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Happy born day to Willie Mays

‘The Say Hey Kid’ was his generation’s avatar of excellence, but every generation deserves its own

“The Say Hey Kid” turned 87 on Sunday. If you go by the calendar, Willie Mays is an old man. And, by that same calendar, many of the people who worshipped Mays when they were children are old too.

But if you are the baseball fan who measures time by memories and if you were lucky enough to have seen Mays play in his prime, the Hall of Fame outfielder and you are both forever young and in love: Mays in love with baseball and you in love with Mays.

I love Willie Mays.

Just saying his name puts a smile on my face. Just saying his name reminds me of the force of nature he was on the baseball field, the way he combined virtuosity and joy. Just saying his name conjures up images of basket catches, laserlike throws and towering home runs.

Just saying his name reminds me of what Willie Mays inspired me to be: someone who understands that style could be artfully intertwined with power and productivity.

Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers high-stepped over Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947, and Willie Mays was among the gifted black players who followed in the 1950s. Although Mays was not a civil rights activist like Jackie, his electrifying play served as a stinging rebuke to white supremacy.

For the record, Mays was born in 1931 in Alabama. As a New York Giant, he won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1951 and a National League MVP award in 1954. As a San Francisco Giant, he won his second MVP in 1965. He hit 660 home runs and stole 338 bases. Primarily a center fielder, he won the Gold Glove for fielding excellence 12 times. And during most of his 22-year career with the New York Giants, San Francisco Giants and New York Mets, he was the star of stars in Major League Baseball’s All-Star Games. Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, another all-time great, said the All-Star Game was invented for Mays, which isn’t true but could have been.

In Mays’ prime, it was baseball itself that seemed invented for him. He exemplified a flowering of black brilliance in sports and the arts that emerged after World War II and spread through the 1960s — a period when the black aesthetic propelled Ralph Ellison to write Invisible Man, Alvin Ailey and his dancers to create and perform Revelations, and opera’s Leontyne Price to dazzle in productions of Antony and Cleopatra and Aida.

Today, athletes and artists of a new generation are defining that aesthetic and interpreting America and the world, from Atlanta baseball player Ronald Acuña Jr. to Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Viet Thanh Nguyen. Onstage, Beyoncé, a melding of Cleopatra, Aida and Tina Turner, rules.

It’s likely that 50 years from now, if people are still writing and reading then, someone will write an ode to someone like Ronald Acuña Jr. They’ll say that he exemplified a multicultural, multiracial excellence in America and the world. Perhaps future writers will write that remembering the way Acuña played, including wearing his cap backward, makes them smile. After all, each generation deserves its own Willie Mays, an avatar of style and virtuosity whose brilliance endures through the ages.

For more than 50 years, Willie Mays has been my Willie Mays.

Saying his name makes me smile. Wishing him a belated happy birthday does too.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.