Willie Mays talks to students at Polo Grounds site

By Ronald Blum

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Jan. 21 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Students at the Arthur Tappan School P.S. 46 in Harlem, file past the the Giants 2010 World Series trophy after posing for photos on Friday, Jan. 21, 2011 in New York. The middle school is near the site of the old Polo Grounds where the Giants played before the team moved to San Francisco in 1957.

Bebeto Matthews, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Willie Mays sat on the stage of a grade school auditorium on the site of the old Polo Grounds, addressing a room full of attentive kids. A larger-than-life black-and-white photo of himself playing stickball served as the backdrop.

He was to give the "A'' students a dozen baseballs along with three cream-colored, vintage 1951 jerseys, with "Giants" written across the front in script and his old number on the back. Discovering he was one baseball short, Mays pulled out a $100 bill and handed it to Kendryck Taveras, a very surprised fifth-grader.

"I'd rather have the $100," the grinning 11-year-old said. "I'm going to save it."

The Say Hey Kid gave these kids a day they'll never forget.

"This is my neighborhood!" the 79-year-old Hall of Famer said to loud applause and one of a number of standing ovations. "They don't know me. They wasn't here when I was playing ball."

And then he painted a picture of what it was like, back when the ground where P.S. 46 stood was home to the famous No. 24.

"Right up the street here, St. Nicholas Place," he said, gesturing, remembering back six decades ago.

Another time, same place for Willie, likely the greatest living baseball player.

"I used to have maybe 10 kids come to my window. Every morning, they'd come at 9 o'clock," he said. "They'd knock on my window, get me up. And I had to be out at 9:30. So they'd give me a chance to go shower. They'd give me a chance to eat breakfast. But I had to be out there at 9:30, because that's when they wanted to play. So I played with them for about maybe an hour."

Mays was back Friday where his big league career, bringing along the San Francisco Giants' World Series trophy celebrating the team's first title since 1954. In a charming talk, with Giants managing general partner Bill Neukom and President Larry Baer sitting in the front row, he made the "Willie, Mickey and the Duke" era of flannel uniforms seem real and vibrant in this iTouch age.

The kids had studied Mays' life ahead of the assembly, and Taveras even wrote a biography about him, learning that he played in the Negro Leagues.

"It was cool!" he said after meeting the famous player.

Baer called the stickball photo of Mays his favorite image in sports.

"Weaving a legend to come back to where he made his mark and taking that trip through time made me cry," Baer said. "It's such a return to an innocent time — after a game or before game, you're by the ballpark playing ball with the kids?"

Mays talked about the famous trio of center fielders: himself for the Giants, Mickey Mantle across the Harlem River with the Yankees and Duke Snider over in Brooklyn with the Dodgers.

"We would go to the All-Star game and Mick and I would laugh at Duke," Mays recalled. "And we would laugh at him all the time and say, 'Hey man, you can't play this game. We're better than you.'"

Most of all, it was the neighborhood memories that made the connection.

"There was a drugstore on the corner, and I used to go buy ice cream every day. That was day games," he said, wearing his black-and-orange "SF" cap. "Night games I started at maybe say 4:30 or 5 o'clock. And they were always there to make sure that I would be there for them. I had a good time playing stickball."

Called up to the Giants in 1951, Mays was on deck when Bobby Thomson hit probably the most famous home run in baseball history, the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" that won the pennant over Brooklyn.

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