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Spirits Of The City: The Willie Mays Statue

By Gary Kamiya | Illustration By Paul Madonna

Illustration By Paul Madonna
Illustration By Paul Madonna
There have been many great athletes in the storied history of Bay Area sports. Joe Montana. Jerry Rice. Steph Curry. Rick Barry. Nate Thurmond. Barry (I know, but still) Bonds. Kristi Yamaguchi. Juan Marichal. Jennifer Azzi. Helen Wills. Steve Young. And the list goes on.

But none of these all-time greats rank as high in the athletic pantheon as Willie Mays.

The San Francisco Giants center fielder, still alive and mentoring others at 90, is not only the greatest Giant to ever play — in the eyes of many, he’s the greatest baseball player of all time. Certainly there has never been a player who could do it all — hit for average, hit for power, run the bases, catch the ball and throw it — better than the Say Hey Kid. And Mays did it with inimitable style — and a zest and grace that made him beloved not just in San Francisco but around the country, and even the world.

So there was never any doubt that when the Giants opened their spectacular new stadium at China Basin in 2000, No. 24 would be prominently honored. The magnificent 9-foot bronze statue of Mays, in front of the main entrance to the ballpark and at the center of the plaza that bears his name, is an epic creation, one worthy of its Hall of Fame subject.

Sculptor William Behrends was commissioned by the late Peter Magowan, the team’s managing partner, to make the statue. At the stadium’s groundbreaking in December 1997, Magowan mused that he might like the statue to depict Mays’ single most famous feat — “The Catch” — the astounding full-speed, over-the-shoulder grab (followed by an even more amazing throw) of Vic Wertz’s screaming 450-foot drive in the 1954 World Series. But there was the derriere placement problem. If the statue were to be accurately positioned in relation to the field, the “back end is going to be sticking out coming into the ballpark,” Mays told the San Francisco Chronicle. Possibly realizing that mooning their fans as they entered was a bad idea, Behrends and Magowan chose instead to show Mays in action at the plate.

Behrends, who was a fan of Mays when he was a Little Leaguer, captured a wondrous moment. The larger-than-life statue, on its 5-foot pedestal of white California granite, shows Mays just after he has completed a mighty swing. It is a study of great physical power in the moment after it has been unleashed. (You’d never guess from the awe-inspiring physical specimen depicted by the statue — the thighs are particularly majestic — that the 5-foot-10-inch Mays in his playing days weighed just 170 pounds.) His body is so perfectly balanced that it is almost balletic. The bat is slipping gently from Mays’ left hand, his weight is shifting forward, and from the almost-smile on his face, we know that he has just crushed one of his 660 career home runs, the invisible ball sailing forever beyond the horizon into some Platonic bleachers.

Behrends also created the four other statues displayed near Oracle Park: one of Marichal, Willie McCovey (temporarily removed because of construction), Orlando Cepeda and Gaylord Perry. All are fine works (the impossibly high leg kick of the “Dominican Dandy” is captured wonderfully), but the Mays statue is the most memorable. “Meet me at Willie” became and remains the motto for people meeting at the ballpark — a fitting tribute to the greatest Giant of them all.

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