Chris Dimino Interviews Willie Mays on “Hardball”

FILE – New York Giants’ Willie Mays poses for a photo during baseball spring training in 1972. Mays, the electrifying “Say Hey Kid” whose singular combination of talent, drive and exuberance made him one of baseball’s greatest and most beloved players, has died. He was 93. Mays’ family and the San Francisco Giants jointly announced Tuesday night, June 18, 2024, he had “passed away peacefully” Tuesday afternoon surrounded by loved ones. (AP Photo, File)

CHRIS DIMINO: 

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, my father proclaimed you to be the best baseball player he ever saw, and that’s coming from a Brooklyn Dodger fan! Very happy to be joined tonight by Willie Mays. Mr. Mays, how are? You this evening? 

Outfielder Willie Mays, of the San Francisco Giants, posing with bat, 1968. (AP Photo)

WILLIE MAYS: 

Pretty good.  

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Now, can you believe it’s 50 years since your rookie season? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

I don’t even worry about that kind of junk. I…uh…just enjoy life as I go along. I don’t like trying to look back at the 50 years I…I think that’s wonderful, but I’ve been out of baseball since 1973 playing-wise, so I don’t… I really don’t look back that way. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Do you still enjoy watching the game today? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

I watch all the games. I go to games just about daily when I can, you know, get there most of the time, but. I watch, you know, baseball, baseball, really, you know, keep up with it. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

And is Barry, right now…I mean, he’s certainly has been over the last decade or so, the best player in the game consistently you must enjoy…. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Well, that’s not for me to answer. I think that’s for the fans are just some people I’m…I’m kind of a little biased by that I stay away from that a little bit, but I think other people should do what they have to do as far as saying he’s the best player, because I…I don’t see a lot of other players like I see very daily, you know. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

And this year, obviously the first half of the year that he’s had has just been phenomenal as we get to the All-Star break, we are joined tonight by Willie Mays. You played with your father on…on a couple of teams, didn’t you, growing up in Alabama? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

I’ll send son. He’s been left. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

OK, so having a chance to play with your father and…and we’ve talked in the past, Mobile, AL…A great hotbed for baseball talent coming out of that area. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Yeah, a lot of guys come out of that area. I think it was Aaron, Mccovey…I think it was Cleon, John, AG, quite a few other guys that I know that cameo ut of there. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

But certainly good baseball being played. On there now we mentioned the Birmingham Black Barons. How old were you when you signed with them? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

We didn’t have contracts back in those days. You just went out and played and I was still in high school when I started. I started and I was in the 11th grade and they wouldn’t let me sign a contract because I was in school. I just played and they just paid, so it was just one of those agreements that I had with the ball club. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

And you do this must have been a pretty good team though. If you guys later on in the late 40s going up to the Polo grounds to play, did you do you remember what team did you play in the Polo grounds? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

I think every city had a team. You start with Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, Cubans, uh, you can’t cancel the monarchs, you had the Homestead Grays and a lot of club Chicago, Eli’s Giants, that was a lot of clubs. That was very good. Memphis, TN had a ball club, so it was a lot of cities that had the ball club that could do very well in the majors. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Now I’ve heard a pretty interesting story about your call up to the major leagues. Where you actually in a movie theater at that time? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Yes, I was in a place called Sioux City, Iowa. I was in a movie and over the screen it came came my name, which I didn’t think nobody knew I was there. They say, you know, Willie Mays go to the, I guess booth there. And Leo was on the phone. So then after that, I went to the hotel and we talked. And I think after that he, you know, suggested I come up. I really want to go because I… I didn’t think I was ready. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

You were hitting over .450 in the minor leagues, I guess at that point they figured it was time to…time to bring up. Now, you started on the road, but your first game back in New York City proved to be memorable. I guess when you faced Warren Spahn. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

I started in Philadelphia on a Friday and we came back to New York the following Tuesday and I had went 0 for 12, I think, 0 for 13…somewhere around there. I hit a home run off of spawn and then I went to over 10 again. So it was about 1 for 25. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Now when you have as much talent as a player like you would have, how discouraging is that kind of beginning for you? Were you questioning your ability to play at this level or did you just think it was something that you’d work right out of? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

