Say hey, when Willie’s words cast the world in a whole new light

It’s next to me, the textured binding is tattered, the stamped, indented cover title “Willie” on the orange background has scribbled black crayon on it courtesy of my younger brother – boy I was mad about that at the time. But now, it’s just added to the history. Inside the jacket cover in my mother’s practically perfect in every way handwriting are my name, 5 Maple Ave. and phone, 325-9211. The book came to me as a birthday or Christmas present in 1966. It’s a first edition, and through the care of my mother who boxed it when I flew from the nest for college and beyond, it survived.
As a 12-year-old, I devoured the 320-page “Willie Mays: My Life In and Out of Baseball” as told to Charles Einstein.
Like many kids growing up in the Bay Area, Willie Mays was my hero. The basket catch, the speed burst on the basepaths and in centerfield like a perfectly engineered locomotive, the power at the plate and the boy-like broad smile were sights to behold.
The baseball legend I knew.
His graceful movements were ingrained in my imagination … Willie racing back on a ball in center at Candlestick Park … or making a bronco-busting turn around first base … or passionately sliding into home … the images from watching him at Candlestick and seeing him play on TV made baseball radio calls come alive in my head like a three-dimensional movie.
But the book taught me about my baseball hero’s life, about what it was like to be a young black man growing up in America in the 1940s and ’50s. My mom took a risk buying it for her 12-year-old son. There were swear words, and ugly racial situations and relationship issues that could have been easily dismissed as too mature for a boy my age. That purchase, too, I later realized, taught me a lesson about how important it is to allow your children to be exposed to the world in many different ways.
As I learned about Willie’s life, my love for the player grew in concert with my respect for him as a man. What seemed effortless and god-given on the field, had a background story of struggle and perseverance in a society that made his early life a lot tougher than it needed to be.
But there was so much more than that.  Chapter 4 starts this way:
“At first, I didn’t want to be DiMaggio.
I wanted to be a cowboy.”
What boy could resist such insight about his hero? It captivated me like my dreams of becoming a baseball hero. I had sung the same song that Willie loved as a boy, “I’m an old cowhand from the Rio Grande, And I learned to ride just to beat the band …”
There were lessons about coaching and lessons about life and, always, there were baseball lessons. Not only did my appreciation for Willie grow, but I learned that I had no idea about the truly intricate nuances behind America’s pastime.
With uncanny clarity, Willie wove specific tales from games that illuminated movements, strategies and decisions I had no idea were taking place. It amazed me. An entirely different game was being played out in the background. While I was watching the batter, the shortstop was kicking dirt behind the runner on second to get him to lean the wrong way and, possibly, not score on a base hit.
Willie’s words opened up a whole new world to me, and that cemented my lifelong love for the San Francisco Giants. Some people don’t understand what being a fan means. They arrogantly poo-poo it and try to make you feel bad … “Whether the team wins makes no real difference in your life,” is how the elitist take goes.
Being a fan is not about the destination, it’s about the journey. It’s about emotional bonds, with children, uncles, fathers, mothers and daughters. The Giants are a part of my family. Daughter Mariah and I text or talk after every key game, our family has spent many a special time together going to or watching games. Soon, I’ll be able to take my grandson, Jackson, and then my granddaughter, Tyler, to a Giants game. I will proudly pass the torch and, maybe if I’m lucky, Jackson will be happy to receive and read Willie’s book on his 12th birthday.
Win or lose, the Giants jersey Miss Jenny gave me with the #24 and “Say Hey” above it on the back, will always carry so much more meaning than mere cotton and cloth. So, “Let’s Go Giants!,” and, straight from my heart, thanks Mom and thanks Willie – you’re both the best ever.
Reach Editor Mark Derry at [email protected]

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