By John Shea

Willie Mays, the iconic and endearing “Say Hey Kid” who charmed countless fans with his brilliant athleticism and graceful style and was widely considered baseball’s greatest and most entertaining player, died Tuesday of heart failure. He was 93.

“My father has passed away peacefully and among loved ones,” said Mays’ son, Michael Mays. “I want to thank you all from the bottom of my broken heart for the unwavering love you have shown him over the years. You have been his life’s blood.”

The legendary slugger and center fielder was synonymous with the game of baseball, the Giants and San Francisco, where his 9-foot-tall bronze statue has greeted fans for more than two decades in front of Oracle Park at 24 Willie Mays Plaza. Mays was looking forward to Major League Baseball’s tribute to the Negro Leagues on Thursday at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala., where he starred as a teenager with the Birmingham Black Barons.

“Today we have lost a true legend,” Giants chairman Greg Johnson said. “In the pantheon of baseball greats, Willie Mays’ combination of tremendous talent, keen intellect, showmanship, and boundless joy set him apart. A 24-time All-Star, the Say Hey Kid is the ultimate Forever Giant. He had a profound influence not only on the game of baseball, but on the fabric of America. He was an inspiration and a hero who will be forever remembered and deeply missed.”

Giants CEO Larry Baer added, “I fell in love with baseball because of Willie, plain and simple. My childhood was defined by going to Candlestick with my Dad, watching Willie patrol center field with grace and the ultimate athleticism. Over the past 30 years, working with Willie, and seeing firsthand his zest for life and unbridled passion for giving to young players and kids, has been one of the joys of my life.” 

Mays spent most of his 23-year playing career with the Giants, six in New York and 15 in San Francisco, making him a cherished superstar from coast to coast. He hit 660 home runs, made 24 All-Star appearances and won 12 Gold Gloves. He likely would have won more, but the award wasn’t given out until Mays’ sixth season.

The consummate five-tool player, Mays was elite at hitting, hitting for power, defending, throwing and baserunning, and his ability to outthink and outsmart the competition served as a valuable sixth tool.

Mays wowed the baseball world with his aggressive (sometimes unorthodox) swings, patented basket catches and daring speed. He’d wear his cap a size too small so that it would fly off when he took off in the outfield or on the bases, putting a charge into fans.

“No player is better defined by how he did it than what he did than Willie Mays,” said San Francisco-based actor Danny Glover at Mays’ 90th birthday bash at Oracle Park. As a youngster, Glover watched the center fielder play in the late 1950s at Seals Stadium.

A pioneer who broke down barriers on and off the field, Mays received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2015, a half-century after he was named the first African American team captain in MLB history.

Mays said he never could have envisioned a Black president in his lifetime. At the White House medal ceremony, Obama told the crowd, “It’s because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for president.”

Throughout his life, Mays helped countless people in many ways including through his Say Hey Foundation, which is dedicated to providing positive opportunities for underprivileged youth.

“I do what I can for people, man,” Mays said in a May 2021 Chronicle interview, shortly before his 90th birthday. “When the kids ask me for something, I give it to them. Let them have it because they’re going to be here after I’m gone, and I want the kids to enjoy what they can enjoy.”

Mays was born in Westfield, Ala., just outside Birmingham, to very young parents, Willie Howard Mays Sr. and Annie Satterwhite, and was raised largely by his mother’s sisters, Sarah and Ernestine. Willie Sr. wasn’t always around; he worked in a steel mill and as a Pullman porter and also made money playing ball.

Still, Mays called his father the biggest inspiration in his life. “Cat,” as his dad was nicknamed because of his quickness on the field, introduced Willie to baseball and played with him on an industrial league team.

“When I played with him, I played center, he played left,” Mays said. “I said, ‘You play on the line, I’ll take care of everything else.’ … We could talk about anything, which was good for me.”

Mays was an excellent quarterback at Fairfield Industrial High School and loved basketball, but his dad encouraged him to stick with baseball and helped connect him with Piper Davis, the player-manager of the legendary Black Barons of the Negro American League.

Mays spent parts of three high school years with the Black Barons and helped them reach the final Negro Leagues World Series in 1948. After graduating from high school in 1950, Mays signed with the Giants for $4,000 and a $250-a-month salary.

Then 19, Mays experienced a culture shock when moving from the Negro Leagues to the Trenton Giants of the previously all-white Class B Interstate League, hearing some of the racial taunts that had been directed at Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier three years earlier.

Mays opened the 1951 season at Triple-A Minneapolis and was hitting .477 in late May when promoted to the majors. Leo Durocher, who became Mays’ favorite manager, anticipated the young player providing energy to his scuffling team.

Mays began his Giants career batting 0-for-12 and 1-for-26, the only hit a homer off Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, but provided enough flashes of his all-around game to be named the National League’s top rookie, rebounding to finish the season with a .274 average and 20 home runs in 121 games. He was on deck when Bobby Thomson hit his famous pennant-winning home run, the “Shot Heard ’Round the World.”

Drafted during the Korean War, Mays played ball with the Army for nearly two years to entertain the troops, as did many big-leaguers of the day. He returned to the Giants in 1954 to win his first Most Valuable Player award and guide the Giants to a World Series championship.

In the eighth inning of Game 1 of that Series, the heavily favored Cleveland Indians had two runners on base when batter Vic Wertz slugged a ball nearly 460 feet to center field at the spacious Polo Grounds. Mays chased it down, reached over his shoulder and made what is considered the most famous catch in baseball history.

Mays always said it wasn’t his best catch, and argued that his throw afterward is what made the play. In one motion, he gloved the ball, whirled and heaved a strike to second base, assuring that runners Larry Doby and Al Rosen would not score.

