SAN FRANCISCO -- Willie Mays is 83 now, with his vision impaired by glaucoma, yet you still cannot slip a fast one past him without having it turned around.
Mays was sitting in his favorite chair in the Say Hey Suite, his domain in AT&T Park, the magnificent home of the San Francisco Giants, Willie’s town and team for 14 of his 22 big-league seasons.
A visitor from Minneapolis was asking Mays to validate the theory that the roster the National League brought to Minnesota for the 1965 All-Star Game was the greatest assembly of talent on one baseball team in history.
There were a dozen Hall of Famers, plus Pete Rose, on the 25-player squad. There was an outfield of Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente and Billy Williams … a backup outfield.
Best ever, right, Mr. Mays?
“That was a great team in ’65, but it wasn’t much different than the rest of the teams we sent to the All-Star Game during that time,” Mays said. “The National League was great every year.”
Then, the Say Hey Kid leaned forward slightly in his chair and said:
“We had so many 3 and 4 hitters on those teams, [manager] Walter Alston came to me before an All-Star Game and said, ‘Willie, I can’t make out a lineup. I don’t have a leadoff hitter.’
“I said, ‘I’ll write out a lineup.’ I took the card, put myself at the top, wrote in Hank [Aaron] and Ernie [Banks] in the middle and said to Walter, ‘I’ll get us off to a good start.’ ”
This was on July 11, 1960, in Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium. It was during the four-year period (1959-62) when there were two All-Star Games played per summer to fund a players’ pension plan.
Mays had played in his first All-Star Game in 1954. He made his first start in 1957. The National League was 3-4 against the American League in Willie’s first seven All-Star Games.
Then, Mays wrote himself at the top of the lineup, and fulfilled his vow to Alston, the manager of the rival Dodgers, to get the National Leaguers off to a good start.
Willie led off with a triple against AL starter Bill Monbouquette. The National League scored three runs in the first and won the game 5-3.
Mays would be a fixture on the National League team through 1973. From his leadoff triple to a final pinch-hitting appearance (as a member of the New York Mets) in ’73, the NL went 14-2-1 in All-Star Games.
Overall, from Game 1 in 1960 through the NL’s victory at the Metrodome in 1985, the Nationals were 25-3-1 in All-Star Games.
“That  All-Star Game you’re talking about in Minnesota … I got us off to a good start in that game, too,” said the Say Hey Kid. “I led off with a home run against that guy from Baltimore.”
Milt Pappas. “That was him,” Mays said.
Mays also was the finisher for the NL that afternoon in Bloomington, working his way around the bases in the seventh inning to score the tiebreaking run in a 6-5 victory.
Starting out early
Willie Howard Mays Jr. started playing what was called Industrial League baseball for the Fairfield (Ala.) Gray Sox at age 13. He was the center fielder and his father, Cat, was the left fielder.
“He wouldn’t move,” Mays said. “Every ball that went up, I was supposed to catch it.”
Mays started his professional career with the Chattanooga Choo Choos in the summer of 1947, then moved up to his home-state Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro American League in ’48. He played three seasons for the Barons while completing high school in Fairfield.
The Boston Braves messed up a chance to sign Mays in the spring of 1950. He signed with the New York Giants in June for $4,000. He went to a Class B farm club in Trenton, N.J., and batted .353.
He was in Giants minor league camp in Sanford, Fla., with the Class AAA Minneapolis Millers in 1951. Legend has it, Giants manager Leo Durocher saw Mays in an exhibition and wanted him immediately, but owner Horace Stoneham and farm director Carl Hubbell believed Willie needed “seasoning” in Minneapolis.
Mays’ seasoning with the Millers lasted 35 games, in which he batted .477.
Mays debuted for the New York Giants on May 25, 1951, three weeks after his 20th birthday. He went 0-for-12 in a three-game series in Philadelphia.
The Giants came home to play the Boston Braves on May 28. Mays hit a titanic home run in his first at-bat in the Polo Grounds — against the great lefthander Warren Spahn.
“Gentlemen, for the first 60 feet, that was a hell of a pitch,” Spahn told reporters, in recognition of Mays’ quick wrists and strong hands.
