(AP) – Willie Mays celebrates his 90th birthday, without being mistaken about this number. It hits with the clarity of an online workout. Mays has played in a sport measured by milestones – 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, scoreboards he’s hit and more – and now here’s one more.
Thursday, when Baseball’s longest-running Hall of Fame is serenaded with performances by “Happy Birthday,” maybe it’s time to expand the playlist. A player of such endless variety deserves so much.
There is an embarrassment of choice. References to the Giants’ center fielder span the years and genres – rock, pop, folk, country, rap, hip hop.
The two most frequent mentions come in what have become classic hymns: John Fogerty’s “Central field” and Terry Cashman’s “Talkin ‘Baseball (Willie, Mickey & The Duke).”
Fogerty grew up in San Francisco, his father was a fan of Joe DiMaggio. His song, released in 1985, is a song of hope on a day when anything seems possible: “We’re born again, there’s new grass on the ground / A third roundin, I’m heading home / He’s a handsome man with brown eyes. the “Handsome man with brown eyes” streaks to the plate is a tribute to the 1956 song of the same name by Chuck Berry, but could well be the Say Hey Kid himself.
Fogerty continues by singing about a player straddling the bench and dying to get into the game. He summons a pantheon of off-screen: “So say, ‘Hey Willie, tell Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio / Don’t say it’s not to let you know the time is right.” Finally, there is the plea and the heart of the song: “So put me as a coach, I’m ready to play today / Look at me, I can be the center.” Mays, no doubt, would understand.
“Talkin ‘Baseball” came out during the major league strike of 1981. It is anchored around discussions – fierce arguments between boroughs and barstools – over whether Mays, Mantle or Snider was New York’s best center in the 1950s. Cashman’s vote is clear: “And me, I’ve always loved Willie Mays / Those were the days!” Mays also gets the top spot in the title and when the names of the trio are sung in the chorus. And the song ends like this: “… (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 baseball writers, with Snider finishing second. Snider said at the time, “Willie more or less really deserves to be alone.” The Duke joined Mays at Cooperstown the following year.
Almost everyone has seen something in Mays. Maybe it was the dash around the bases, his flying cap. Or the slash hits in all areas. Or those stickball games with kids in Harlem, not far from the old Polo Grounds. Or the light tapping of his glove before a basket crash and his run to the infield after a round, carrying the ball as if it were a wounded bird. Or maybe the cheerful lyricism of the name “Willie Mays.”
Those who run the playlist on Mays birthday have options other than Fogerty and Cashman.
Definitely, Chuck Prophet’s “Willie Mays is standing at the bat” deserves a listen. The song is from 2012 “Magnificent temple” album in honor of San Francisco, the city the Prophet calls home. It begins as a kind of hymn: “I hear the church bells ringing, Willie Mays at bat / I hear the crowd going wild, he just touched his hat.
A litany of references to the city of Prophet follows, and not all of the lyrics have passed the fact-checker scent test. Even the Prophet admits that he did not do everything right. Like this line: “And the only thing we know for sure is that Willie always looked to the fence.
So many ways to reject this assertion. But Game 7 of the 1962 World Series will do. Giants at bat and trailing the Yankees 1-0 in the ninth. Matty Alou is first with two strikeouts. Mays, barely swinging towards the fence, slips a double into the right corner of the field. Alou, wary of Roger Maris’ right arm, yells to stop in third place. It sets up a heartbreaking finish for the Giants when Willie McCovey lines up with second baseman Bobby Richardson.
Bob Dylan, raised in the Minnesota town where Maris was born, had a soft spot for baseball. He wrote on the pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter in the song “Catfish.” Years earlier, in 1963, his “Freewheelin ‘” album features “I will be free.” In it, President Kennedy asks a drunk “What we need to make the country grow.” Dylan moves from one cultural touchstone to another. And just with the bagels, the pizza, Sophia Loren and Charles de Gaulle is this line: “What do you do with Willie Mays.”
For Joe Henry, it was like questioning the soul of the country – “This scary and angry land.” Released in 2007, “Our song” is a meditation on a lost America that opens in his imagination with Willie Mays and his wife looking to buy garage door springs at a Home Depot in Scottsdale, Arizona. Henry is close enough down the aisle to hear Mays say: “It was my country / It was my song.” Mays, according to Henry, is a mythical figure, “Bent over by the burden of endless dreams / Hers, yours and mine.”
But let’s turn up the volume for this birthday cry. Run-DMC will get the job done, with his song from 1993 “And after.” A couple of bored guys walk down Broadway in New York City with “Lots of pretty ladies like to watch our way.” How to respond? How do you summon just the right amount of cool? Easy: “Play as Willie Mays All-Star and ‘Say Hey’.”
The Wu-Tang clan did the same “For God’s sake” in 1997. He is someone whose “The solar razor burns through the blinds” and which slips like “Hovercraft on the Everglades.” But when it comes to the arbiter of everything wired, Wu-Tang Clan is clear: “Yo, hey yo my rap style swing like Willie Mays.”
But if the anniversary winner wants to recognize a familiar voice, there is “Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)” by The Treniers. Mays himself was part of the 1955 song, which appeared on the soundtrack of the 1994 documentary “Baseball” by Ken Burns:
“He runs the basics like a choo-choo train
Swings in seconds like an airplane
His cap flies off when he passes third
And he comes home like an eagle bird.
The Baseball Project group takes listeners in a reverie through the haze of the seasons in “Sometimes I dream of Willie Mays”: a father and son at a Dodgers-Giants game at Candlestick Park to watch Mays take on Sandy Koufax; a jump in 1973, with Mays now on the New York Mets and letting a ball pass between his legs; then a return to the polo field and black and white footage of Mays’ catch and spinning throw in the 1954 World Series. “Sometimes I dream of Willie Mays,” the words go, “And the sun rises, and the fog rises, and there he is.
Yes he is. So happy birthday, Willie Mays. Blow out the candles and, like an eagle bird, come home.