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NEW YORK -- Before the Polo Grounds Towers were erected, it was here, at West 155th Street and Eighth Avenue in Harlem, where Willie Mays made one of the best catches in baseball history.
In this neighborhood, where the iconic Polo Grounds once stood, Mays established himself as an all-time great and helped the New York Giants to their 1954 World Series championship.
And it was at his former stomping grounds where Mays arrived with the 2010 World Series trophy, the Giants' first title since leaving New York for San Francisco in 1958.
The Say Hey Kid and the Giants organization brought the trophy back to the organization's roots on Friday, as Mays stopped by PS 46 to talk to the students and showcase the championship memorabilia. Mays answered questions from Master of Ceremonies Harold Reynolds and six chosen students, posed for pictures with students and the trophy and also handed out signed baseballs and 1951-style jerseys.
|Willie Mays, at the Arthur Tappan School, sits below a photo of him playing stickball in NYC in the '50s.|
"[In] 1951, when I first started, I lived right on top of the hill here," Mays said. "I used to go up and down this street all the time so I'm familiar with this area. That's why I wanted to come back and let all of the youngsters know what I was doing here."
As Mays, 79, delighted the packed auditorium at the Arthur Tappan School -- a pre-K through seventh-grade school that is adjacent to where the Polo Grounds used to be until its destruction in 1964 -- he took the crowd down memory lane.
He talked about his childhood in Alabama and how he learned how to play all the positions on the baseball diamond at an early age. He discussed former Yankees centerfielder Mickey Mantle and Dodgers centerfielder Duke Snider. He talked about how reaching the 40-homer, 40-steal plateau wasn't that important to him, and it wasn't what his team asked of him, but he believes he could've done so four or five times.
Mays said that on the day of afternoon games, around 10 kids would come to his home and knock on his window, making sure he was ready for some stickball in the streets. He'd play for an hour before heading up to the drug store to buy some ice cream. If he was playing in a night game, this routine didn't start until around 4:30 to 5 p.m.
"They were always there to make sure that I was there for them," Mays said. "I had good times playing stickball."
During the question-and-answer session with the students, Mays opened up about former Giants skipper Leo Durocher, calling Durocher his mentor. He also admitted that leaving New York for San Francisco wasn't easy.
"It was very difficult leaving New York at the time I did because I didn't know where I was going, because I just came from Alabama to New York and now I'm leaving New York and going to California," Mays said. "It was kind of hard for me at the beginning because I didn't know what was going on, but I adjusted in the third year. I began to understand this is a business, not just me as a ballplayer, but a business for the San Francisco Giants. So I adjusted that way."
Leading up to the event, students at PS 46 studied up on Mays, with some classes doing projects on the baseball legend that included making shirts and writing papers. Some students wore their white shirts with "Giants" written across the front and Mays and his No. 24 pasted across the back.
One student shared a moment with Mays that he'll never forget. At the beginning of the program, Mays handed out baseballs to selected students who had earned "A" markings. He went through the line before realizing that he did not have a signed ball for the final student, fifth-grader Kendryck Taveras. Mays quickly remedied the situation, giving the youngster $100.
Afterward, while talking to reports, Taveras was still holding the bill in his hand and said he was going to save the money. He said he'd rather have the money than the ball.
"I did a biography on him," Taveras said. "It was cool. That was the first time I met him."
When asked how it feels to be back in New York, Mays -- who has owned a place in Riverdale -- said he doesn't feel he's ever left the Empire State.
Friday, with Mays' captivating tales and vibrant personality, it was hard to argue.
"Baseball is a beautiful sport because it is the most generational sport in America by far," said Larry Baer, the Giants' team president and COO. "And weaving a legend to come back to where he made his mark and taking that trip through time, it made me cry, it's such an amazing thing."
Matt Ehalt is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.