Monday January 24th, 2011

NEW YORK -- From atop Coogan's Bluff, a small but steep hill in northern Manhattan, one can look across the Harlem River and see the glistening billion-dollar Yankee Stadium, framed between a pair of apartments in a public housing development that bears the name Polo Grounds Towers because it sits on the land of the ballpark the New York Giants used to call home.

Affixed to one of the apartment buildings is a brass plaque indicating the approximate location of where home plate used to sit, so one can reasonably guess where the ball from Bobby Thomson's famed National League-pennant winning home run landed in 1951 or where Willie Mays impossibly tracked down that deep fly ball to centerfield with an over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series.

The Giants moved West to San Francisco in 1958 and the Mets moved in for their first two seasons as an expansion team in 1962 and '63, but the Polo Grounds was torn down in 1964 by the very same wrecking ball that had demolished Brooklyn's Ebbets Field a few years earlier.

The Mets never won a title while residents of Manhattan, and the Giants' last championship before moving west was in 1954, meaning it had been 57 years since the World Series trophy had been toted up to the Polo Grounds until Friday morning when the San Francisco Giants, wanting to return to their roots, brought the 2010 trophy -- with Mr. Mays as their ambassador -- to P.S. 46 Arthur Tappan, a pre-K through grade seven school adjacent to the Polo Grounds Towers.

"This is my neighborhood," Mays said. "This is for the kids."

Mays, 79, was clearly thrilled to be back in New York -- he said he still has a place in Riverdale -- and thrived on interacting with the children. He noted that he was awake by 5:30 a.m. in order to think about what he wanted to tell the students, a message stressing the importance of family and education.

On this morning he was very much the perfect role model for the children, even bringing replica jerseys and signed baseballs for some high-achieving students, who were nominated by their teachers for having "A" grades and a strong work ethic. (Mays' one admitted lapse came when one of the signed baseballs went missing, so he reached into his pocket and handed the child, a fifth grader named Kendryck Taveras, $100. "I know this is not appropriate," Mays joked.)

"Our children need to see a great American like that -- a person that is an icon," said George Young, who has been P.S. 46 principal for 18 years. "Many of them were extremely impressed with this giant of a person, who had so many success in the '50s and is still around and coming back here today."

Mays had joked, "They don't know me. I don't care. I wanted to come anyway." But that wasn't quite true.

The children certainly knew his famous name and learned much more about him in the past two weeks since the Giants, Major League Baseball and the school administration started working to set up the event. Several students arrived at the event with homemade t-shirts made to look like Willie Mays jerseys. Many teachers assigned research projects into the life of Mays, born in Alabama where he briefly played for the Negro League Birmingham Black Barons before signing with the Giants.

"I wanted to go and take care of my family," Mays said of choosing baseball rather than pursue either basketball or football in college. "Your family comes first. That's very, very important."

it didn't hurt that Mays was one heck of a baseball player. He was the inaugural member of the 3,000-hit, 500-home run club -- he finished with 660 homers, third alltime until Barry Bonds passed him -- and is in many minds, "the greatest baseball player who ever lived," said Harold Reynolds, a two-time All-Star second baseman and current analyst for the MLB Network who moderated the morning.

Given Mays' humble roots as the son of a steelworker who logged his own time in the mill and his affinity for New York City, he provided a great example for the student body. Young said 99 percent of the school children come from the immediate area -- "You have like a small city with all these projects," he said -- and they put on an impressive show for Mays, complete with drummers, color guard and beautifully sung renditions of the national anthem and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

"That's not a show," said Young, noting that he stresses extracurricular activities like sports, chorus and band at his school. "They do that every day."

What doesn't happen as often anymore are the children's games of stickball, like the ones Mays himself once played in New York. Mays used to live in a first-floor apartment near the corner of St. Nicholas Place and 155th Street up on Coogan's Bluff, where neighborhood children would stir him at 9 o'clock in the morning in order to play stickball by 9:30. On Friday, Mays addressed more than 300 students in grades three through seven in the school auditorium while standing in front of a blown-up photo of him batting in an old stickball game.

"Baseball is beautiful because it is the most inter-generational sport by far," said Giants team president Larry Baer. "It's my favorite image in sports. It's such a return to an innocent time -- after a game or before game, you're by the ballpark playing ball with the kids?"

The children of the neighborhood are now more likely to play basketball -- and Rucker Park, arguably the world's most famous outdoor court, is across the street from the school -- though Young said a group of locals in their 40s (and even older) still preserve the stickball pastime with regular games at Rucker Park or even in the schoolyard.

Before Friday Mays was mostly a figment of the children's imaginations, the object of stories passed down through generations, except for his one tangible presence on a New York City Housing Authority sign that read, "Welcome to the Polo Grounds Towers: This development was built on the location that Willie Mays and the Giants made famous. Let's keep it beautiful."

For one day, at least, the return of a local hero who inspired a neighborhood's youngsters made the site of the defunct ballpark on the Manhattan side of the Harlem River more beautiful than that modern stadium across the way.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.