Willie Mays turns 80 years old today. I didn't need ESPN to tell me either. When I was a boy, Mays's birthday was a High Holy Day. He was, and still is, my dad's favorite ball player. He still wears his New York Giants cap; still pines for the Polo Grounds; probably still dreams about The Catch.
What you see at right and after the jump is one of my dad's myriad keepsakes from his childhood days: a program from an April 6, 1956, exhibition at Burnett Field pitting Mays and the New York Giants against the Cleveland Indians. The Dallas Eagles, who played at Burnett, were the Giants' farm team. Willie McCovey got his start here.
I've seen this a few times over the years. But I never asked Dad till today why, amongst all the signatures (hey, Bob Feller!), he never got the Say Hey Kid's autograph.
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"I was starstruck," he says. "I was too afraid to go up to him and say, 'Mr. Mays, can I have an autograph?' I was always unhappy I didn't do that. I thought maybe I'd get up my nerve during the game and ask him for it afterward. But I didn't."
He went with his next-door neighbor, Richard Pool, and his dad Joe -- yes, that Joe Pool. They went to a lot of games at Burnett Field, which sat about where I-35 and Colorado meet. But the day Willie Mays came to town, well, that was special. The only one he remembers.
"You gotta remember -- there were only, what, 16 teams back then," Dad says. "And the Giants were always in the paper, and there was always a picture of Willie Mays. And my whole wall was covered in Willie Mays cards. And I liked the uniform -- the colors. On Saturdays we always watched Giants games. Dizzy Dean was the caller: 'He slood into third.' Greatest player of all time. I didn't even follow Mickey Mantle, not till the summer of '62. And I can still see Miss Inez in the shadows, sitting beneath the canopy, playing the organ."
The four-page program's on the other side. Mighty nice of Dad to let me borrow it. Looks like Mays got a hit in the first inning. Hard to tell. Dad was a terrible scorekeeper. "What do you want -- I just turned 12."