“I knew I’d get it. It was high enough where I could catch it,” Mays said in a Chronicle interview leading to his 75th birthday. “That wasn’t the problem. The hardest thing was getting it back to the infield. I knew Larry would score if I didn’t get the ball back quickly. I scored lots of times from second base on a deep fly that was caught.”

The game remained tied, and the Giants won in the 10th inning on Dusty Rhodes’ pinch-hit homer, the first of four straight wins. Fortunately, Mays’ catch was captured on black and white film, a benefit for ensuing generations to admire his defensive brilliance.

In 2017, the World Series MVP award was named in Mays’ honor.

“Willie saved the game,” said Hall of Fame outfielder Monte Irvin, Mays’ mentor and first roommate with the Giants. “If the Indians won that first game, they might’ve been the ones to win four in a row.”

Mays played in New York at a glorious time in baseball history as he, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees and Duke Snider of the Dodgers were the subject of a great debate throughout the boroughs: Who was the best center fielder: Willie, Mickey or the Duke?

Mays, who said Mantle was the fastest and most powerful, wound up outlasting the two other legends and compiling far better career numbers. Both Mantle and Snider later acknowledged that Mays was the best.

Mays was offered unconditional love in New York. It was where he got his Say Hey Kid nickname — courtesy of a sportswriter who noticed Willie at first didn’t know everyone’s names and would just say “Hey” — and was seen in the streets of Harlem playing stickball with kids.

After the Giants arrived in San Francisco in 1958, however, it took a while for Mays to be fully accepted. Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio had been a city favorite as a local kid and San Francisco Seals star, and Mays suddenly was playing his position in his ballpark in his town. Some folks were slow to warm to Mays.

Off the field, Mays and his wife, Marghuerite, were rejected when trying to buy a house in the prestigious St. Francis Wood neighborhood, because they were Black. The Mayses eventually got the house, but two years later, someone threw a bottle with a racist note through their front window.

Mays later married Mae Louise Allen and moved to the Peninsula town of Atherton, where he spent the rest of his life.

On the West Coast, Mays cemented his legend as the greatest Giant and, in many minds, the greatest overall player in baseball history. Many of his top offensive accomplishments came after the team moved West; he won his second MVP award in 1965.

The list includes his 3,000th hit, his four home-run game in Milwaukee, and his 16th-inning walk-off homer off Spahn that gave Juan Marichal a 1-0 victory (regarded as the greatest game ever pitched). He also hit the game-winning homer against Houston that helped the Giants force a best-of-three games series against the rival Dodgers that led to San Francisco’s first World Series appearance. Mays hit .455 in the three games with two homers off Sandy Koufax.

In May 1972, with owner Horace Stoneham financially strapped, the Giants traded Mays to the New York Mets. In his final season, 1973, Mays returned to the Bay Area in the World Series against the Oakland Athletics, which the A’s won in seven games. His game-deciding single off pitcher Rollie Fingers in Game 2 was his final hit.

“I didn’t ever want to be traded,” Mays said. “You’re with a club so long, you don’t want to go anywhere. But when I got to New York, it was like I never left. All the players hugged me and asked where I’d been so many years.”

At the end of his career, Mays ranked third all-time in home runs behind Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth, with 660 (he now ranks sixth) and finished with a .302 average, 3,283 hits, 338 steals and 1,903 RBIs.

Mays would have had more homers if he hadn’t served nearly two years in his prime in the military. The rough elements at the Giants’ longtime home of windy Candlestick Park also might have been costly.

“I don’t like to look at it that way,” Mays said. “I like to look at it as, I had a good 20, 22 years. I had my time, and I enjoyed my time.”

Mays’ career numbers were recently changed slightly after Major League Baseball reclassified the Negro Leagues as a major league in 2020, so statistics through 1948 — Mays’ first year with Birmingham and the final year of the Negro League World Series — have been added to the register.

Aside from his talents as a player and entertainer, Mays was known for his durability. From 1951-61, he missed just 18 games (excluding his time in the military) and is the only player to appear in 150-plus games for 13 straight years.

Mays is third all-time in WAR — a stat that measures a player’s overall value — behind Ruth and Mays’ godson Barry Bonds, according to baseball site FanGraphs, and could have won many more MVPs if today’s advanced data had been applied. Mays led the National League in WAR 10 times and led the major leagues seven times.

Playing when All-Star Games were taken seriously by the players, Mays was an All-Star among All-Stars and played to win — the National League went 17-6-1 on his watch. Mays tripled home Hank Aaron to win in 1959, and the Chronicle’s Bob Stevens wrote, “Harvey Kuenn gave it an honest pursuit, but the only center fielder in baseball who could have caught it hit it.”

In 1979, Mays was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by 94.7% of the electorate. In one of the stunning oversights in sports history, 23 voters chose to ignore Mays.

In another questionable decision, less than three months after Mays was inducted in Cooperstown, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn threw him out of the game for his association with a casino, Bally’s, even though Mays’ duties included little more than playing golf, appearing at charity events and signing autographs.

Kuhn similarly banned Mantle. Both actions seem ironic, considering how much today’s game associates itself with gambling outlets. One of Commissioner Peter Ueberroth’s first duties as Kuhn’s successor was to reinstate the two legends in 1985.

A year later, Mays returned to the Giants as a special assistant and ambassador, at first working with young players in spring training and, in later life, being available in the clubhouse to give advice and share stories.

John Shea is the San Francisco Chronicle’s national baseball writer. Email: jshea@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @JohnSheaHey

June 18, 2024