No, I…I didn’t have any idea that I would work it out. I thought it was just something that I was supposed to do and I supposed to do it to it very well. Coming from the minor leagues, getting over .400, I think I thought I could get half of that without any problems, which I did, but I only played about four games and I got I guess I got disgusted. And Leo came to me and said, well, he hey, you’re gonna be my center fielder, don’t worry about it. And I think after that, I just started playing and playing very well. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Now you would had a relationship with Leo Derocher before you got called up to the Giants, correct? So hearing that from him must have, as you said, really helped to just, OK, it’s settled on playing and from then on, I believe you go on to win the Rookie of the Year, correct? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Well, I…I met Leo in Sanford, FL before I came to the Gants. We played a couple of special games for him. A guy named Ray Danrich and I played and Leo said to me at that time you’ll be up before the end of the season, but they had a guy by the name of Bobby Thompson playing Center Field and I didn’t think I had a chance because Bobby was a very established ball player at that time. So when he called me up and I did very well and I was the root of the year for the first year I played 129 games, so I…I hit twenty home runs. I should have hit more, but I guess I was young and didn’t understand how to hit up there. You know, too good. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Now the first years you believe it was just raw abilities and…and after why 195040? You believe that’s the point where you think…. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Well, I went into the service for two…two years and I had a chance to play like a 90 game schedule there, and I think in the service I grew up and I got bigger and stronger. In 1954 when I came out, if you checked the record, I did very well. Now, we won the Pennant. We won the World Series, so I thought 1954 was a very good year for myself. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Now, I’ve also heard the story that your last game before you went into the service was in Brooklyn, and even the Brooklyn Dodger fans gave you a pretty nice ovation that day. 

FILE – San Francisco Giants Hall of Famer Willie Mays, left, looks over his 2010 World Series championship ring that was presented to him by Giants center fielder Andres Torres, right, before their baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals in San Francisco, Saturday, April, 9, 2011. Willie Mays, the electrifying “Say Hey Kid” whose singular combination of talent, drive and exuberance made him one of baseball’s greatest and most beloved players, has died. He was 93. Mays’ family and the San Francisco Giants jointly announced Tuesday night, June 18, 2024, he had died earlier in the afternoon in the Bay Area. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, Pool, File)

WILLIE MAYS: 

Well, I…I think that’s what’s what’s so good about baseball is that people understand if you can go out and and you hustle day in and day out, they recognize that and especially when you…when you’re young and you’re going…going into the service for two years and they gonna miss, you know, seeing you playing and I think the…the Dodgers fans a was a was a good, good fans to understand about baseball. So as well as the Giants. So I think when you when you have a player that you know can…can play and hustle all the time they…they they reward you. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

And you mentioned being young in 1951, but you play in the World Series your first year in the major leagues and a young man by the name of Mickey Mantle, his first World Series in his rookie year as well. Do you remember? Did you watch other players as a fan still being that young? Did you watch to see what they did even as a…a learning tool? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

I already knew how to play ball when I got there, it’s just a matter of. Making my. You know, believe in what I could do, by the way, Mickey got hurt in that year. He got hurt in a manhole in, in Yankee Stadium, so he didn’t play that much, you know. Also, we came up the same time, but I never really watched a lot of guys. I…I just did what I had to do and and I’d try ot do more. I try to make sure that whatever I had to do, I want to do more. And when you talk about, you know, watching guys, I think sometime if you watch a guy, he may not do what you think you can do so I did. 

Flowers, candles and other items are placed at the statue of Hall of Fame baseball player Willie Mays outside of Oracle Park in San Francisco, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Mays, the electrifying “Say Hey Kid” whose singular combination of talent, drive and exuberance made him one of baseball’s greatest and most beloved players, has died, according to a joint announcement by his family and the team Tuesday. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

CHRIS DIMINO:   

Now Leo Durocher also paid you a very big compliment. Joe DiMaggio. That’s his last World Series, and Leo was on record as saying he thought you were the most complete player, even beyond DiMaggio and Leo would obviously, obviously had seen Joe in his heyday. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Well, Joe was in my house, so I…I don’t argue with things like that when you talk about things like that, I think it have to come from other people, not myself. I don’t understand about all these five-two things and like that, I think you should go out and just play to win. Winning is more important than just for individual records and things like that. And I was mainly a a guy that if you didn’t win, you hit four home runs and you didn’t win, which I thought was bad because the clubhouse would be sad. Even though you had a good day so. I if if Leo want to think that way, that was fine with me, but I never really tried to play myself against each other. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

And you mentioned the two years in the service, actually you physically mature and you understand the game better when you come back, the stories about the stick ball games, I mean in honesty, can’t stick, stick ball playing stickball in the streets.  

