Willie Mays

Giants celebrate Mays' life, legacy in star-power-packed ceremony

NBC Universal, Inc.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The seats started to fill up shortly after 3 p.m. on Monday afternoon. A dozen rows were set up behind and around the plate at Oracle Park, and under a bright sun, they were occupied by Hall of Famers, Giants executives, former managers, former players, media members, mayors and even a president. 

Three hours later, as the sun started to set, all of the attendees were covered by the shade. But center field remained in the sun, and the number 24, set up at second base, remained brightly lit. Barry Bonds looked out at the number and the outfield where he once played and summed up a moving ceremony.

"Thank you, Willie," he said, choking up. "Thank you."

Three weeks after Willie Mays passed away, a large crowd gathered at Oracle Park for what was called a public celebration of his life. It truly was a celebration, filled with emotional stories but also plenty of funny anecdotes. It was an appropriate goodbye to a man who played and lived with a tremendous amount of joy. 

The event drew about 4,500 fans to Oracle Park, and to nobody's surprise, the biggest star in franchise history brought perhaps the greatest collection of star power the ballpark has ever seen.

Former president Bill Clinton walked in just before the ceremony started and sat between Larry Baer and Willie Brown, one of three former San Francisco mayors who attended. Clinton was a surprise guest speaker and was introduced by Jon Miller as a friend of Mays. 

Clinton recalled how as a kid in Arkansas he loved the St. Louis Cardinals, but his true passion was listening to national games on the radio, which allowed him to hear The Catch. Later, after leaving the White House, he would become friends with Mays and often play golf with him.

"Willie Mays gave me the chance to realize what real greatness is," Clinton said. "It's a curious combination of intelligence, dedication, the will to win, and a fundamental humility to believe that the effort is the prize, a gift he leaves us all with and that I hope we can all share and cherish."

Clinton said Hank Aaron once told him Mays was the best player he ever saw, and that was a theme of just about every speech. There was nobody who played the game like Mays, who left a legacy that goes far beyond his Hall of Fame numbers. 

Felipe Alou, a former teammate of Mays, explained how his skills were the greatest he saw in 68 years as a player, coach and manager. Another teammate, Joe Amalfitano, said he wishes he had seen Mays play at Oracle Park.

"Right-center field, with him playing center field, might have been called Death Valley," he said. 

Commissioner Rob Manfred and Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre represented Major League Baseball, and the Giants were represented by dozens of former players, including recent retirees Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Sergio Romo and Javier Lopez. Reggie Jackson, Dennis Eckersley, Dave Stewart and Ricky Henderson were among the former MLB stars who also attended, along with the families of Giants Hall of Famers Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey and Gaylord Perry.  

The program ended with a speech by Michael Mays, Willie's son. He thanked the attendees and led a prayer, and he talked passionately about his father's work in the community, particularly with kids.

"I know most of you have come here to say goodbye and have your closure, but me not so much," Michael Mays said. "His presence is visible everywhere. I'm filled with pride from the continued outpouring of love for him."

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