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Mudville: July 12, 2024 7:44 pm PDT

A Trenton Giant

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Driving through Trenton earlier this month I passed the sign.

You know the sign. The one on the Warren Street Bridge that crosses over the Delaware River.

TRENTON MAKES THE WORLD TAKES

Turns out, the world took a pretty good baseball player from Trenton, too, Willie Mays.

In 1950, Mays started his career in the Giants organization with the Trenton Giants, then a Class B team in the Interstate League. Mays became the first African American in the league, playing 81 games for Trenton with 354 plate appearances, batting .353 with a .438 on base percentage. He gave a glimpse of what was to come with 20 doubles and eight triples, his cap flying off his head as he rounded the bases at Dunn Field, which was located at the Brunswick Circle at Strawberry Street (US 1). The site later became a supermarket and now houses the NJ Lottery Commission.

Willie Mays got to cash his winning baseball lottery ticket. Same goes for the fans who were lucky enough to see him play there.

According to a Facebook post I found by Ed Jollimore: “Mays lived nearby and would cut across the circle on foot to get to games, sometimes playing catch with the local youth.’’

That definitely sounds like something 19-year-old Willie Mays would do. He loved the game and loved to help kids.”

I had forgotten Mays played in Trenton until I got an email on Tuesday from the Trenton Thunder.

On June 18th, Willie Mays passed away at the age of 93. He turned 93 on May 6. The day after his birthday I wrote a column for Baseball or Bust titled “Say Hey Summer.’’

This is grassroots baseball at its best and to have generations of baseball fans be there for the retirement ceremony is kind of what I was talking about when I said baseball needs to make this a Say Hey Summer.

I proposed baseball at all levels promote Willie Mays this summer, take a break from gambling promotions and honor the American icon, writing “Every major league and minor league ballpark should have a day to celebrate Willie Mays and what he meant to the game and to America. Let the fans stand and recognize Willie … Make this a Say Hey Summer.’’

Six weeks later Willie passed. The beautiful tributes have been pouring in ever since June 18th and I particularly liked the recent Ed Randall show “Remember When’’ on SiriusXM that I listened to on Sunday, driving back from New Jersey to Florida, where Ed and former major league manager Kevin Kennedy and their guests, including Hal Lanier, Ed Kranepool and Jerry Koosman, shared wonderful memories of Willie. I recommend baseball fans give it a listen.

It got me through North Carolina, where they have essentially closed in Interstate 95 with challenging concrete barriers hugging both lanes of 95 to test your driving skills.

Thankfully, I made it home and then came the email Tuesday from the Trenton Thunder, which used to be a farm team for the Yankees and was one of my favorite ballparks to visit when I worked for a New York newspaper and would go there to see a rehabbing Yankee or a top prospect.

The Yankees split town, though, and went to Somerset, so the Thunder had to re-invent the product and now Trenton is part of the MLB Draft League with plenty of young baseball talent on display, including Japanese slugger Rintaro Sasaki, and most importantly, Trenton Thunder Ballpark remains the home of Rookie the Bat Dog and up-and-coming Dash, a must follow on Instagram at batdogrookie.

The Thunder announced on Tuesday that they are going to retire Willie Mays number. Not 24, but the No. 12 he wore as a member of the Trenton Giants in 1950.

What a wonderful gesture and event. This is grassroots baseball at its best and to have generations of baseball fans be there for the retirement ceremony is kind of what I was talking about when I said baseball needs to make this a Say Hey Summer. The ceremony will take place on July 20th so you have plenty of time to plan if you are in the area. First pitch against the West Virginia Black Bears that day will be at 6 p.m.

Prior to signing with the Giants, Willie played for the Birmingham Black Barons and was just honored by MLB. There was sadness to the MLB at Rickwood Field game with Willie’s passing, but it also was a celebration of a career that saw Willie hit 660 home runs and 3,293 hits and a career .302 batting average.

Willie was baseball and is regarded by many as the greatest all-around player the game ever produced. He was a 24-time All-Star, two-time MVP, 12-time Gold Glove winner, and was the best baserunner I ever saw to go along with all that power and defensive magic. He also was essentially a manager on the field, positioning teammates. He was a baseball computer before there was such a thing.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1979 and I really enjoyed seeing him in Cooperstown through the years.

His manager, Leo Durocher brought Willie up to the New York Giants in 1951 after a short stint at AAA Minneapolis Millers where Willie hit .477 over 35 games. Leo the Lip once said of Willie: “He could do the five things you have to do to be a superstar: hit, hit with power, run, throw and field. And he had the other magic ingredient that turns a superstar into a Superstar. Charisma. He lit up a room when he came in. He was a joy to be around.’’

He sure did. Right up until the end as I pointed out in Say Hey Summer.

Kudos to the Thunder for celebrating Willie Mays and honoring him by retiring his number. They have a baseball saying in Trenton, too.

