Willie Mays, the Last Day in the Polo Grounds, and My Dad

Last week's column described life with my 10-year-old son, Josh. I received a better response to that column than anything I have ever written before. As one Very Important Person said to me, "You need to write more personal columns that people identify with than just writing about politics."

I tried not to take this as indicating that few people care about my political opinions. (My 10-year-old son tells me he cares; my wife tells me she doesn't.)

So in this column I am writing a sequel to last week's column, which ended with my accolade to my hero, Willie Mays, who, from all the e-mails I received about last week's column, clearly was a hero for many people, both men and women.

On Sept. 29, 1957, my dad took me to see Willie Mays play his last game in New York for the New York Giants. The next season, the Giants were moving to San Francisco.

We expected all 54,555 seats in the old Polo Grounds on Coogan's Bluff in the Bronx, just across the ravine from Yankee Stadium, to be filled. Instead, the stands seemed virtually empty. It seemed that Giants fans were angry about the move to San Francisco, and also, the Giants were mired in sixth place. (We later learned the attendance was only about 11,000 fans.)

But there was an advantage to the poor turnout. My dad was able to take me to the empty seats right behind the Giants' dugout, near the rail to the field. None of the ushers seemed to mind. So close to Willie!

In the first inning, when No. 24 came up to bat (batting third), my dad urged me to yell, "Say hey, Willie," and I did. He turned, looked and smiled at me! I swear he did.

Then he proceeded to get a single. But the game didn't go well for the Giants. They were down 9-1 going into the bottom of the ninth, when Willie came up with one out. Thank goodness, I thought, he won't be the last out in the last inning.

Oh, please, please, I prayed to the God of Baseball, let Willie hit a home run in his last at-bat at the Polo Grounds. But that was not to be. Willie hit a one-hopper to the pitcher, and he was quickly thrown out. Yet he hustled all the way to first base and beyond. Oh my, oh my, I thought. My hero hustled to the very end.

Two outs. And then came the last batter, grounding out to shortstop, and it was over. As fast as that.

All of a sudden, I saw No. 24 literally leap up the steps of the Giants dugout, right in front of me, so close I could almost touch him, and there he was tearing full speed toward center field to the safety of the clubhouse and the team locker room.

As soon as I saw Willie first out of the dugout, I had only one thought: "I HAD TO SHAKE WILLIE'S HAND AND THANK HIM AND SAY GOOD-BYE. I HAD TO!!!!"

Without the slightest hesitation, I jumped over the rail and ran after him.

I ran as hard as I could. A few other people apparently had the same idea — like virtually all 11,000 fans who were also lining the railings for the last out. A few people (seemed like a few thousand) stopped, as I did, to get souvenirs from the field. I grabbed a handful of Polo Grounds infield dirt — the same dirt, I thought, that Willie might have stepped on! I put it in my pocket. I kept that dirt in a paper cup in my desk drawer for years.

Other fans grabbed the infield bases. Others were tearing down the outfield walls. It was a mob, and it was a mess.

I ended up sitting on the first step of the steep steps to the clubhouse, with nearly all 11,000 fans behind me, all of us shouting, "We want Willie! We want Willie!" Then suddenly it hit me: "Where is my dad?" I looked around to see if I could find him. I couldn't.

First I thought there was no reason to be afraid — after all, I was 12 years old — so why should I be afraid of temporarily being separated from my father? Then I changed my mind as I looked at the screaming mob of strangers behind me. I was petrified. But at that very moment, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned. It was my dad. "How did you know where I was?" I asked him.

"I knew where you would be," he said quietly, with a wisdom I didn't appreciate at the time.

And then — it happened. Some 51 years later, I remember it as if it were today. Willie came out, waved to all the delirious thousands of shouting fans, and then … and then … he looked down the stairs, he looked at me, and he pointed his finger at me, as if to say, "Hi, kid — bye, kid."

I swear he did. To this day I am certain he was talking to me, only me.

Well, almost certain.

Looking back 51 years later, I realize I had experienced an important lesson in life — I was both happier and sadder that moment than I had ever been in my life, and that was not necessarily a contradiction.

I learned over the many years since that joy and sadness are not only part of life; one almost always follows after the other, and then, back again.

So now I know, with the wisdom of hindsight and many years hence, that when such a moment of pure joy occurs, never forget it, always treasure it, because in real life it won't be allowed to go on forever, because surely, some sadness will inevitably follow.

So remember those moments of joy as best as you can and, if possible, write them down so you won't forget them.

Now I finally have.



This article appears in today’s Washington Times.

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