— Sports

Baseball’s sweetest song: Willie Mays, forever young, is 90

Willie Mays is turning 90, and no mistaking that number. It strikes with the clarity of a line drive. Mays played in a sport measured by milestones – 3,000 hits, 500 homers, signposts he passed and then some – and now here’s one more. On Thursday, when baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer is serenaded with renditions of “Happy Birthday to You,” it might be time to expand the playlist. A player of such infinite variety deserves as much. There’s plenty to choose from. References to the Giants center fielder cut across the years and the genres – rock, pop, folk, country, rap, hip hop. The two most frequent mentions come in what have become ballpark anthems: John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” and Terry Cashman’s “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey & The Duke).”

Fogerty grew up in San Francisco, his father a Joe DiMaggio fan. His song, released in 1985, is one of hope on a day when all seems possible: “We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field/A-roundin’ third, I’m headed for home/It’s a brown-eyed handsome man.” The “brown-eyed handsome man” streaking to the plate is a tribute to the 1956 song of the same name by Chuck Berry but may well be the Say Hey Kid himself.

Fogerty sings of a player riding the bench and dying to get into the game. He summons a pantheon of outfielders: “So say, ‘Hey Willie, tell Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio/Don’t say it ain’t so you know the time is now.” Finally, there is the plea and the heart of the song: “So put me in coach, I’m ready to play today/Look at me, I can be centerfield.” Mays, no doubt, would understand.


“Talkin’ Baseball” came out during the major league strike of 1981. It’s anchored around talk – fierce arguments across boroughs and barstools – about whether Mays, Mantle, or Snider was the better center fielder in New York during the 1950s. Cashman’s vote is clear: “And me, I always loved Willie Mays/Those were the days!” Mays also gets top billing in the title and when the trio’s names are sung in the refrain. And the song ends this way: “… (Say hey, say hey, say hey).”

Even Snider wasn’t about to argue. In 1979, Mays was the baseball writer elected to the Hall of Fame, with Snider finishing second. Snider said then, “Willie more or less deserves to be in by himself.” The Duke joined Mays in Cooperstown the following year.

Just about everyone saw something in Mays. Maybe it was the dash around the bases, his cap flying. Or the slashing hits to all fields. Or the gentle tap of his glove before a basket catch and his run back to the infield after an inning, carrying the ball like a wounded bird. Or maybe the sheer joyful lyricism of the name “Willie Mays.” Or those stickball games with kids in Harlem not far from the old Polo Grounds.

Those running the playlist on Mays’ birthday have options apart from Fogerty and Cashman.

Indeed, Chuck Prophet’s “Willie Mays Is Up at Bat” deserves a listen. The song is from the 2012 “Temple Beautiful” album honoring San Francisco, Prophet calls home. It begins as a kind of hymn: “I hear the church bells ring, Willie Mays is up at bat/I hear the crowd go wild, all he did was touch his hat.”

Many references to Prophet’s city follow, and not all the lyrics pass the smell test of fact-checkers. Even Prophet acknowledges he didn’t get everything right. Like this line: “And the only thing we know for sure is Willie always did swing for the fence.”

So many ways to brush back on that 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 on first with two out. Mays, hardly swinging for the fence, laces a double into the right-field corner. Alou, wary of Roger Maris’ arm in right, screeches to a stop at third. That sets up a wrenching finish for the Giants when Willie McCovey lines out to second baseman Bobby Richardson.

Bob Dylan, raised in the Minnesota town where Maris was born, had a soft spot for baseball. He wrote about pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter in the song “Catfish.” Years earlier, in 1963, his “Freewheelin'” album features “I Shall Be Free.” In it, President Kennedy asks a drunk, “What do we need to make the country grow.” Dylan jumps from one cultural touchstone to another. And right along with bagels, pizza, Sophia Loren, and Charles de Gaulle is this line: “What do you do about Willie Mays.”

For Joe Henry, it was equivalent to asking about the soul of the country — “this frightful and this 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 in the aisle to hear Mays say: “This was my country/This was my song.” In Henry’s telling, Mays is a mythic figure, “Stooped by the burden of endless dreams/His and yours and mine.”

Molly Aronson

I'm an award-winning blogger who enjoys all things creative but is especially passionate about lifestyle design. I blog over at mehlogy.com I love that I get to share my passion for healthy living, fashion, fitness, and travel with readers from all over the world.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button