Dieter Kurtenbach: There's good, great, and then there was Willie Mays

Dieter Kurtenbach, Bay Area News Group on

Published in Baseball

San Francisco received the Giants in 1958, making the City by the Bay a big-league town.

But the real win for the city wasn’t taking the team.

It was acquiring the player.

By the time Willie Howard Mays arrived in California, he was already one of baseball’s finest — Rookie of the Year at 20 years old, MVP at 23, and a perennial All-Star.

He made all that seem quaint in his 2,095 games in San Francisco.

And in the process, he helped turn San Francisco — and the Bay Area as a whole — into an epicenter of professional sports for decades to come.

Mays not only played the game at the highest level, but he played with an effervescent charisma. He was impossible not to root for, and while the Giants weren’t the first pro team in town — the 49ers were founded in 1946 — it did make him San Francisco’s first true professional sports superstar.

It’s a debt the city and region would never be able to fully repay.

Mays might have been the single greatest baseball player — perhaps even the single greatest American-born athlete — who ever lived.

His gaudy statistics — he’s the only player in baseball history with a career .300-batting average, at least 3,000 hits, 300 stolen bases and 300 home runs — make a strong case for that superlative.

But it’s the testimonials of those who played with and against him — those who saw the incredible feats of his brilliant 23-year career — that make an even stronger argument.

“No record book reflects this kind of concentration, determination, perseverance, or ability. As a player, Willie Mays could never be captured by mere statistics,” legendary San Francisco newsman Harry Jupiter said of Mays.


Mays died Tuesday. The Say Hey Kid was 93 years old.

Mays lent his legitimacy to San Francisco and the Bay Area until the end. Born in Alabama and rising to prominence in New York, Mays embraced San Francisco, even if the city didn’t always embrace him.

And with so many of our sports stars’ stories littered with caveats, Mays’ reputation remained as sterling as his play.

Every town needs a first star. San Francisco couldn’t have landed a better one.

It’s fair to wonder if Joe Montana, Steph Curry, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson or Patrick Marleau — among so many others — carve out roles as Bay Area pro sports legends if Mays didn’t come to San Francisco and pull more than a million fans a year to Seals Stadium and later Candlestick Park, rooting the team in town.

Luckily that’s merely a thought experiment. Theatre of the mind.

And, sadly, for folks of my generation, Mays’ incredible accomplishments on the field are also that. Sure, there are some highlights. And we all know “The Catch”. But few, if any, were able to experience the full depth of Mays’ talent — his day-to-day greatness.

But to hear others tell the story, it would seem as if the rules of hyperbole were suspended for No. 24.

There was good, and beyond that, great. Then there was Willie Mays.

Said Mays’ manager Leo Durocher:

“If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases and performed a miracle in the field every day, I’d still look you right in the eye and tell you that Willie was better.”

©2024 MediaNews Group, Inc. Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



blog comments powered by Disqus