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05/06/06 10:20 PM ET

Negro Leagues celebrated

SAN DIEGO -- On the occasion of Willie Mays' 75th birthday Saturday, several of the game's great names from the Negro Leagues, where Mays got his start with the Birmingham Black Barons, were at PETCO Park for a ceremony honoring the Negro Leagues.

Smiling, dignified Buck O'Neil, the game's enduring historian and ambassador, and Don Newcombe, ace of the Brooklyn Dodgers' staff in Mays' early days with the New York Giants, were in agreement on the Say Hey Kid's place among the all-time greats.

"Willie Mays was the best Major League Baseball player I've seen," said O'Neil, whose memories stretch back to the 1930s as player, coach and manager and now serves as the face and spirit of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.

"I can't see anybody being as good as Willie Mays, ever," Newcombe said. "Henry [Aaron] was more of a quiet player; he wasn't as flamboyant. He just went about the business of kicking your [fanny]. And I belonged to the club, believe me. Henry was great, all right, but there was only one Willie Mays."

O'Neil admired the gifts of many of Mays' contemporaries.

"Ted Williams and Stan Musial could beat you with the bat," he said. "Joe DiMaggio could beat you with the bat and glove. Willie Mays could beat you with everything: bat, glove, arm, speed on the bases," Then Buck made a fascinating disclosure.

"The best ballplayer for me was Oscar Charleston, going way back now. He could give you 50 home runs and 50 stolen bases. We old-timers say the closest to Oscar was Willie Mays. You know, if Willie had played in the same ballparks Hank played in, that home run record [755] might belong to Willie."

Newcombe faced Charleston in the Negro Leagues late in Oscar's career, when he was playing first base.

"I didn't see him when Buck did, when he was young," Newcombe said, "but I don't think Oscar could run like Willie or hit with Willie's power.

"I wish there was somebody I could compare with Willie Mays. But I haven't seen anybody in that class."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.