Saturday, August 27, 2022

Mets Old Timers Day: Willie Mays' #24 Retired

Willie Mays' number 24 that will join the Mets' other retired numbers. Photo by Jason Schott. 

The Mets made a surprise announcement at the end of the introductions for Old Timers Day on Saturday afternoon, the Willie Mays' number 24 would be retired by the club.

Mays is known for playing the lion's share of his career with the Giants in New York, at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan from 1951 to 1957, and then in San Francisco, from '58 to 1972, when he was traded to the Mets.

As Mets radio announcer Howie Rose, who was the master of ceremonies on Saturday afternoon, recounted it, when then-Mets owner Joan Payson succeeded in bringing Mays back to finish his career in New York, she promised him that the Mets would retire his number, and went unfulfilled all these years.

Mays was traded to the Mets during the 1972 season, and he was a key part of the 1973 National League Championship club, and got a big hit in the NLCS that season against the Cincinnati Reds, one of the most memorable series in Mets history.

Mays' final home run, the 660th of his career, came on August 17, 1973 at Shea Stadium. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1979, was a 24-time All-Star, two-time MVP, and earned 12 Gold Gloves. He was the first player in Major League history with 300 or more home runs and 300 or more stolen bases. At the time of his retirement, Mays was third in home runs (660), runs (2,062), and total bases (6,080), seventh in hits (3,293), and RBI (1,909, and first in putouts by an outfielder (7,112).

Mays could not attend the ceremony in person, but he released this statement, "I want to thank Steve and Alex Cohen for making this day possible and embracing Mets history. I can never forget the way it felt to return to New York to play for all the loyal Mets fans. I'm tremendously proud I ended my career in Queens with the Mets during the '73 World Series. It's an honor to have my number retired in my two favorite cities - New York and San Francisco. New York was a magical place to play baseball."

Willie's son, Michael Mays, was in attendance, and he said afterwards of his family's reaction to 24 being retired, "We're thrilled, long time coming, for sure. I'd like to thank, of course, Steve Cohen, Jay Horwitz, Sandy (Alderson), all of Dad's teammates for making this happen, I'm really grateful."

This is the latest major step by Mets owner Steve Cohen, who took over the ballclub in 2021, to help the team continue to recognize it's history. This season, Mets fans have seen the Tom Seaver statue unveiled outside the front gate of Citi Field on Opening Day and Keith Hernandez's number 17 be retired on July 9.

Mets Old Timers were lined up on the baselines and Mays' 24 was presented behind the mound for all to see. Photo by Jason Schott.

"From my standpoint, to this point in the day, it's just been a terrific experience, and I think that is true for the players who are all here today, I think it's true certainly for the organization, but most importantly, perhaps, it's true for the fans," Mets Team President Sandy Alderson said after the Old Timers Day festivities. "I think it was tremendously rewarding that there were so many fans in the ballpark when those introductions started, just a tremendous credit to New York Mets fans.

"We were very pleased that as part of the ceremony today we could retire Willie Mays' number 24. We kept it as sort of a confidential segment of the ceremony. We wanted it to be a bit of a surprise. I think it's important, at least, to speak on behalf of the organization that we were able to do it on a day like today, which was so momentous, and provided a tremendous sort of context for the retirement of the number. Not sure we could have recreated this experience today over the next several years. I think this is also a recognition, a testament to the game of the baseball in New York, and what it means to New York, and as we watched all these generations of players today representing all generations of the Mets, Willie in a sense represented an even earlier era, but one that ultimately led to the formation of the Mets. It's also true that the last chapter of his career was here in New York with the Mets, and in many ways it was a meaningful last chapter.

"In addition, there has been a 50 year gap, if you will between a promise made and a promise kept, and we felt that on this occasion today, in light of all the players that we had here, all the generations, that this was the time to keep that promise, and make sure that as many as possible, both the alumni who are in attendance, and those who are here today, as well as those who will read or see or hear from all of you, that we all understood where Willie Mays fit in the overall spectrum of New York, the Mets, his career as a whole, and the great national pastime of baseball."

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