SAN FRANCISCO (CBS / AP) — The Say Hey Kid is still as popular as ever.
The San Francisco Giants honored Willie Mays on his 80th birthday Friday night with a ceremony befitting a baseball legend, complete with a celebratory letter from President Barack Obama and a video tribute that included everyone from Commissioner Bud Selig to singer Tony Bennett.
Mays was driven on a golf cart from center field to the mound and received a roaring standing ovation from a sellout crowd of more than 42,000 at AT&T Park. At one point during the montage, Mays was wiping his face and pulling down his old Giants cap.
“I’m just so happy,” said Mays, wearing a black coat over a sharp gray suit, white shirt and orange tie on a chilly night by the bay. “When you have people like you guys to come out and cheer for me, it’s just a wonderful, wonderful feeling.”
The video shown on the center-field scoreboard before the opener of a three-game series against the Colorado Rockies highlighted the Hall of Famer’s career. It also included birthday wishes from Hank Aaron, Bill Cosby and former President Bill Clinton.
Everybody had memories to share.
“After spending my childhood watching you on television, that was my idea of what a baseball player could be. And one of the greatest thrills of my presidency was getting to meet you and become your friend,” Clinton said.
There were orange, black and white balloons that dotted the ballpark on a day San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee declared “Willie Mays Day.” Fans wore birthday hats and some even pulled Mays’ old No. 24 jersey out of the closet.
Hall of Famers Willie McCovey, Gaylord Perry and Orlando Cepeda along with some of Mays’ teammates going back to the Negro Leagues were in attendance. They honored Mays’ accolades — 660 home runs, 24-time All-Star selections and 12 Gold Glove Awards for perhaps the best center fielder ever—but also a man who’s still beloved, the embodiment of baseball’s so-called Golden Era.
“If they had a Nobel Prize for baseball, Willie would have won it,” said Lon Simmons, the longtime color announcer of the Giants.
The first 20,000 fans to arrive also received a replica statue of the one that stands outside the waterfront ballpark in Willie Mays Plaza. Kids from the Willie Mays Boys and Girls Club were on hand for the festivities.
Earlier in the clubhouse, Mays ate a vanilla birthday cake layered with white icing presented to him by the team. He sat in clubhouse manager Mike Murphy’s office talking—what else? — baseball past and present.
“It’s really very humbling for all the guys, myself, to have somebody of his stature—could be the greatest player of all-time — hanging out in our clubhouse and talking baseball with the guys,” Giants manager Brucy Bochy said. “He has a great way about him.”
Mays has remained a part of the Giants well after his playing days.
He is a regular in the clubhouse, both at AT&T Park and spring training—never shy to offer up some no-nonsense words for the youngsters and veterans alike, even if the Hall of Famer is moving a little more slowly these days.
“He’s a legend and to have him around here and be able to talk shop with him, just to be in the presence of greatness, it’s awesome,” said San Francisco’s Aaron Rowand, who was playing center field Friday night.
In January, Mays traveled back to the Polo Grounds in New York as part of the Giants’ World Series trophy tour. Then, he spoke to a room full of school children in the place his big league career began.
San Francisco captured the city’s first World Series title last fall with a remarkable run. It was the first for the Giants since Mays led them to the championship in 1954 in New York.
Mays also was a centerpiece during the World Series parade in San Francisco last fall and among the former Giants stars presented with championship rings during the club’s first homestand in April.
Mays signed a table in the clubhouse this spring at Scottsdale Stadium, where he still makes an annual trip, four years after his godson, slugger Barry Bonds, broke Hank Aaron’s home run record in August 2007.
Of course, Mays’ legacy goes beyond the Giants.
Rockies manager Jim Tracy was only 7 years old when his father took him to Crosley Field in Cincinnati to see the Reds play Mays and the Giants. Tracy called it one of the best memories of his childhood.
“I spent the biggest part of the game staring at him,” Tracy said. “I saw balls get hit. I can’t say that I saw all them get hit because I wasn’t looking there. I was staring at No. 24. I really was.”
Tracy also had a chance to meet Mays when he was a bench coach under manager Felipe Alou—who was also in attendance for the birthday celebration—in Montreal and was just as much in awe then, saying, “I was a grown man sitting over there in a chair going, ‘That’s Willie. That’s Willie Mays.”’
(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services may have contributed to this report.)