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Willie Mays Says ‘Hey’: Baseball Legend Shares Stories With Coke Employees

By:  Jay Moye Feb 24, 2014
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At 82 years old, Willie Mays can still bring a crowd to its feet.

The baseball legend reflected on his journey from Fairfield, Ala., to the Hall of Fame -- and how Coca-Cola has been with him nearly every step of the way -- during a recent visit to Coke headquarters in Atlanta.

Mays regaled the capacity crowd with colorful stories from his life and 22 seasons in the Major Leagues, recalling his best-known plays and other milestones and memories with a dash of humor and wit. Baseball announcer and historian Marty Laurie, who moderated the conversation, called the "Say Hey Kid" the best all-around player in the history of the game.

"Some could hit with power, some could hit for average, some could field, some could throw and some could run," Laurie said. "But Willie could do it all."

Mays got his start in the Negro Leagues, joining the Birmingham Black Barons when he was only 16. He was signed by the New York Giants when he was still in high school, skipping his senior prom to join the organization’s minor league team in Trenton, N.J.

He quickly moved up to Triple A in Minneapolis, where hit .477 and caught the attention of Giants manager Leo Durocher. Mays was in a movie theater in Sioux City Iowa when he got word that he’d been called up to the majors.

After arriving in the Big Apple in 1951, his career got off to a bit of slow start.

“I went 0 for 12 before I got a home run off Warren Span,” Mays said. “When I hit that home run, I knew I was ready.”

And that he was. He hit 22 homers and stole 22 bases in his first season, earning him National League Rookie of the Year honors.

A year later, in 1952, Mays became one of the first African-American celebrities featured in Coca-Cola advertising. He appeared in several campaigns for the brand through the years, including a 10-minute educational film titled “Willie Mays: Tips on Baseball” in 1967, and became the first TaB endorser in the late-1970s.

It was a natural fit for Mays, a lifelong Coca-Cola fan who, during his days with the Giants, would wager bottles of his favorite beverage while playing pepper with Durocher and teammates Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson. Whoever made an error owed a Coke.

Mays’ teammates would kid him about his thirst for Coca-Cola. In fact, the cover story of the July 26, 1954 issue of TIME magazine reported that Mays drank Coke by the case. And, like many Southerners, the “Say Hey Kid” has always been fond of the sweet-and-salty combo of Coca-Cola and peanuts.

“I still do that,” he told employees. “In fact, I had that last night.”

The 12-time Gold Glove-winning centerfielder explained how he came up with his signature basket catch and recounted what’s known as the greatest catch in baseball history. During game one of the 1954 World Series between the Giants and the Cleveland Indians, with the score tied in the 8th inning, Vic Wertz stepped up to the plate with runners on first and second and fired a deep shot to center.

The grab was one of many highlights from Mays’ storied career, which landed him a spot alongside the all-time greats in 1979.

“Growing up in Fairfield, I’d think about the Hall of Fame, but I never thought I’d get there. When Jackie (Robinson) came in, I knew I had the chance to get in to the majors…but I didn’t think I fit into the Hall of Fame.”

At the end of the program, Coca-Cola presented Mays’ Say Hey Foundation with a $15,000 donation to restore the ballpark bearing his name in Fairfield. The funds, which will be matched by Coca-Cola Bottling Company United in Birmingham, will be used to repair the scoreboard and purchase uniforms and other equipment.

Read more about the event at Coca-Cola Conversations.