In case you missed it, on Saturday, the New York Mets finally retired Number 24 for Willie Mays, one of baseball’s greatest players. This was a surprise move by the team, who concurrently held their first “Old Timers” Day since 1994. Some of you may be saying, “What took them so long?” That question could apply both to the return of Old Timers Day and Mays’ number retirement.
Mays was a New York icon, having broken in with the New York Giants in 1951 as a 20-year old rookie (who won the Rookie of the Year Award that season). He played a portion of the 1952 season before entering military service, returning to the Giants full-time in 1954. He would play a total of six seasons in New York for the Giants, before the team moved west to San Francisco, where he played until 1972. At the age of 41, Mays was traded from the Giants back to New York, where he played the remainder of that season, and the entire 1973 season — which culminated in a World Series appearance — with the New York Mets.
Normally, I’d say, “Mays is an all time great, Hall of Famer, and legend, but there’s NO WAY he deserves his number retired by the Mets, for whom he played less than two seasons.” And it wasn’t like Mays put up great numbers or did Amazin’ things with the Mets. In those two seasons, he batted .238, with 14 homers and 44 rib-eye steaks. Sure, he “helped” the team make the 1973 World Series, and brought some thrills and joy to fans in Queens and New York, many of whom still had some very cherished memories of Mays doing incredible baseball things at the Polo Grounds with the Giants. He was, in short, a conquering hero returning home.
But while he may have been a New York National League baseball God, he wasn’t a very good player for the Mets; at least not one deserving of having his number retired. Or so I always thought.
Before Mays got to the Mets, six different players wore the number 24. Mays was the seventh. You’d have thought if the Mets were going to retire his number, they’d 1) have done so a long time ago; and, 2) they’d at least have held it out of circulation. But no, that’s not what happened: while the team didn’t issue #24 to any player for almost 27 years, somehow the team issued it to the legendary Kelvin Torve (who?) in 1990. He had it for all of 10 days. Rickey Henderson (another baseball legend and Hall of Famer) joined the Mets in 1999, and he wore #24. He’d wear it for two seasons (and then again for a short stint with the team in 2007). Finally, disgraced PED-abuser Robinson Cano was given the number in 2019, and he wore it until the team finally DFA’ed him earlier this season.
So, almost 50 years passed and three additional players wore #24 before the Mets finally retired it for Mays on Saturday.
Why didn’t the Mets retire Mays’ number back following his retirement after the 1973 season? Well, they had actually planned to: Mets charter owner Joan Whitney Payson told Mays he would be the last player in franchise history to wear #24. (It may have even been one of the reasons why Mays agreed to the trade back to New York). But Payson died in 1975, not long after Mays’ retirement in 1973. And that’s where the team dropped the proverbial ball. According to SABR, “After Joan Payson died in 1975, her shares were bought by her husband Charles Payson, making him the majority stockholder with nearly 90 shares. Mr. Payson was not really much of a baseball fan, preferring instead to remain involved in his own businesses and occasionally going out bird hunting at their home on the Florida Gulf Coast.” Charles Payson, who owned the team until 1980, never bothered to retire Mays’ #24, per his wife’s agreement with Mays, and neither did the next few owners of the Mets.
Through Nelson Doubleday and later Fred and Jeff Wilpon, the team seemed ambivalent towards honoring the late Mrs. Payson’s wishes. The Mets had only retired four numbers: two for managers (Casey Stengel and Gil Hodges) and two for players (Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza). There was a strict retirement policy in place: only players who entered the Hall of Fame as Mets would have their numbers retired. That’s fine, and I have no problem with those criteria. But that all changed when Steve Cohen purchased the team in 2020.
Cohen decided the criteria for retired numbers was too strict, and last season, the team retired #36 for Jerry Koosman — a great player, but not a Hall of Famer. Earlier this year, the team retired Keith Hernandez’ #17 (Hernandez was also a great player, although he played for the Mets for only a little more than six seasons). One can be fairly certain there will be more number retirements ahead.
Then came Saturday’s announcement of the retirement of #24 for Mays.
It was a great moment, to be sure, and a fitting tribute on the Mets first Old Timers Day in almost 20 years. And it honored Payson’s commitment to Mays (although her promise was that no other Met would wear #24 — not necessarily that the Mets would retire the number). But since the Mets let that horse out of the barn long ago, pretty much the only way to “honor” Mrs. Payson’s wishes would be to retire the number for him.
My pop took me to a couple Mets games in 1972 and 1973, so I actually got to see Mays play in a Mets uniform. I remember the applause he got from the crowd when he came to bat. He wasn’t my favorite player, but my dad spoke glowingly of him. I have nothing but respect for everything he did in baseball, and agree he was one of the Top 10 (probably top 5) players of all time. But did he deserve to have his number retired by the Mets?
If it were any other player, I’d say no. But I’m torn here. As long as the Mets new number retirement protocol has changed, I can think of a few players who are probably deserving of the honor. Mays doesn’t really make that short list. But Mays was also incredibly important to New York (if not necessarily the Mets). And if this means that no Met will ever wear #24 again, then it’s definitely for the best.
If there was ever a player whose tenure and stats with a team didn’t merit number retirement status, Mays was surely one — but there was so much more that Mays meant to baseball and to New York that perhaps it was time to finally put his number up in the rafters.