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July 26, 2012
The Willie Mays Trade
Earlier this week, the Seattle Mariners traded their aging superstar Ichiro Suzuki to the New York Yankees for a couple of prospects. There had been talk throughout the season about what the Mariners might do with their increasingly expensive and increasingly old future Hall of Famer, but the news of his trade to the Yankees still came as quite a surprise. There wasn't even the hint of a leak of the news before the announcement came out and Ichiro walked across Safeco Field and into New York's clubhouse on Monday.
As one of those baseball fans who loves Ichiro and hates the Yankees—Tobias Funke would be happy to know that there are more than merely "dozens of us"—I find it hard to process Ichiro in pinstripes. How long will he play for the Yankees? What role will he fill? When we think back on his career, are we even going to remember his time in the Bronx? Will the trade re-invigorate his career? There are too many questions to list, but what the trade has really made me think about is something that happened 40 years ago: the time Willie Mays was traded to the New York Mets.
Obviously, the circumstances are different. Mays was one of, if not the greatest players of all time who was 41-years-old and who had been with the Giants for 21 years. Ichiro is a fantastic player, a cultural icon and someone who, while likely to make it to the Hall of Fame, still has detractors. Regardless, I can't help but wonder how surprising the news of Willie Mays' departure to the Mets must have been. It turns out the story is a bit more complicated than Ichiro's.
On May 5, 1972, Mays was batting .182/.390/.227 for a poorly performing Giants team. That day, Jack Lang of the Long Island Press reached Mays by telephone in Philadelphia. He called to ask if Mays had heard anything about the Giants trying to trade him to the Mets.
"I don't know anything about it... If they want to trade me I guess they can do it. But you just don't get up and move because somebody doesn't want you anymore. We'll just have to wait and see."
He also added "I only regret I wasn't told."
The next day, Mays' 41st birthday, the story was everywhere. Even San Francisco and New York executives Horace Stoneham and M. Donald Grant, respectively, had already chimed in, acknowledging the possibility.
Stoneham: "I didn't think it would get into the newspapers. Maybe we'll talk when we go to New York. We'll discuss it. We'll discuss the possibility. … It's terrible to even think about it; there's a very sentimental and emotional factor involved."
One report said that the talks had intensified while the Mets visited the Giants in San Francisco earlier that week. The Giants were scheduled to visit Shea Stadium that Friday, May 12. On Wednesday, a report came out that Stoneham's demands for multiple players—and not money—was a stumbling block in the deal. "Mays deal off", the headline proclaimed. It was also mentioned that any deal was contingent on Mays agreeing "to finish out his playing days in New York." Grant and Stoneham actually invited Mays to the trading table to help clear up any concerns he might have.
On Thursday, May 11, Willie Mays was finally traded from the Giants to the Mets for minor league pitcher Charlie Williams and some cash. It was hardly the surprise that Ichiro's trade to the Yankees was, however, with the ordeal having been played out in public for a week. It was still a shock to see Mays in anything but a Giants uniform, as these photos from the New York Times show.
Mays made his debut as a Met on Sunday, having been given permission after the trade to fly back to San Francisco for two days to see his family. In his debut, Mays hit his 647th career home run en route to a New York victory over the Giants. It would be one of only two home runs Mays would ever hit against the Giants.
Mays' tenure as a New York Met is not remembered well 40 years later. The image of him falling down in the outfield is often used as shorthand for a player hanging on too long these days. We can only hope that Ichiro's time in New York ends as differently as their two trades went down.