Willie Mays turns 80 today. Exactly 80. He is probably still better than you at baseball. When he eventually dies, he’ll still be better at baseball than me.
Mays is inarguably one of the greatest players of all time. I’m not even pigeon-holing that to baseball. Willie Mays was better at his job than almost anyone else is at theirs, and if I were a better blogger I’d be listing off his accomplishments, explaining to you with a mix of charm and reverence how he changed the game for the better, and always maintained that quiet dignity we’re so desperate to find in today’s stars, but so quick to explain away.
I don’t know Willie Mays personally. I wish I did. I was born in 1980, which means I never saw him play a game live. I know him from highlight reels, and Ken Burns’ Baseball, and an exceptional chapter in Joe Posnanski’s The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America about Willie’s experience in Buck’s Negro Leagues Museum. I know him as the guy in the satin jacket who makes stadiums full of people stand up and cheer and weep as he rides by on a little cart.
I also know him as an absolutely crucial, intangible piece of what makes baseball baseball. He’s a monument. He’s grainy black and white footage of a little guy running, running into the outfield, catching a big white ball as it falls, then whipping around and losing his hat. I’m glad he existed, and happy he still gets to. Happy birthday, Willie Mays, and thank you for never stabbing your wife or texting pictures of your junk to ladies.