When Willie Mays joined the New York Mets in 1972, his arrival came with a promise.
Joan Payson, then the owner of the Mets, told Mays his number would be retired by the organization after his career ended.
“Sadly, Mrs. Payson died before she could make good on her promise,” Mets broadcaster Howie Rose said Saturday at Citi Field during a ceremony for Old Timers’ Day. “And all these years later, it has remained unfulfilled. Until today.”
After player introductions – with legends like Cleon Jones, Darryl Strawberry and Mike Piazza lining the basepaths in Flushing – the Mets made a surprise announcement by retiring No. 24 that Mays wore while playing for the team at the end of his Hall of Fame career in 1972 and 1973.
“The New York Mets are proud to announced that, in accordance with Mr. Payson’s wishes, and at the urging of his former Mets teammates, in recognition of his contributions to the Mets, as well as baseball in New York and the country at large, Willie Mays’ 24 will take its place in the left field corner here at Citi Field with the other greats in Mets history,” Rose said.
The 91-year-old Mays, arguably the greatest living baseball player, was not in attendance on Saturday. He was represented by his son, Michael, who wore Mays’ No. 24 jersey and joined his father’s former Mets teammates Jones, Ed Kranepool, Jon Matlack and Felix Millian.
Rose read a statement from Mays.
“I want to thank Steve and Alex Cohen for making this day possible and embracing the Mets history,” the statement read. “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 favorites cities, New York and San Francisco. New York was a magical place to play baseball.”
Mays spent the first 21 seasons of his 23-year career with the Giants, first in New York and then San Francisco after the team moved to the West Coast in 1958. He hit .301 with 660 home runs, which is sixth most in MLB history, and 1,909 RBIs.
Mays was dealt from the Giants to the Mets in May of 1972 for Charlie Williams and $50,000, reuniting him with fans from the city where his major league career began at the Polo Grounds. Mays homered in his Mets debut, hitting a go-ahead solo shot in the bottom of the fifth inning.
Over two seasons with the Mets, Mays hit .238 with 14 home runs and 44 RBIs, helping the Mets reach the 1973 World Series.
Mays becomes the sixth former Met to have his number retired, joining managers Gil Hodges (No. 14) and Casey Stengel (No. 37), and players Tom Seaver (No. 41), Jerry Koosman (No. 36), Mike Piazza (No. 31) and Keith Hernandez, whose No. 17 was retired by the team in July.
“I know in his heart, this is a big deal for him,” Mays’ son Michael said after the ceremony.
Mays delivered some key postseason hits for the Mets, driving in a run in Game 5 of the NLCS and a go-ahead two-run single in Game 2 of the 1973 World Series. Days later, he would wear his iconic No. 24 for the final time of his career.
After Mays’ retirement, the number was worn by three Mets — Kelvin Torve, Ricky Henderson and, most recently, Robinson Cano. From this day forward, no Met will wear Mays’ No. 24.
“Mets fans always gave me the biggest ovations and the loudest thank yous ever,” Mays said in a statement. “Today, I return those thank yous from the bottom of my heart. Thank you, Mets.”
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