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Clinton, Bonds speak at Willie Mays celebration of life

Clinton, Bonds speak at Willie Mays celebration of life
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SAN FRANCISCO — If the shower of flowers at the foot of his statue, or last week’s pregame tribute in front of 40,000 fans, served as a chance for the Giants fan base to pay public respects to their beloved Willie Mays, then the affairs on a cloudless Monday evening at Oracle Park took on the feeling of an intimate celebration of the late, great ballplayer’s closest friends.

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In a testament of Mays’ stature, it was no ordinary lineup of speakers who took their turns at the dais in front of the pitcher’s mound, flanked by two bushels of orange roses, or via video messages on the scoreboard.

Baseball’s all-time home-run king, his godson.

One President of United States, Bill Clinton, in the first row, and another, Barack Obama, on the scoreboard.

A half-dozen fellow members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

With Jon Miller as the master of ceremonies narrating a tour of his exploits, from the Birmingham Barons to his final games with the Giants two-and-a-half decades later, the greats on stage shared a sentiment that spoke even more of Mays, who died last month at the age of 93.

The gates of 24 Willie Mays Plaza were wide open for anyone to attend, and approximately 4,500 took the opportunity to remember Mays for more than two hours with  his son, Michael Mays, Baker, Barry Bonds, Joe Torre, commissioner Rob Manfred, Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou, Joe Amalfitano and many more.

Pointing to the sky after delivering his first public remarks in the wake of his god father’s death, Bonds echoed his reaction when his father, Bobby, died in 2003.

“Thank you,” Bonds said, clasping his fist in the air. “Thank you. Fifty five years ago, you put your arm around a 5-year-old boy and said, ‘Hey kid, you’re coming with me.’ I knew at that moment what I wanted to be, and that was a professional baseball player like my father and Willie.”

Speaking for approximately five minutes, Bonds said Mays adopted him “like a second son” but that “talking about one without the other seems kind of strange to me because I couldn’t have learned everything about the game of baseball without my father and Willie.”

Bonds remarks preceded those from Mays’ son, Michael, and followed a recorded message from the 44th president of the United States, who focused on the impact the ballplayer had on the civil rights movement. In 2015, Obama presented Mays the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive.

“A strong argument can be made that he is the greatest baseball player to have ever lived, but Willie Mays’ impact on our culture goes far beyond statistics,” Obama said. “As one of the major leagues’ first Black players, Willie’s excellence and the sheer beauty of his game … ended up bridging our nation’s racial divide. Black or white, you could appreciate Mays’ unbridled enthusiasm, his work ethic, his inherent dignity and graciousness.

“Alongside other (greats) like Jackie Robison and Hank Aaron, Willie’s popularity would change attitudes that political speeches alone never could.”

It all started when the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958 and Mays was tasked with finding a place to live. Initially denied his residence of choice because of the color of his skin, Mays “changed the housing laws in San Francisco and eventually California,” former Mayor Willie Brown said. “All because Willie Mays said fair housing is equal.”

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Once he got settled, Mays delighted a nascent fanbase in San Francisco, which didn’t have major-league baseball until the Giants moved west — with their young new sensation in tow — in 1958.

“None of us liked baseball until Willie Mays came along,” joked Brown, one of four former or current mayors in attendance, who developed a friendship through Mays’ continuous civic involvement.

The remarks delivered by the pair of former presidents came as a surprise, with neither listed on the program of speakers. But sitting next to Brown in the first row on the first base line, Miller introduced “the 42nd President of the United States and a friend of Willie Mays,” who was greeted by one of the largest cheers of the evening.

“He gave me a chance to realize what real greatness is — a curious combination of intelligence, dedication, a will to win and a fundamental humility,” said Clinton, who shared the story of his first time meeting Mays, asking him questions for three hours “like a kid in a candy store” when the game in 2000 he was supposed to attend was rained out, and later developed a friendship on the golf course.

“I loved playing golf with him, but I was appalled the first time we played,” Clinton said. “He had these old clubs and I swear he had masking tape on them. I said let me give you a set of golf clubs, and he said no. … He beat me anyway.”

The golf course is also where Mays made his biggest impact on his godson.

“Most of the time it was Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the golf course,” Bonds said. “Willie and my dad would play golf and reminisce about the old days. That’s when you got real talk with real knowledge of the game. Willie and my father would tell me stories about each at bat, who they faced, how they approached it. They even went back to the days (of segregation) when they had to do in the backdoor of the restaurant just to get some food.”



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