The Giants chased down the Dodgers from 13 games behind in mid-August. They won the third game of the pennant playoff with the Dodgers on Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World.”
Mays was the Rookie of the Year, although the Giants lost the World Series in six games to the Yankees and another rookie, Mickey Mantle.
New Yorkers were infatuated with Mays, from that first missile he hit off Spahn, to the first time he lost his cap — whether it flew off as he raced around the bases, or charged a bouncer like an infielder, or ran down a drive in the gap.
“Your cap never fit when you played,” a reporter said to Mays on this late afternoon in the Say Hey Suite.
Willie smiled and said: “The cap fit OK. People liked it when the cap came off. I came up in the Negro Leagues, remember. We always gave the fans a little extra.”
How about the other Mays trademark — the basket catch? “I picked that up when I was in the Army,” he said.
Mays was a physical education instructor and played for the base team at Fort Eustis in Virginia. A random soldier in Willie’s baseball class was catching fly balls with his glove turned upward at his waist.
“I tried it and found out you could get the throw away quicker with the basket catch,” Mays said. “The fans liked that, too.”
And that grand nickname, the Say Hey Kid? “You know, just the way you greet people ... ‘Hey, how you doing over there?’ and a writer [Barney Kremenko] picked up on it,” Mays said.
Amazing catch on the biggest stage
Mays was gone from the Giants from the end of May 1952 through the 1953 season with his Army duty. “I wish the Army had taken me and not Willie,” Durocher said.
New Yorkers agreed. Even Dodgers fans gave Mays an ovation when his final game before the start of active duty was played at Ebbets Field.
Mays returned to the Giants in 1954. He won the batting title at .345, with 41 home runs and 110 RBI.
The Giants won the pennant by five games over the Dodgers and swept the Cleveland Indians (a team with a 111-43 record) in the 1954 World Series. The improbable sweep started with Mays’ improbable over-the-shoulder catch of a Vic Wertz blast to the Polo Grounds’ vast center field in Game 1.
Count on this: The MLB Network and ESPN and other outlets will show us “The Catch” often on and around Sept. 29, which will be the 60th anniversary of Wertz getting highway-robbed.
“I had that ball … I knew that … but Larry Doby’s on second, and it’s so deep in that ballpark in center, he can tag and score,” Mays said six decades later. “I’m running and thinking, ‘How can I throw? I can’t run it down and keep going toward the fence.’ You can see in the film, I’m starting to bend my legs, so I can turn and throw.
“That was the hardest part of the play: not the catch, the throw.”
Moving to the Stick
The Giants moved to San Francisco for the 1958 season and into windswept Candlestick Park in 1960.
“Willie finished with 660 home runs, and he lost hundreds to that wind always blowing in at Candlestick,” said Mike Murphy, the equipment manager who has been with the Giants in San Francisco since Day 1. “You can’t believe the number of times Willie just killed a ball and it was knocked down by the wind.”
Mays shrugged at his friend Murphy’s observation and said: “You have to play the ballpark. I learned to play Candlestick.”
He paused before adding the all-time understatement: “I did OK there.”
‘There actually is one’
The centerpiece of the main entrance to the Giants’ spectacular current ballpark is a statue of Willie Mays, and he’s taking a mighty swing … like the one he used to lead off with a home run for the National League in the 1965 All-Star Game at Met Stadium.
Mays played the entire game that day, as did several National Leaguers. “It was tough to make the All-Star team, and we were excited to be in the game,” Mays said. “Why would a manager want to take me or Aaron or Clemente out of the game? He wanted to win.”
From 1954 through 1966, when Mays often played the entire game in center field, he went 22-for-58 (.379) against the AL’s best, with two doubles, three triples, three home runs and nine RBI.
It was in this period that Ted Williams would say: “They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays.”
It was also when Jim Murray, the great wordsmith from the Los Angeles Times, wrote: “The first thing to establish about Willie Mays is that there actually is one.”
There’s still one, a regular at AT&T Park for Giants games, and in immortality in a magnificent statue at the main entrance.
“I’m glad the Giants did that statue for Willie,” said Murphy, the constant in the Giants clubhouse. “I go back to Joe [DiMaggio]. I’ve seen many great ones. Nobody matched Willie Mays on a baseball field.”