WILLIE MAYS: 

The what now? Stick ball? yeah, I played that in 1954. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Is that a…Is that a great way to learn how to hit? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

I already knew how to hit. In ‘54, I already had played a whole season a season and I already had played in Birmingham. No stickball was a game that it was around in New York. It didn’t help me to hit it just helped me to keep me aware of what was going on in daily as far as the baseball was concerned. But I….I already knew how to hit. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Well, I’m talking about for the younger kids that perhaps were with you. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

You didn’t say kids like you’re talking about myself. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Yeah…no, I’m sorry. I meant the younger kids that were around you when you were playing those games. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Well, let’s see the kids that you play with, they’re not baseball players. They’re…they’re fans. And the kids that I had in my block, I lived on 156th and 55th St. in Saint Nicholas in New York. And all the kids there would come by, you know, day in and day out, and we just play stickball, we play for about maybe an hour and then I would go and buy all the guys ice cream. So that was no losers in the game that I play. You know, if you don’t know about stickball, then you have to understand, have someone explain it to you because it’s kind of…kind of confusing because you you’re talking about manhole sewers rather than just a base you’re talking about, you know, moving cars rather than a base. We would block off the streets and…and playing in the middle of the street, so we had a good time playing! 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Did a lot of catchers talk at the plate when you came in? Did guys try to maybe take you off your game a little bit or..? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

A couple of them did. That was Campanella did it, a kid by the name of Bobby Yuka, tried to do it a couple of times, but you just, you know, you block them out. And if you hit consistent, they let you alone. You know, you just have to go out and enjoy what you’re doing and you can’t worry about things like that. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Now when you end up your career with the Mets coming back to New York City, was that exciting for you? Was that something Joan, Payson or Gil Hodges? Or how did that actually come about? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Well, first of all, I didn’t want to leave the Giants. I thought the Giants were the team that I would stay with for a long time, but I…I soon understood what Mr. Stoner was doing. He wanted me to make sure that I would be financially taken care of, so he I think he called Miss Joan Payson to make sure I came back to New York, where I started at. I think it was rewarding that when I came back to New York, that it was good for me because I got a lot of jobs after I got through playing with Colgate Palmolive, a company called Tech Textile with with a racetrack in Boston, so I did very well and also got a job with Ballys, which I’m still there right now. So it it was rewarding, going back to New York and New York people understood that, hey, you know, I already had played 20 years, so we’re gonna give him two years. So I think that’s really what they did for me. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

I met a gentleman who used to work for the Atlanta Braves, so you know Jim Beecham. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Beat him. Put that with me. Yeah, we had. We had a good two years together. It was really, really nice man. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Yep. And he, well, he enjoyed your company immensely and he told me a story about the bat that you hit your last home run with in the Major League 666. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Hmm. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

And he has that. Then, he said you let him…. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

I don’t know who has it. You sound like jail. Me. He’s the type of guy who would keep it that long. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

He actually told me that you actually gave him the blessing because I guess it was in August. And he said, well, Willie and you just said, there you go, Jim. You picked it up. You can have it. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

That’s right. I probably did because Jim was a nice guy while Joe Torres, Jim Beacham and myself was the three guys that we didn’t play it day in and day out. But we did play sometimes and we just hung out together and it was, you know, they made me feel very, you know, relaxed when I was there. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

And Mr. Mays, your favorite baseball movie…Do you have one? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

My baseball movie. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Your favorite baseball movie? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Well, you got to think about that cause that’s a lot of them out there. You know, I like the “Field of Dreams.” The “Field of Dreams” was a movie that you can remember guys as you see them walking in you and…and you didn’t have to understand what they played. You can remember the name and you can just visualize what each one of these guys did. So I thought “Field of Dreams” was a was a good move. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

