In today's New York Times...
January 21, 2011
Mays, at Home in Harlem, Connects With Its Children
By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
Harlem has had so many magical days; Friday offered yet another, when the great Willie Mays came back home.
More than 200 students from P.S. 46 gathered inside the school’s auditorium to listen to Mays talk about his life in Harlem as the Giants’ center fielder.
The students were familiar with Mays because the school’s principal, George Young, had ordered a schoolwide assignment to research Mays’s career and life.
The students entered the auditorium knowing that they were in the presence of a great man who had once lived in Harlem and had made his name in the Polo Grounds, the stadium once located where the school now stands.
The students got more than they bargained for. Over the years, Mays has developed a reputation for being difficult, but on this day, he was anything but. He was accommodating and truly seemed to enjoy being back in Harlem and sharing himself with the public school students.
Mays brought gifts for the school’s best students — 12 baseballs and three replica 1951 Giants jerseys. The balls were handed out one by one by Harold Reynolds, the former major leaguer who serves as an analyst for the MLB Network. But when it was the turn of the final student, sixth-grader Kendrick Taveras, Mays realized they were one ball short. Rather than leave Kendrick empty-handed, Mays pulled out his wallet.
“I know this is not appropriate,” he said, but he pulled out a $100 bill anyway and handed it to the student, whose shocked expression was worth a million dollars.
In that instant, the legend of Willie Mays became tangible for the schoolchildren. Mays later explained that he didn’t want the student to feel left out. “I didn’t want him to go away saying, ‘Hey, that guy didn’t give me nothing,’ ” Mays said, laughing.
Sixty years ago, Mays was called up by the Giants a few days after his 20th birthday. He moved to New York and lived in a first-floor apartment on St. Nicholas Place just below 155th Street.
Mays called Harlem home, and in return Harlem embraced him as a native son. “In 1951 when I first started, I lived right on top of the hill on St. Nicholas Place,” Mays said, referring to the Sugar Hill area, where he lived during his first two years in New York.
Mays would walk to the Polo Grounds using the steep staircase off 155th Street. “I used to go up and down this street all the time, so I’m familiar with this area,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to come back, to let all of the youngsters know what I was doing here.”
In addition to his emerging stature then as a great player, Mays’s ability to connect with young people became legendary. During the season, Mays regularly played stickball with a group of 10 children in the neighborhood. They would knock on his first-floor window, and by 10 a.m. they were playing ball on St. Nicholas Place.
“I like kids,” Mays said. “I think I’m more at home with kids than I am with grownups, because the kids are genuine. You see them and there’s no falsehood there. You see what you see; that’s what you’re going to get.”
Mays, who will turn 80 in May, made his way to P.S. 46 through Friday morning’s snow and arrived nearly an hour early.
“I woke up at 5:30 in the morning and I asked myself, ‘What am I going to tell these kids?’ ” he said.
When he realized it was snowing, he asked himself, “Is it snowing too bad to get uptown?” But his decision was easy. “I said: ‘Let’s go early, because if I miss this session, these kids are going to be disappointed.’ So I was early.”
This is where Mays made his name, where he became rookie of the year and won his only World Series championship. If Harlem was the spiritual capital of black America, Willie Mays was its center fielder.
Mays is an American treasure, an Alabama native but a state-of-mind New Yorker. As Reynolds tried to keep the program moving, Mays, taking his time and clearly enjoying the moment, told him: “You don’t understand, man. This is my neighborhood.”
As the program came to a close, Young came onstage and asked the audience to stand and serenade Mays with a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
This was perhaps the most touching act of a magical day. Inside the auditorium, generations and ethnicities converged, singing baseball’s anthem of innocence and hope.
Mays sat and absorbed what was happening.
“I thought he was very sincere,” Young said. “He seemed concerned about the well-being of the children and the community. I feel that he connected. There was a sincerity there.”
The Giants returned to New York this weekend to share the world championship — their first since 1954 — with legions of fans who remained loyal to the team, and to reach out to fans whose hearts were so broken by the Giants’ departure for San Francisco that they zoned out of baseball.
Mays was one whose soul remained in New York.
He returned on Friday to reconnect with a generation of young people who he felt needed to see, feel and touch a legend who once called Harlem home.
Mays is the hero who never really left.