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Willie Mays shows his All-Star cred still shines

The coolest thing I heard from the Bob Costas HBO special “Costas Now” taped during the All-Star festivities was Willie Mays talking about how concerned he was when the two teen-agers ran out onto the field as Henry Aaron rounded the bases after hitting home run No. 715 on April 8, 1974 in Atlanta.


The whole show was really neat (and still airing on HBO if you get the chance), but I was struck by the Mays comment because I had the very same reaction myself 34 years ago. Though I was hardly a kid at the time and had been discharged from the Navy and in college for a couple of years by the time Babe’s record fell, I kept a scrapbook of Aaron’s exploits, dutifully cutting out articles from the New York papers with every home run.

That kind of diligence also meant I was aware of the hate mail that Aaron had been receiving, although we would not get a fuller grasp of the extent of that until a couple of years later. So when those two youngsters ran out to (it turned out) congratulate him and escort him around the bases, I was pretty alarmed myself, though so thoroughly caught up in the moment that I didn’t take much notice of it at the time.

But Willie (shown at right in artwork by Mike Schacht) brought it back, and overall came off very well for a guy who has suffered a variety of slings and arrows in our hobby over the last two decades. Having Willie and Henry on the stage together was a master stroke, and Costas worked hard trying to shed some light on who was the better player, but both admirably sidestepped a question that they have diplomatically been wrestling with for 40 years.

Willie also got a rise out of fellow Hall of Famer Bob Gibson when he described Gibby as “a headhunter.” From the audience, Gibson mustered up his very best cold stare that must’ve terrified a generation of ballplayers, and Willie rectified the minor semantic faux pas later on, softening the description a bit.

As might have been expected from anything Costas orchestrates, there was way more substance than fluff, especially in earlier and later segments when he cornered Angels owner Arte Moreno about why no MLB teams had shown any inclination to sign Barry Bonds this season. The verdict is still out on whether the owners have blackballed Mr. Bonds, but the ho-hum, evasive answer from Moreno did nothing to dispel the idea that there’s something of an orchestrated nature going on in that regard. And this from me, who’s not a particularly huge Barry Bonds fan.

The show also had a neat segment on the Hall of Fame and the Veterans Committee voting, with Costas eliciting from Dave Winfield the belief that “people who vote (meaning the HOFers) probably will not vote for Pete while he’s alive.” And this Winfield provided with Rose’s visage prominently displayed live on the screen behind him. The camerman didn’t zoom in the way it had with Gibson, but I presume the Winfield opinion didn’t sit very well with Rose.

Oh, and one of the other cool tidbits was Aaron pointing out that the two youngsters who initially startled so many of us in 1974 have both gone on to become doctors. I presume they’ve both got that historic photo of the three of them racing around the bases neatly framed in their waiting rooms. And maybe even signed by the man himself.

Television may indeed be the “vast wasteland” that FCC Chairman Newton Minow described nearly a half-century ago, but broadcasts like this one offer a good reminder of what it can be on occasion.