Bob Costas explains there was more to Willie Mays than his on-field greatness

The death of Willie Mays is reverberating not just in the baseball world, but the world at large, as well.

“Willie was about, yes, greatness, but statistics, as tremendous as they are, do not do him justice, because you had to see him play,” former NBC Sports anchor Bob Costas told TODAY on June 19.

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“He was great, but he was also wondrous, even on a day when he went 0 for 4 and there were no spectacular plays. If that was the first baseball game you ever saw, your eyes would go to Willie Mays. (There was) something charismatic about him, and he emanated joy.”

Willie Mays Posing with Baseball Bat

Nicknamed “The Say Hey Kid,” Mays died June 18 at the age of 93. A titan of the game, his professional baseball career began in 1948 as a member of the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro American League before moving on to the New York Giants in 1951. He won Rookie of the Year that season and remained the face of the franchise after it moved to San Francisco, staying with the team until he was traded to the New York Mets in 1972 before retiring following the 1973 season.

A two-time MVP, in 1954 Mays led the Giants to their final World Series title before moving to the West Coast. That series is remembered for Mays pulling off one of the most memorable plays in baseball history with his stunning over-the-shoulder catch of a fly ball hit by Vic Wertz of the Cleveland Indians. The Giants would not win another World Series until 2010.

New York Giants Baseball Willie Mays

Mays was a 24-time All-Star who led the National League in home runs four times. He also batted over .300 10 times and eclipsed the 100-RBI mark 10 times. At the time Mays retired, his 660 home runs were third-most in major league history. He was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.

Mays’ death comes before the Giants play the St. Louis Cardinals June 20 at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, which is steeped in baseball history.

“I think it’s both poetic and poignant that he died just a couple of days before the game, which is now tomorrow night, at Rickwood Field, where so much Negro League and baseball history resides,” Costas said.

“That game was designed not just as a tribute to the Negro Leagues, but specifically as a tribute to Willie Mays, who played in Birmingham at that ballpark for the Birmingham Black Barons when he was just 17 years old in 1948, so there will be tributes throughout baseball, as there were last night, but it will be especially poignant tomorrow night at Rickwood Field.”

Baseball Players Standing Together in Locker Room

Mays was a hero who seemed bigger than the game, a player who knew the value of thrilling fans by making astonishing plays.

“Willie Mays took his all-around brilliance from the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League to the historic Giants franchise,” Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “From coast to coast in New York and San Francisco, Willie inspired generations of players and fans as the game grew and truly earned its place as our National Pastime.”

It’s a sentiment that Costas echoed, noting the joy Mays emanated.

“There was something boyish about him, even well into old age,” Costas said. “And people responded to that. He once said, ‘I can make a hard play look easy, but for entertainment value, I’ll make an easy play look hard.’ He was going to make the catch anyway. He was just one of a kind.”

Mays’ impact was felt beyond the baseball diamond, too. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying at the ceremony that it was someone like Mays who allowed him to even imagine the possibility of being president. And while he was not as vocal about politics and social causes as some other athletes of his time, like Muhammad Ali or Jim Brown, his presence and accomplishments meant something, Costas said.

“He was not overtly political, but both Martin Luther King and Barack Obama expressed the sentiment that without people like Willie Mays and other ballplayers and public figures in the ‘50s and ‘60s who gained perhaps grudging acceptance from the larger white culture, that played a part — it might have been a more subtle part — but it played a part in the long march toward justice,” Costas said.

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