NEW YORK (AP) — Willie Mays spent only two seasons with the New York Mets. His legacy will last forever.
In a surprise salute at Citi Field, the Mets retired Mays’ jersey Saturday as part of festivities during the organization’s first Old-Timers’ Day since 1994.
“From this day forward, no Met will ever wear Willie Mays’ iconic No. 24,” emcee Howie Rose read to a near-standing ovation from the crowd.
One of baseball’s greatest players, the Hall of Fame center fielder starred for the Giants in New York from 1951-57 and then in San Francisco from 1958-72 after the club moved to the West Coast. He returned to the Big Apple in a May 1972 trade and spent his final two seasons with the Mets, helping them reach the 1973 World Series.
Mets charter owner Joan Whitney Payson told Mays he would be the last player in franchise history to wear No. 24. But Payson died not long after Mays’ retirement in 1973, and the Mets finally made good on her promise nearly 50 years later under current owner Steve Cohen and his wife, Alex.
“I want to thank Steve and Alex Cohen for making this day possible and embracing Mets history,” Mays said in a statement read aloud during the ceremony. “I can never forget the way it felt to return to New York to play for all the loyal Mets fans. I’m tremendously proud I ended my career in Queens with the Mets during the ’73 World Series. It’s an honor to have my number retired in my two favorite cities — New York and San Francisco. New York was a magical place to play baseball.”
The 91-year-old Mays was unable to attend the festivities after having hip replacement surgery, but was represented by his son, Michael.
“We’re thrilled,” Michael said. “Long time coming, for sure.”
The unexpected announcement followed a video tribute to Mays after Old-Timers’ Day introductions. Behind the pitcher’s mound, a blue No. 24 with orange trim was unveiled as former teammate Cleon Jones and other ex-Mets applauded. The placard will be placed alongside the team’s other retired numbers on the Citi Field roof in the left-field corner.
The honor for Mays capped a 40-minute ceremony that tied together players from throughout the Mets’ 60-year history. A playful exhibition game followed that lasted 2 1/2 innings.
Mays became the fifth Mets player to have his number retired and the second this season. Keith Hernandez had his No. 17 jersey retired on July 9. They joined Jerry Koosman (36) and Hall of Famers Tom Seaver (41) and Mike Piazza (31). Former managers Casey Stengel (37) and Gil Hodges (14) were also so honored, and Jackie Robinson had his No. 42 jersey retired by all 30 major league teams.
Mays is the 15th person in big league history to have his number retired by multiple teams. He was feted by the San Francisco Giants on May 12, 1972.
A 24-time All-Star, Mays was a two-time NL MVP and won 12 Gold Gloves. When he retired, he ranked third in homers (660), runs (2,062) and total bases (6,080), seventh in hits (3,293) and RBIs (1,909), and first in putouts by an outfielder (7,112). He was the first player in major league history with 300 or more homers and 300 or more stolen bases.
Mays played 135 games with the Mets and hit his final 14 home runs for the team.
Mets fan favorites Bartolo Colón and Endy Chávez received the loudest cheers among the 63 player introductions. The crowd chuckled loudly when former manager Bobby Valentine donned a fake mustache for his introduction. He famously returned to the dugout with a disguise after getting ejected from a game in 1999.
Former ace Dwight Gooden, who was in his final season with the Mets the last time Old-Timers’ Day was held in Queens at Shea Stadium, also was on hand. He hopes the event is here to stay.
“You get to be a kid again,” Gooden said. “I’m living the father life now, which is cool, too. But now I get to be a kid, even if it’s just for today.”
Also in attendance was Frank Thomas, an original Met from 1962 — along with four of his teammates.
“This is my last fling for baseball,” the 93-year-old Thomas said.