SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE-JOHN SHEA
Thanks to a mathematical marvel in the calendar, we get a chance to further celebrate Willie Mays. On Feb. 4, the stars — or superstars, in Mays’ case — will align for a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. Unless you’re 100 years old, that is. It will be Feb. 4, 2024, otherwise known as 2/4/24. Willie Mays Day, for all of those who will observe while realizing Mays’ number 24 is the most revered in the franchise history of the San Francisco Giants and one of the most revered in all of sports. Hoist a glass. High-five a buddy. Hug your kid. Honor baseball’s greatest overall player. Including at 2:24 p.m. Or if you dare, 2:24 a.m.
Many forces are collaborating to celebrate 2/4/24, in particular the mayor’s office and the Giants. City Hall will be lit up in orange and black, and 24 Willie Mays Plaza and the Oracle Park scoreboard will be dressed up accordingly. A proclamation by the city will be made to recognize 2/4/24 as Willie Mays Day, and the day will tie in with the Giants’ plans for Black History Month, including an announcement on the Willie Mays Scholars program. It will serve as their launch campaign for the Giants-Cardinals game on June 20 at historic Rickwood Field, where a teenaged Mays played in the Negro leagues as the center fielder of the legendary Birmingham Black Barons in Alabama.
Honoring the Say Hey Kid on 2/4/24 was the brainchild of Adam Swig, a friend of Mays who was struck by the calendar coincidence and began passing word that the momentous date was coming. Swig, founder and executive director of the California nonprofit Value Culture, contacted Giants CEO Larry Baer, who reached out to Mayor London Breed. Both showed immediate interest.
“Willie Mays made 24 cool,” said Swig, who rode with Mays through two of the Giants’ three World Series parades and solicited many local eateries that plan menu specials on Feb. 4 to acknowledge Mays. “He’s the greatest baseball player of all time, an American icon and American hero. And one of the greatest guys I ever met, a great friend. It’s pretty simple to me. It’s his day. He deserves it. San Francisco loves Willie Mays. I hope everyone puts on their 24 jerseys on 2/4/24.”
The Giants’ marketing and communications departments have gotten involved, as has the New York Giants Preservation Society, a group of longtime Giants fans whose mission is to “remember, treasure and preserve the storied history of the New York Baseball Giants.”From Jan. 31, through Feb. 5, the society will rename itself the Willie Mays Preservation Society. “This is the least we could do to show our support for Willie. We love him,” said society President Gary Mintz of Long Island, N.Y. “We want to stand with the Giants. It’s appropriate. They were nice to us when the (World Series) trophy tours came here. It’s a great way to honor someone who means so much to so many. Ninety-seven percent of our group are Giants fans. Why? Because of 24.”
Mays followers get the relevance of 24 and might include the number in their passwords, personal ID numbers or phone numbers. They insist Mays is the greatest ever, arguing that Babe Ruth, who played during segregation, didn’t have the five tools to the degree Mays did, and that two-way star Shohei Ohtani hasn’t done it long enough.
Mays began wearing No. 24 his rookie year in 1951, though it wasn’t his first number in the big leagues. That was 14, which he wore briefly after getting called up from Triple-A Minneapolis. He eventually wound up with 24, which had belonged to outfielder Jack Maguire before he was claimed by the Pirates. Maguire’s other footnote in history: He was credited with giving Lawrence Peter Berra the nickname Yogi.
Mays wore 24 longer than any other big-leaguer, 22 years. No. 2 on the list, at 20 years, are Tony Perez and Miguel Cabrera, who retired after last season. Dwight Evans wore it for 19 years, and both Rickey Henderson and Manny Ramirez wore it 17 years.
Rickey, who was raised in Oakland, wore 24 because of Willie. Ken Griffey Jr. wore 24 because of Rickey. Mays is the reason Golden State Warriors legend Rick Barry, who grew up rooting for him at the Polo Grounds, wore 24. When later playing in Houston, because Moses Malone already was wearing 24, Barry wore 2 in home games and 4 on the road.
While 24 is iconic from coast to coast — in 2022, five decades after Mays’ final game with the New York Mets, the team also retired his No. 24 — the number is especially relevant in San Francisco. Surrounding Mays’ 9-foot bronzed statue at 24 Willie Mays Plaza are 24 palm trees. The right-field brick wall is approximately 24 feet high. When Mays turned 85, he was honored when Muni cable car No. 24 was dedicated to him.
“To sports fans around the globe,” Baer said, “Willie’s accomplishments and persona as the Say Hey Kid resonates every day; 2/4/24 is one more opportunity to call attention to a man who, in our minds, is the greatest player ever. We are blessed to play our games at 24 Willie Mays Plaza with his image at our front door.”
The last 2/4/24 was Feb. 4, 1924, which was seven years before Mays was born and seven months before the birth of Bill Greason, Mays’ teammate on the 1948 Black Barons. Greason, 99, and Mays, 92, are the only living ballplayers who appeared in both MLB and the Negro leagues as far back as 1948, the year of the final Negro League World Series, which featured the Black Barons and Homestead Grays.
An American hero and inspiration three times over, Greason was the St. Louis Cardinals’ first African American pitcher, fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima and has served as a minister in Birmingham for more than a half century, still preaching. Mays and Greason remain good friends and in steady contact.
Speaking of the Black Barons, the Giants will give out 20,000 Mays bobbleheads depicting him as a Black Baron on May 31, which is African American Heritage Day. It’s a Friday night game against the New York Yankees, coming a few weeks after Mays’ 93rd birthday, May 6.
Mays is dealing with health issues including with his mobility following hip surgery in spring 2022. He still keeps up with Giants baseball, engages in lively conversation when visitors drop by and greets them with his patented firm handshake.
After Feb. 4, the next 2/4/24 isn’t until Feb. 4, 2124, so the upcoming 2/4/24 might as well be embraced to the fullest.
Reach John Shea: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @JohnSheaHey