“When you hear the saying, ‘Trenton Makes Baseball Takes,’ you know where and who it all started with,’’ said Thunder GM Jon Bodnar. “Willie Mays is the core of our history with minor league baseball in Trenton and it’s a privilege to be able to say that.’’

It is a privilege, and it is my hope that younger ballplayers come to appreciate all facets of the game. So much of the game is lost now because it is all about velocity from pitchers and hitters. Baserunning is atrocious.

The Tigers somehow ran into a triple play on Monday on a broken bat, humpback line drive to Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola, probably the worst team baserunning I have ever seen. The runner at first Carson Kelly froze 10 feet off the bag and Nola threw to Bryce Harper, and for some reason the runner at third Zach McKinstry continued running home, losing sight of the baseball. Harper threw to Alec Bohm at third and the first 1-3-5 triple play since 1929, according to SABR, was in the books. On the Phillies broadcast Ruben Amaro Jr. said it perfectly, noting, “I don’t know what McKinstry was thinking.’’

Willie Mays with the Trenton Giants, 1950: (Photo - Trenton public Library)

When he was coaching with the Mets, Amaro Jr. was so disgusted with the Mets baserunning that in Arizona before a game one day, instead of having batting practice, he held a tutorial, going base to base with the entire team on the basics on how to run the bases and I was there to see it. Kind of like a Little League coach. And overall baserunning has gotten a lot worse since then in the majors.

Watch the replay and the greatest part of the triple play is Tigers third base coach Joey Cora, in total disgust, walking away from the box after the throw to third. Cora is one of baseball’s best third base coaches, so he was not happy with the mindless play of McKinstry, who later said he thought the ball bounced.

Watch the baseball runners, it helps.

You never know what you will see at the ballpark, especially these days.

I spoke with Trenton Thunder director of broadcasts and media relations Mike Warren about Willie Mays. Willie was known for his No. 24 with the Giants when he played at the Polo Grounds and in San Francisco at Candlestick Park.

Not so in Trenton.

“According to Tom McCarthy’s book Baseball in Trenton, he wore the No. 12 during his time with the Trenton Giants,’’ Warren explained.

Yes, that Tom McCarthy, voice of the Phillies, who started with the Thunder.

“We have a video tribute planned as well that will be played up on the Jumbotron in right-centerfield,’’ Warren said. “We will retire his number and we have a nameplate made out that we will hang up on the stadium. The artwork just got made up the other day. It’s kind of a grey plate with a black trim around it and his number is in the font of the Trenton Giants numbers as well so it’s a black number with an orange trim around the font and then it has his last name above the number 12. We are really excited about it.’’

They should be. Sounds pretty cool. Baseball at all levels needs to honor its history as much as it can, and retro is in, mid-century modern as they say.

“We have a script that is in the process of being made, and we are trying to get Tom to come out to the game, but we are not sure if that aligns with his schedule,’’ Warren explained. “Willie is arguably the greatest player of all time; he is the greatest outfielder of all time. It’s going to be a really great night. We’re in the works to see if we can get any of his extended family potentially out to the ballpark and making sure all the parties are properly accounted for so we can honor him in the way that he deserves.

“We have a saying that started around here, ‘Trenton Makes, Baseball Takes.’ That all starts with Willie Mays. Everything that is made up of minor league baseball in the Garden State, it all starts with Willie Mays. There is no better way that we can honor him and there is no greater honor that we can have to be able to say that. He is a part of our history, and he really did lay the groundwork for some of the great athletes that have come after him. It’s an honor. Hands down the greatest player to put on a Trenton uniform.’’

Another great thing about the Thunder is that the fans continue to support them, and the Thunder put on a good show. It is a great night out.

“Attendance has been great,’’ Warren said of the community support. “Fans have been showing up in full force like they always have. We’ve had some really good talent so far on this first half roster. We’ve had the No. 1 prospect out of Canada, Brendan Lawson, he was on our team, and he just went to the MLB Draft Combine. ESPN, in their mock draft, has him slated to go 59th overall to the Blue Jays. We’ve had a number of prep prospects, really good talent and of course you’ve heard about Rintaro Sasaki coming over from Japan, he spent some time on the Stanford campus this year, kind of getting ready for collegiate ball.’’

The 19-year-old first baseman is Japan’s all-time high school home run record holder with 140 home runs and the lefty crushed a home run in his Thunder debut. He is 6-foot, 230-pounder and attended the same high school as Shohei Ohtani, Hanamaki Higashi High School.

Draft League teams are a much different product, and the roster is in flux, especially after the draft. Kudos to the Thunder for keeping it interesting. The first half of the season features draft eligible players trying to move up the draft board, the second half the league switches to a professional format. You never know what you will see and in a big way that is what baseball is all about.

Just imagine what it was like to see 19-year-old Willie Mays in Trenton in 1950 at Dunn Field.

Yep, it’s just like they say around the Thunder: Trenton Makes Baseball Takes.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

Comments
  • Malcolm Casway

    Kevin ,I love what you said in this article. You are truly a baseball
    Writer.

    June 30, 2024
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