If you’ll indulge, a few words about baseball player Willie Mays, who died yesterday at the age of 93.

When I was in high school, I had a supporting role as a pugnacious New York cab driver. I thought about what a guy would wear in the 1950s driving a New York cab, given some of the cinema I had seen as a child.

I went to one of those mall shops that made custom T-shirts in under an hour, and I walked out with a gray T-shirt with the word “GIANTS” in a fancy font on the front, and the number 24 on the back.

A “shirtsey” of Willie Mays.

A decade and a half later, when I was working at a daily newspaper in Trenton, N.J., I was in the sports department where a man named Bus Saidt worked. He was a radio broadcaster in 1950 when he was dispatched to a train station in Hagerstown, Md. to ferry a new player from the station to the ballpark. It turns out that it was Willie Mays, who was supposed to play his first season in integrated baseball in Sioux City, Iowa, but the city was in a period of strife because a Native American had been buried in a segregated white cemetery.

Instead, he went to Trenton, where he played his first year out of the Negro Leagues in 1950. He would spend a few weeks with the 1951 Minneapolis Millers before being promoted to the New York Giants that spring.

What followed was a quarter-century of brilliance in mastering the intricate game of baseball. He did everything in the game — hitting, homering, throwing, running, and playing center field — effortlessly.

This also wasn’t easy in the home grounds he patrolled as a center fielder. When he started, he played in the Polo Grounds, which got its name from its distinctive shape. It was one of the majors’ biggest outfields, with measurements of 450 feet to left and right center, and 485 in deep center where the entrance to the locker rooms were.

In San Francisco, where the team moved in 1959, Candlestick Park was a continuous challenge because of the location of the ground in the Bay Area. The weather and conditions would change rapidly depending on wind and humidity, and any fly ball in that park was an adventure. In his final two years, Mays would play for the New York Mets in Queens, where you had to deal with aircraft flying overhead to LaGuardia Airport.

Mays amassed more than 3000 hits and more than 600 homers, numbers which would have been even more massive had he not served two years with the Army during the Korean Conflict.

Mays would rarely come back to the area; I seem to remember him making a personal appearance at the Babe Ruth World Series, a world championship for all-star youth baseball teams which operates separately from the Little League organization. That tournament took place in the nearby town of Ewing.

I don’t know whether Mays got to visit Mercer County Waterfront Park during that time. I don’t know whether he visited the area of town where he was housed, or the area where Dunn Field sat, now the location of the headquarters of the New Jersey Lottery.

What I do know is that there are not that many remembrances of Mays around the city. A mural three blocks north of the park, painted on the wall of the New Jersey state prison, shows Babe Ruth, not Mays. The home of the Trenton Thunder baseball team of the MLB Draft League carries the name of the team, but the field is named for the father of the original owner of the franchise. An access road leading to the park carries the name of a Bruce Springsteen song, “Thunder Road.”

This, in comparison to the remembrances of Mays in and around Rickwood Field in Birmingham, where a minor-league game between Birmingham and Montgomery was played last night, and a major-league game between St. Louis and San Francisco will be played tomorrow. In that refurbished ballpark, and in Birmingham itself, the ties to Mays are front and center.

I’m hoping the same will happen soon in Trenton.


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