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Willie Mays’ final spring training season was in St. Petersburg

Bill DeYoung



Baseball hall of famer Willie Mays played his final season as a New York Met in 1973. Photo: New York Mets.

Mays and fans at Al Lang Field, 1973. Photo: Florida Archives.

Willie Mays was nearing the end of his illustrious career in baseball when he crossed paths with St. Petersburg in the early 1970s.

Hall of Famer Mays, who died Tuesday at age 93, was signed by New York Mets owner Joan Payson in 1972, when he was 41 years old and had been with the Giants organization for nearly 20 years, first in New York, and subsequently in San Francisco.

Payson, a minority owner of the Giants who sold her share of the team when it moved to California, became the Mets’ principal owner in 1962. Ten years later, the Mets acquired Mays (who was then making a monumental $150,000 annually) for $50,000 and a trade for minor league pitcher Charlie Williams.

“He had already established himself as maybe the greatest all-around player of all time,” said Rick Vaughn, author of 100 Years of Baseball on St. Petersburg’s Waterfront: How the Game Helped Shape a City. “He could run, he could hit, he could hit with power, he could play defense, he could throw, he could do everything.”

His health was, by then, an issue. “He was kind of banged up,” Vaughn said.

The legendary center fielder, hurting from two recent knee injuries, had been considering retirement when Payson made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

In the MAX documentary Say Hey, Mays recalled his conversation with the Mets owner. “She said, ‘Write your own contract,’ and I said, ‘Whoa, I got her now.’ So I said ‘I, Willie Mays, would like to do what I want to do, when I want to do it, at any time.’ And she said, ‘Is that what you want?’ ‘Yes, ma’am.’ ‘You got it.”

The Mets’ spring training camp was at Payson Field in northwest St. Petersburg, what’s now known as Walter Fuller Park.

His first – and only – training season at the site began in March, 1973. “It’s not like I’m some 20-year-old kid,” he told a St. Petersburg Times reporter after his first batting practice.

“I’ll just have to see how it goes, how I run and swing, and make up my mind what I’m gonna do. I said when I came to the Mets I wouldn’t play unless I thought I could help. I don’t want these guys to have to go through a whole season carrying me.”

Fans couldn’t get enough of the iconic “Say Hey” kid during spring training games at downtown’s Al Lang Field that season. Mays was mobbed. “He only played in five games at Al Lang,” reported Vaughn. “He hit three home runs. But he only hit .211. It was definitely the end of his career.”

The National League champion Mets went to the World Series in ’73, playing the Oakland Athletics, which included emergent juggernaut Reggie Jackson. Mays recorded the final hit of his career in Game 2, but the A’s took the series in seven games. Jackson was named Series MVP.

Although Mays would remain with the Mets organization for a decade, returning to St. Petersburg as a batting and fielding coach, he announced his retirement from playing the game in September.

“When I come back, if I find I can’t swing, can’t throw or can’t run, then I’ll throw in the towel,” he’d said in May. “Not before. First, I must be sure I can no longer be of any value to the team.”

At the time, he was on the disabled list from a shoulder injury. “It’s tough to keep getting up and down,” he said. “There is pain and ache. When you ache, it’s not as much fun.”





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