June 28, 2024

By Rob Connolly, President, Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco 

Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco is saddened by the passing of the great Willie Mays last week. For the past 17 years, it has been an honor for our organization to be associated with Willie Mays, a baseball legend and national icon. To have him visit our Club and interact with our youth members was always a joy.

To many, Willie Mays is the greatest all-around baseball player who ever lived. How cool is it to have that said about you? Not just huge accolades in the moment of your greatness, but also 51 years after you played your last game!

Early in 2007, I was approached by Larry Baer, President and CEO of the San Francisco Giant's, and his senior team with the idea of naming our newest Clubhouse in Hunters Point after Willie Mays, and to do so as part of the festivities surrounding Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game in San Francisco that year. We quickly said yes.

Willie Mays Clubhouse at Hunters Point Ribbon Cutting ceremony

For me, personally, naming the Club after Willie Mays has been an honor and a privilege.  I spent time with Willie on multiple occasions — in Hunters Point at the Club or at the ballpark. Every time was memorable and uplifting. Willie was 76 when I first met him and his eyesight was bad. This limited his movement but it certainly didn’t dampen his spirit. Positive energy surrounded Mr. Mays!  

For Willie Mays, the kids were the stars of any gathering. He loved seeing and interacting with them. While his baseball days were long past, the kids at the Club knew he was a star by the way he carried himself and how the adults approached him with respect. I’ve always had a strong admiration for athletes who both mastered their sport and owned their responsibilities away from the game. Steph Curry, Tim Dugan, Arthur Ash, Jerry West, Jack Nicholas, and Derek Jeter are some who come to mind when I think of people who figured out how to excel at their sport while not having their athletic talent fully define who they are in this world. To me, Willie Mays was this and more. 

Willie Mays greatest gift to San Francisco, the nation, and the game of baseball was the manner in which he lived his life. From his rise to baseball prominence, to his days as the brightest star in the major leagues, to his time as an ambassador of the game, Willie owned his excellence. All this while facing the overt racism that defined our country in the decades that he played. 

Around the time I first met Mr. Mays, I read Willie Mays, The Life, The Legend, by James S. Hirsch (I recommend the book). Hirsch highlighted the difficulty Willie Mays had purchasing a home in San Francisco because of the color or his skin — celebrated on the field and shunned in neighborhoods where he wanted to live — and called attention to the pressure people put on him, as a young man, to speak out about race and the integration of baseball.  Placing that burden on such a young person was unfair, but you could understand why people wanted Mays, with his talent and charisma, to be out front. Despite the pressure and challenges, Mays was excellent. Excellent on the field for sure — 24 All-Star appearances and 12 Golden Gloves — but excellent off the field too. 

Our Willie Mays Clubhouse in Hunters Point stands in recognition of both the man and the player, Willie Mays. This summer kids from around the city are playing in our Junior Giants baseball program at the Willie Mays Clubhouse in Hunters Point. I picture Mr. Mays looking down from heaven watching kids play the game he loved and enjoying every minute of it!

Mr. Mays, thank you for sharing so much of yourself with all of us and thank you for being a part of Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco. 

May you rest peacefully. 

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For more photos on the impact of Wille Mays on our organization, please view our Flickr Album.

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