Willie Mays accepted the nation’s highest civilian honor at the White House on Tuesday, as President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The president walked over to Mays and placed the award around his neck as Mays removed his Giants cap for the presentation before sitting back down with the 16 other honorees.
Mays didn’t speak during the ceremonies, but the nation’s first black president recounted what he had said to Mays in an earlier conversation, that it is “because of giants like Mays, (that) someone like me could even think about running for president.”
Mays began his professional career with his father as part of the Negro League’s Birmingham Black Barons. He made his major-league debut with the then-New York Giants on May 25, 1951 — 19 days after he turned 20 and a little more than four years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Mays, 84, won two MVP awards and was a 24-time All-Star during his storied career, all but one year of which was spent with the New York and San Francisco Giants.
Considered by many to be the greatest all-around player in baseball history, Mays had long ago been honored by the Giants, who gave what is now AT&T Park the address 24 Willie Mays Plaza and placed a bronze statue of him — surrounded by 24 palm trees — in front of it. In addition, the right-field wall inside the park is 24 feet tall — all in tribute to Mays’ jersey number.
San Francisco has long celebrated May 24 as Willie Mays Day in the city.
Mays told The Chronicle when he heard of his selection that none of the multitude of baseball awards compares to the Medal of Freedom, which the White House said goes to “individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Known as the “Say Hey Kid,” his nickname’s murky provenance may stem from his arrival in the major leagues when he didn’t know everyone’s name. “You see a guy, you say, ‘Hey, man. Say hey, man,’” Mays was quoted as saying at the time, and the name stuck.
Mays grew up in Fairfield, Ala., the son of two gifted athletes. His mother, Annie Satterwhite, was a high school track and basketball star, and his father, Willie Howard “Cat” Mays, played on an all-black team sponsored by the local steel mill. The elder Mays taught his son to play catch at age 5. By 14, the younger Mays was playing outfield alongside his father on the Barons.
Mays played center and his father played left field. “You play on the line, I”ll take care of everything else,” Mays said he told his father.
Obama took special note of Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz’s blast to deep center in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, calling it “one of the most spectacular plays in sports history.” The Giants were underdogs in the Series, but — perhaps inspired by the catch — they went on to sweep the Cleveland Indians in four games. Mays never won another World Series as a player, and the Giants’ franchise went without another one until 2010.
“Today we celebrate some extraordinary people: innovators, artists and leaders who contribute to America’s strength as a nation,” Obama said.
Mays was the 1951 National League Rookie of the Year, won 12 consecutive Gold Gloves (1957-68), won his MVP awards in 1954 and ’65 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979 in his first year on the ballot.
He hit .302 in his career, and his 660 home runs are still the fifth most in baseball history, with his 3,283 hits the 12th most. Mays’ godson Barry Bonds — son of teammate Bobby Bonds — passed Mays with his 661st home run in 2004 and went on to finish with a major-league-record 762.
Mays missed most of the 1952 season and all of 1953 after he was drafted by the Army during the Korean War. He has made his home in Atherton since 1969, and in addition to his baseball awards has honorary degrees from Yale, Dartmouth and San Francisco State universities. Harlem has a Willie Mays Drive, and Orlando, Fla., a Willie Mays Parkway and Willie Mays Park.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.