And we mentioned the 73 Mets. Bill Hodges, the the manager, Yogi Berra, the right Gil Hodges, the manager in 69, do you regret not having a chance to play for Gill? Because I knew you knew him as a player. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Well, in ‘69, I was still playing for the Giants. I played very well in 69 and…and with San Francisco, so I didn’t….I don’t think I had a problem, you know, trying to get to the Mets at that time because I wasn’t even thinking about being traded. Yogi and I was…we were good friends. We had a, you know, a good time together. He…he always, you know, wanted me to play when I wanted to play. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Yeah. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

It was fine my two years there with the Mets, the end of the year. I told you it was…it was just really, really nice. They…they really, you know, took care of me. They made sure that I didn’t get too lonely. It was without playing because they knew I was used to playing day in and day out. So it it was good. I had some really nice guys on the club. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

And last thing, as we finish up with Willie Mays and we do appreciate his time tonight, Willie, the spitball loading up Clyde King once said he loaded up a pitch with gum to throw to you. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

I don’t even know about spitballs. I was I was no pitcher. Clyde King was a guy that quick pitches. He wasn’t a spitball pitcher, but he was a guy that would, you know, once you get into batters box, here come the ball. So he was a quick pitcher, a type of guy, not a spitball that I can remember. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

He once I guess, said though, that he loaded up a pitch with some gum. He just said the heck with it. I’m gonna stick a slab of gum. On this thing and throw it up there and maybe it’ll move a little bit there. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Well, you could get it on the other side. That wouldn’t bother me. No, because Clyde, he didn’t throw real hard. He  was a trick ball artist, type of guy, you know he didn’t throw real hard. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Were you a ‘guess hitter?”  Did you guess what was coming? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

No, I was’t the type of hitter to…to worry about what the guy threw. And when I said that is that if he’s he’s the fastball pitcher you, you have to sit on the fastball. He’s a breaking ball, you had to sit on the breaking ball and…and you couldn’t miss it. And I think I was very fortunate that I didn’t miss a pitcher. If I wanted to hit it, I didn’t miss it. And that was the key to my hitting I think, is that you have to hit what you…you know what the guy throws up there, you know, daily. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

And Mr. Mays, I’ve never really heard you say this publicly enough, but everybody knows the polo grounds and in Candlestick Parkcan certainly different, certainly more difficult to hit in some of those parks. What do you think you would have done home run numbers wise if you had played in some of these other places? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Nothing. Nothing. No more than I have. I…you can’t do that. You can’t worry about the…the time you play and now you saw about you see, ballparks with smaller. You can’t do that. I…I had 22 very, very good years and I don’t worry about what’s coming up. I think when you. I can’t do that. I think  when you do that, you hurt baseball. I think it’s just some time that I came. I hit. I got 660 home runs,   which is very good, so…so you’re talking about another 10 to 20, maybe 50 home runs. So that’s really not…it wasn’t that important. What was important to me was winning. All these records that you’re talking about wasn’t really there because you have 25 guys on the ball club and 25 guys have to be happy sometimes. So and all the things that I’ve did wasn’t really important, but unless we won ball games. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

In that ‘51 season, when you guys come back now, a lot of allegations have been made and you said you were just a rookie and…and you weren’t really as in tune as you would be in 1954. Henry Shens came out, and Ralph Franken and Bobby Thompson have talked, and I know. 

Wildfire smoke darkens the sky over a statue of former baseball player Willie Mays outside Oracle Park before a baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

WILLIE MAYS: 

Again, I’m gonna try and explain that to you. I’m…I’m saying I I wasn’t involved in anything that I…..I don’t know about all these things that people talk about. You know, I…I said ask me about things that were from 1954 when I was in tune to what baseball was all about, what people was all was doing. I can relate to that. Much more than I can in my first year. Yeah. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Well, Mr. Mays, I appreciate your time and I know, as I said, an All-Star weekend as well. Willie Mays, one of the perennial All Stars fan favorite after the fans. You know, get a chance to not…not see you in a lot of the American League cities going up against some of the best, the All Star game may be a little bit more fever pitch back then. Is it true that that the Commissioner or the I’m sorry, the League President would come in and give you guys pep talks before the All Star games? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

