To commemorate this anniversary, New York City's Mayor Bill DeBlasio proclaimed Sept 29 Willie Mays Day. In a noontime ceremony, the sign Willie Mays Drive was unveiled at the northeast corner of 155th Street and the Harlem River Driveway.
Down below stood the Polo Grounds where I saw my first baseball game at the age of 6 in the summer of 1948. Now a school and housing project occupy the space.
One of the prime movers in this celebration was City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez who represents the 10th city council district that includes the Polo Grounds on Harlem’s Sugar Hill. Normally the City of New York does not permit streets to be named for living people but Rodriguez lobbied successfully to make an exception in the case of Mays.
Councilman Rodriguez is a native of the Dominican Republic who came to NYC as a eighteen-year old. He thrust himself into community affairs as a student at City College and has been a longtime advocate for making his constituents aware of the rich athletic history of his neighborhood.
Another honored invitee was fellow Dominican Rico Pena, the coach of the Luperon High School baseball team that in its brief history has already become a contender for the city championship. Pena brought several of his players to the ceremony.
Mays is now 86 — Willie Mays is 86 years old! - and makes his primary home just south of San Francisco (though he has long kept an apartment in the western Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale). He didn’t make the trip for this honor but his adopted son Michael Mays was on hand. So was Mario Alioto, the executive VP of Business Operations for the SF Giants.
“I don’t make history, I just catch fly balls,” Mays once said. He was being modest because he was the epitome of the five-tool player who could run, throw, field, hit for average, and hit with power. In one of his pithiest phrases, Branch Rickey once said of Mays, “The secret to his success is the frivolity in his bloodstream.”
At a reception after the ceremony at the Rio III gallery on the SE corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street, a portrait was unveiled of Mays playing stickball
with neighborhood Harlem kids.
The lower floors of this handsome new building on 898 St. Nicholas Ave. house The Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Arts and Storytelling. This new facility was designed by famed architect David Adjaye who created the acclaimed African-American cultural museum in DC and just was selected to build the new Studio Museum in Harlem.
The Sugar Hill Children's Museum should be a must-visit for parents who want to educate their children about the rich cultural history of their neighborhood and urban and rural life in general.
Before I conclude this first October blog, I want to say a few more words about the achievements of three great baseball people who passed on in recent weeks.
Gene Michael, 79, may have been the classic "good field, no hit" player. But he learned from his failures to become a top-notch player evaluator who somehow survived the George Steinbrenner firing machine to be a key part of the Yankees resurgence in the 1990s.
Gene Bennett, 91, spent his whole career with the Cincinnati Reds. Growing up in Branch Rickey country of Scioto County in southern Ohio, Bennett was advised by Rickey to take a job as scout instead of minor league manager.
"You can get fired if one season you are given a bad team," Rickey sagely advised. A good scout, though, can perform a service to the team if he finds prospects year after year. "TALENT SETS THE STAGE, CHARACTER SETS THE CEILING," was one of Bennett's most memorable adages.
Last but not least, Mel Didier, 91, left a remarkable legacy in baseball. He was the only man to work on the ground floor of three expansion franchises - the Montreal Expos, the Seattle Mariners, and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Didier signed future Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson for Montreal. He tried valiantly to sign Kirk Gibson for Seattle but team owners weren't supportive and Gibson insisted on finishing his athletic career at Michigan State.
Ten years later when working for the LA Dodgers, Didier was instrumental in getting Gibson to sign with LA as a free agent. It was his scouting report on Dennis Eckersley's penchant for throwing sliders on 3-2 counts that Gibson remembered when he hit his walkoff homer in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series that propelled LA's sweep of the Oakland A's.
Didier wrote often on baseball and its techniques. His memoir with sportswriter T.R. Sullivan, PODNUH LET ME TELL YOU A STORY is one of the best of its kind.
That's all for now. Next time we'll have a better sense of how October baseball is shaping up. I still sentimentally like Cleveland to win the World Series, perhaps over Washington (but another injury to hurler Max Scherzer puts that outcome in doubt.)
In the meantime always remember: Take it easy but take it!