Mets retire Willie Mays number in Alumni Day surprise

The Mets did more than retire a famous baseball number on Saturday afternoon, stunning a nostalgia-fuelled crowd at Citi Field when it was revealed that Willie Mays’ No. 24 would be officially retired. The team honored its recent vow to recognize its franchise’s rich history on the day it celebrated the return of Alumni Day. And did it perfectly.

Yes, 24 was Willie Mays’ number, and no athlete in American sports history is more closely identified with that number than the « Say Hey Kid. » But it was also an essential piece of the heart of a woman named Joan Whitney Payson, a die-hard New York Giants fan and member of the team’s board of directors, the only « no » when deciding whether the team should move to San Francisco.

A few years later, Payson became a Mets charter owner, a fixture in her field box, the first woman to own a ball club. And though she lived and died with her Mets, Willie Mays remained her favorite. It was his dream that Willie would finish his career in New York. And in May 1972, when it became clear the Giants would make Mays available, she pounced.

Mays himself, at home in San Francisco, was unsure about moving East, knowing he was no longer the breathtaking force of nature that had once roamed center ground at Coogan’s Bluff. . But Joan Payson made him a promise.

« Willie, » she said, per team lore, « you’ll be the last Met to wear number 24. »

Willie Mays
Willie May had his number retired by the Mets on Saturday.
Mets manager Yogi Berra (L), pitcher Tug McGraw and Willie Mays after the Mets won Game 2 of the 1973 World Series.
© Bettmann/CORBIS
Willie Mays
MLB via Getty Images

That was enough for him. Famously, he hit a home run in his very first game as a Met – against the Giants, of any team, on May 14, 1972. He was then 41, no longer a child, but that n didn’t matter. Mets fans were thrilled to have him back home. He hit the last 14 of his 660 lifetime home runs as a Met.

But Payson died shortly after Mays retired in 1973. Twenty-four disappeared for a time, but Payson’s wish was never granted. Someone named Kelvin Torve somehow received the number in 1990. The backlash was immediate and Torve was soon wearing 39. Rickey Henderson and Robinson Cano received special waivers when they became Mets.

The number was at rest, but not retired. Not before Saturday.

History has often been cruel to Mays’ final days as the Met. Any aging ballplayer, any sport, the comparison is always the same: Willie-Mays-falling-in-the-outfield. It is also a grossly unfair stigma. Yes, Mays lost a bullet in the sun in Game 2 of the 1973 World Series. But Joe Rudi of Oakland (who was 27) and Reggie Jackson (also 27) did too.

The Mets were only in the World Series because Mays made a key run in the deciding Game 5 of the NLCS. And in this wild Game 2 in Oakland? Mays’ two-out single in the 12th inning broke a 6-6 tie in a game the Mets would win 10-7.

Willi Mays’ locker in 1973.
Jacob Ellis

But 24, in truth, isn’t out of circulation for Mays’ 491 on-set appearances with the Mets. He will forever stay next to 14, 17, 31, 36, 37, 41 and 42 because of what he meant to baseball in New York, especially when he was young and playing stickball with the kids. of the neighborhood in Harlem in his civilians after fitting nine sleeves in his uniform. That’s why Joan Whitney Payson fell in love with him. And she was not alone.

It will honor the .312/.387/.593 slash line it had a New York giant; toast to the .345/41 HR/110 RBI he racked up when he won his first MVP, at age 23, in 1954; exalt the greatest defensive play of all, the one he made this fall, in the World Series against Cleveland, by running on Vic Wertz’s fly ball in the deepest pocket of the Polo Grounds.

Above all, it will be a permanent reminder that the Mets were indeed descended from two fathers of baseball. Past owners were unapologetic about the team’s ties to the Dodgers, but the Mets’ colors are orange in addition to blue. Maybe Mays’ best days came in a non-Mets uniform, but so did Jackie Robinson. And now 24 and 42 will be forever tied to National League team New York. As they should be.

Forty-nine years ago next month, a weary Mays walked over to a microphone in the old Shea Stadium and told a tearful crowd: “Willie, say goodbye to America. But part of the soul of New York baseball never really said goodbye to him. And now it never will be.


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