to the Giants’ dugout.  We were introduced to Mays, who was warmly greeted by the sold-out audience.

Willie Mays then came to our luncheon on the following Tuesday.  He asked me what I wanted him to speak about.  I replied: “You’re Willie Mays, one of the greatest baseball players ever.  Tell us about your life and baseball experiences.” He replied: “Is that it? Nothing else?”  I said, “No, just be Willie Mays.”

I introduced Mays, the greatest living baseball player, a unique “five-tool” player, and cited many of his career accomplishments.  His agent, Carl Keisler, who joined us, told me that Mays told him it was the best introduction he had ever received.  That was quite a compliment.  I asked Mays to sign my handwritten notes, which he did.

So, Mays entertained the audience for about 45 minutes and then signed autographed baseballs. He talked about playing in the Negro League, segregation, and mostly his time with the Giants.

Three of my favorite stories he told were:

Mays was drafted into the Army during the Korean War, shortly after his rookie season in 1951. When he reported for duty at Fort Eustis, Virginia, the General informed Mays that he had a baseball team and would be delighted if he agreed to play on it.  He said he wanted to win the championship in 1952, and if he did, he would reward Mays.  After they won the Army championship, he told Mays that he would give him leave to visit his parents in Alabama.  After not hearing from the Army for many weeks, Mays finally contacted the General at Fort Eustis, who told Mays to return whenever he felt like.  He returned shortly afterward and won another championship for the General in 1953. Mays returned to the New York Giants in 1954 and helped them win the World Championship.

I did not know that Mays was “on deck” to bat next when Bobby Thomson hit the home run (“the shot heard around the world”) to win the National League pennant in the decisive third game of a playoff against the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ralph Branca on October 3, 1951.

The third was about Willie Mays and his infamous manager, Leo “the Lip” Durocher. When Mays played centerfield for the New York Giants in 1951, the left fielder was Monte Irvin, and the right fielder was Bobby Thomson. Neither Irvin nor Thomson were good defensive outfielders, and Irvin, an eventual Hall of Famer, was at the end of his career.  Durocher told Mays to catch all the balls hit to the outfield. In one game, the batter hit a line drive directly to Thomson, who caught the ball.  When Mays returned to the Giants’ dugout, Durocher pulled him aside and said, “I told you to catch all of the balls that hit the outfield.” Mays said, “But skip, he hit it right at him.” Durocher responded, “I don’t care.  I want you to catch them anyway.

I will never forget my two days with Willie Mays, mostly because he was the best baseball player I ever met and because he was such a nice, friendly person.