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02/08/12 10:45 AM EST

Mays remains beloved figure in New York

Hall of Fame center fielder closed out career with Mets in '73

NEW YORK -- It is rare these days that Willie Mays speaks in public, so it was an eager crowd that greeted Mays at the Baseball Assistance Team's annual fundraising dinner in Manhattan last month. And Mays humored them. In front of scores of baseball luminaries, the Hall of Fame outfielder spun tales of his first days in New York, his first Major League hit, his fabled basket catch during Game 1 of the 1954 World Series.

"When I came along, I came to a city I knew nothing about," Mays said that night. "It was so wonderful that the people in New York at that time knew more about me than I knew about myself."

He was 80 years old. He will turn 81 in May. And even now, nearly four full decades since Mays last stepped on the field as a player, many still call him the greatest all-around talent the game has ever seen.

But it was the end of that career that truly underscored how beloved Mays was in New York.

Mays' baseball life began five years before Jackie Robinson's ended. Racism still existed in that time, as it does today, as we acknowledge daily throughout Black History Month. But some of the worst hardships that Robinson faced throughout his playing career had vanished by the time Mays' star began to ascend, giving Mays a broader avenue toward a universal following.

It helped that Robinson's path had offered Mays ample company in New York, allowing him to team with Hank Thompson and Monte Irvin in the 1951 World Series as Major League Baseball's first all-black outfield. Though the Giants ultimately lost that Series to the Yankees, Mays used his 1951 Rookie of the Year Award-winning season to establish his reputation as a rare talent.

He and his teammates won the championship three years later, by which time Mays had developed into an All-Star and an MVP. He was Willie Mays as we know him today, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer making legendary basket catches, hitting dramatic home runs.

He never won a World Series again.

So by the time 1973 rolled around, finding the 41-year-old outfielder back in New York on behest of Mets owner Joan Payson, Mays had come to understand the degree of difficulty of winning a Series. He had also come to understand that the Mets, four years after their Miracle Mets season in 1969, had a chance.

Problem was, Mays was 41. He had been an Opening Day starter for the Mets, who acquired him from the Giants in 1972 for a grand return to New York, and though he had contributed his share of highlights throughout the summer, he hit just .211 with six home runs in 66 games. Still wildly popular, Mays had become a roster liability. And he knew it.

It was with those thoughts in mind that Mays arrived at Shea Stadium on Sept. 25, 1973, for "Willie Mays Night," a ceremony in his honor. Baseball legends such as Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial flew in to honor him, according to a United Press International account, as Mays soaked in his glory in Queens.

Throughout the night, he received plane tickets, three automobiles, a mink coat for his wife and a snowmobile from former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. Payson offered him flowers. Still more gifts came streaming in during the hour-long ceremony while more than 43,000 fans watched at Shea Stadium, less than 10 miles from the Polo Grounds site that Mays once called home.

And then Mays spoke, thanking the crowd before referencing his Mets teammates, locked in a five-way battle for the NL East title. Mays, who would retire a month later, had not played in more than two weeks and had not hit a home run in five. He would make a brief cameo in the 1973 World Series, but would not play a major role in New York's loss.

"I look at the kids over here, the way they're playing, the way they're fighting for themselves and it tells me one thing," Mays said that night. "'Willie, say goodbye to America.'

"I never felt I would ever quit baseball. But as you know, there is always a time for someone to get out."

It was a sad and poignant moment because, symbolically at least, it marked the end of perhaps the best all-around career in baseball history, one made possible in part by Robinson and countless others.

But the cheers that night at Shea made one thing clear: Mays was as beloved in New York as nearly any player, white or black, who ever came before.

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.