The Mets did more than retire the popular baseball number Saturday afternoon, wowing the nostalgic crowd at Citi Field when it was revealed that Willie Mays’ number 24 was officially retiring. The team honors its recent vow to recognize the franchise’s rich history on the day it celebrates the return of Old Timer Day. And do it on record-perfect.
Yes, 24 is Willie Mays’ number, and no athlete in American sports history is more closely identified with that number than “Say Hey Kid.” But it’s also an important part of the heart of a woman named Joan Whitney Payson, a New York Giants fan to her core and a member of the team’s board, the only “no” vote when it came time to decide whether the team should move to San Francisco.
A few years later, Payson became the charter owner of the Mets, a fixture in his field box, the first woman to own a football club. And even though he lived and died with his Mets, Willie Mays remains his favourite. It was his dream that Willie finished his career in New York. And in May 1972, when it became clear that the Giants would provide the Mays, he pounced.
Mays herself, comfortable in San Francisco, wasn’t sure about moving East, knowing she was no longer the wondrous force of nature that once roamed the midfield of Coogan’s Bluff. But Joan Payson gave him a promise.
“Willie,” he said, according to team knowledge, “you will be the last Met to ever wear a No. 24.”
That was good enough for him. Famously, he hit a home run in his first game as the Met—against the Giants, of all teams, on May 14, 1972. He was 41 then, no longer a kid, but that didn’t matter. Mets fans are happy he’s back home. He reached the last 14 of his 660 homers in his lifetime as the Met.
But Payson died shortly after Mays retired in 1973. Twenty-four disappeared for a time, but Payson’s wish was never granted. Someone named Kelvin Torve somehow got the number out in 1990. The reaction was immediate, and Torve was soon wearing the number 39. Rickey Henderson and Robinson Cano were given special dispensation when they became the Mets.
The number is in rest, but not retired. Not until Saturday.
History was often cruel until Mays’ final days as the Met. Every old footballer, any sport, has the same parable: Willie-Mays-falling-down-in-the-outfield. This is also a very unfair stigma. Yes, the Mays lost the ball in the sun in Game 2 of the 1973 World Series. But so did Joe Rudi of Oakland (who was 27) and Reggie Jackson (who was also 27).
The Mets only exist in the World Series as the Mays advanced in a key turn in the decisive Game 5 of the NLCS. And in that wild Game 2 in Oakland? The Mays two-out single in the 12th inning broke the score 6-6 in a game the Mets would win 10-7.
But 24, in fact, was not taken out of circulation for Mays’ 491-plate appearance with the Mets. It will hang forever next to 14, 17, 31, 36, 37, 41 and 42 because of what he meant by New York baseball, especially when he was younger and he would play stickball with the neighborhood kids in Harlem in his civvies after the grind nine innings in his uniform. That’s why Joan Whitney Payson fell in love with him. And he’s not alone.
This will honor the .312/.387/593 slash he has the New York Giant; the .345/41 HR/110 RBI toast he amassed when he won his first MVP, at the age of 23, in 1954; glorify the greatest defensive play of them all, which he made that fall, in the World Series against Cleveland, running into Vic Wertz’s flying ball in the deepest pocket of the Polo Grounds.
For the most part, it will serve as a permanent reminder that the Mets are indeed descended from two baseball dads. Past holdings aren’t shy about the team’s ties to the Dodgers, but the Mets’ colors are orange as well as blue. Maybe May’s best days have come in a shirt other than the Mets, but so has Jackie Robinson. And now 24 and 42 will be tied to the New York National League team forever. As it should be.
Forty-nine years ago next month, a weary Mays walked up to the microphone at old Shea Stadium and told a tearful crowd, “Willie, say goodbye to America.” But a part of the soul of New York baseball never really said goodbye to him. And now never will.