They do that on every time. Each each I don’t know about now because we don’t have a metal league and National League. I the time that I play each guy had a choice to come in and and thank all the guys for coming to the All Star game. When I played they didn’t have home runs hitting hunt contests and saying we just went out and played the game. Now it’s more of a I don’t know if this is a showcase or what it may be, but it’s more activity now than it was when I played, so they start on Monday and sometimes you end up on, you said on Tuesday end up on Wednesday sometimes. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

How important was it to win that game for the National League that you and your teammates? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

I don’t know about other guys. To me it was very important I. I wanted to lead off when I played it All Star game I…I could do it with the Giants, but I felt that I could get on base, steal a base or hit a home run or I hit a single score score run. Now they gotta score two runs to beat us, so I want to beat the best of the American League and I’m sure the American League want to do the same thing for us. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Do you think it’s the same today with players? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

I don’t get involved with arguements. I stay away from controversial type of stuff because I feel that baseball was a very, very good game for me. I don’t knock baseball by any means, so I just make sure that I enjoyed what I did. And when you start trying to say, well, the 90s, the 80s, the 50s or whatever are different. eras which it was so you just leave it at that. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

That, and Mr. Mays, so as we finish up you mentioned no Home Run Derby in the All Star game then but there was a Home Run Derby TV show. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Well, that’s nothing to do. That was off season. That was on the regular season. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Right. And they did that, I believe at another field named Wrigley Field out in California, correct. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

In California. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

How did you do in that? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

I think we I want about 5-6 out of seven. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Because Hank Aaron had told me, I think he bought a store for his father. The money that they, you know, as you kept advancing, I guess. It was a little bit more money and Hank said…. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Well, no, it was $2000 per person. If you win $1000 to the losers. So I think Hank won about, I think Hank won eight or nine. I..I lost the first one, then I won six in a row. Then I lost one on another one. So I wona bout six out of seven. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Who actually beat you? 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Mickey beat me the first one, and I think might have been Bob Lemon. I don’t recall. It’s a long time ago. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Well, Mr. Mays again always appreciate the time and and I like what you said before, by the way, you said, why would I, you know, when I asked you about the home runs and I never really heard you mention that. How many would you have had? But I…I did like your answer of why would I say something like that? Because it would only hurt baseball today. And obviously you still care enough about the game not to want to have people discussing necessarily the negative. It should be about. The positive part of this game. 

FILE – Willie Mays smiles prior to a baseball game between the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants in San Francisco, in this Friday, Aug. 19, 2016, file photo. Willie Mays has won the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award presented by Baseball Digest. The Hall of Fame center fielder was honored Thursday. April 22, 2021, with a new accolade to be given annually recognizing a living individual who has made “significant contributions to the national game.” (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

WILLIE MAYS: 

Well, let’s go back to you. Since you announced, are you involved with Mel Ott, Mel Allen and Red Bob and all the guys, can you relate to those? It’s like you’re talking about me relating to home runs, different things. Can you take yourself back in that situation? I think you should move on and move fast. The way you’re moving rather than going back in 50 years ago. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

In other words, look to the future and let’s make sure the game stays as good as it can. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

It always will be that way. You know you’re…you’re not going to change the game, you’re just going to change situations around the game. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

So I..I hadn’t thought of it that way. I do enjoy speaking to people such as yourself and Ernie Harwell, and you mentioned some of the announcers in the past. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Well, that’s another guy that was with me in New York, and all I’m saying to you when you asked me to explain things, you have to look at what you are involved in and when you start thinking about it on it hard…well, Red Barber, the…the guy with the Dodgers and this guy and you look at all those guys…. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

Vin Scully. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

How long they’ve been in the in? Business and then you can better yourself. Well, I think I want to be like them and I don’t think you would. I think you want to be like yourself. You wanna move on and do the best you can. And that’s what I did in baseball. I moved on and I’m not going to say these guys today are different from the guys I’ve played in the 50s. They the 50s was good. The…the 2000s may be a little better, I don’t know. It depends on the fans. 

CHRIS DIMINO: 

And it does ultimately come back to the fans and how much? They enjoy it, I guess. 

WILLIE MAYS: 

Well, you can see that they build a new ballpark. They’re drawing more people. The…the game is is…is getting greater, I think. 

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