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San Francisco Giants announcer Dave Flemming remembers Willie Mays

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

He's considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Willie Mays died yesterday at age 93. He started his career in 1948 playing for the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro Leagues. He then signed with the New York Giants, who later moved to San Francisco. He played for the Giants from 1951-1972, missing two seasons because he was drafted to serve in the Korean War. Despite retiring over 50 years ago, Mays' career numbers remain some of the best in all of baseball. Mays played over 3,000 games, hit 660 home runs. He was voted National League MVP twice, won 12 Gold Gloves and appeared in a record 24 All-Star Games. And those are just a taste of what he accomplished on the field.

Dave Flemming is a play-by-play announcer for the San Francisco Giants, and he was lucky enough to know Willie Mays. He joins us now from Wrigley Field in Chicago, where the Giants are currently playing the Cubs. Welcome, Dave.

DAVE FLEMMING: Hi, Rob. Lucky doesn't really even begin to describe it. I truly - it's been one of the great blessings of my whole life that I called Willie Mays a friend. How cool does that sound?

SCHMITZ: (Laughter) That sounds incredibly cool. I mean, you broke the news live on the air, and I listened to that. I could tell that you were struggling to find the words to announce that the great No. 24, Willie Mays, had passed. What was going through your mind as you were announcing that to the Giants fan base?

FLEMMING: You know, I've done a lot of games and I've never had a day like yesterday on the air, and probably very few broadcasters ever have. I mean, I really - I was speechless, literally. And it was an emotional thing. But, gosh, I'll never forget yesterday.

SCHMITZ: What did he mean to you?

FLEMMING: Willie meant so much more than - when you introed the segment and were talking about all the numbers and everything that he accomplished, that's so little that represents what he meant to the Giants and to the game of baseball and to our country. He meant excellence. He meant brilliance, but he meant joy and passion and youthful exuberance and all that stuff for not just a generation of people in our country, but many generations. He was unlike anybody else who's ever played baseball.

SCHMITZ: Now, I hear you call him a genius. You know, he was considered one of the greatest of all time in the sport. But I get the sense that what you're talking about also is that he was a genius both on the field but also off the field, that he had this presence that was powerful for anyone who met him.

FLEMMING: Oh, for sure. And I mean it in both ways, I do. And part of it is on-field genius, 'cause Willie's brilliance wasn't just the physical gifts, the power, the speed. He saw the game unlike any other player. I mean, he had a true understanding at, like, an innate level of everything that was happening.

But the charisma that you're talking about off the field - in a way, if you just ask an American, what's the image of Willie Mays that pops to the mind when you first hear that name? - I think, for a lot of people, it's him on the streets of Harlem playing stickball. Like, not the catch in the World Series or the four-home run game or a hook slide into home plate. When he would finish a game at the Polo Grounds, he'd go back to his neighborhood and the kids would be out in the street, and Willie wanted to go play with them. There's never been anybody who's been like that who played the game at the level that Willie did.

SCHMITZ: He stayed - as you mentioned, he stayed connected to the Giants organization after he retired. He'd sometimes stop by the clubhouse, chat with players, chat with you. You know, what was his impact on baseball in his retired years?

FLEMMING: I mean, especially in his later years, he came to - until the last couple of seasons, he came to every home game. He just wanted to be in the clubhouse, at the ballpark. He loved the game. He loved the Giants, his Giants. And the players who, you know, in these last many years who would come into that Giants clubhouse and meet him, Willie wanted to talk to them. He wanted to ask them questions. He would pull every Giants center fielder over the last many decades would get an earful from Willie about, why aren't you playing this guy in this direction? Or why do you hold your glove that way? Your glove needs to be higher on your hand. That could cost you a couple inches. That might be the difference in a big catch that you could make in a big spot.

And so for Giants players who never even got a chance to watch Willie play when he was in his heyday, he was still passing along that baseball wisdom to them. He was at every big ceremony we had at the ballpark to honor one of his old teammates, a current Giants player. Willie wanted to be there and be a part of that. And that's a gift that he passed on that will never be forgotten by so many people who he touched way after his playing career was over.

SCHMITZ: Dave Flemming, tomorrow you and the Giants head to Alabama to play at Rickwood Field, where Mays got his start. What are you thinking about as the team gets to play in this historic place where so much happened?

FLEMMING: Yeah, obviously, it's incredible timing. You know, it's so sad that we lost Willie. But in a way, it's just amazing that tonight, we're going to get on an airplane with the current big league Giants and fly to Willie Mays' hometown, and then play a game there tomorrow. The timing of that is kind of hard to fathom and I can't wait for it.

The whole point of the game in a lot of ways was not just to honor Willie but to honor the history of the players in the Negro Leagues who played there, who were never allowed to play big league baseball. Thank God we got the gift of watching Willie in the big leagues. And when you really think back to Willie being born in 1931 in the Deep South in a small town, you know, very modest means - that kid who was born in Alabama in 1931. He changed the world. And I think we're going to be thinking about that tomorrow night in Birmingham.

SCHMITZ: Well, tomorrow night at Rickwood Field, Willie Mays will be there in spirit. Dave Flemming, thank you for helping us remember the great Willie Mays.

FLEMMING: You are welcome. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jordan-Marie Smith
Jordan-Marie Smith is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.