Personal story: I never lived across the hall from Willie Mays, but…

Baseball legend Willie Mays passed away yesterday at the age of ninety-three. I never lived across the hall from him, which is a strange thing to say, if not for the fact that I did once live across the hall from one of his biggest baseball rivals.

About a decade ago I had a neighbor across the hall named Don. He was a sweet elderly man. Always quick with a laugh. I had known Don for about six months when we got onto the elevator together and he was wearing a Dodgers jacket. I said “Ah, you’re a Dodgers fan.” Don said “I am a Dodger, a Brooklyn Dodger.”

That’s when it hit me that the sweet elderly man across the hall from me was Brooklyn Dodgers legend Don Newcombe. He was the first ever Cy Young winner. He was teammates with Jackie Robinson. This guy was a living piece of history. But to me he was just my neighbor. After our elevator ride I walked into my apartment, turned on ESPN, and there were highlights of Don having thrown out the first pitch at the Dodgers game earlier that day. That’s why he had the jacket on.

Here was a living legend, a guy whose place in history was secured, just quietly living out his later days in an average apartment building in Los Angeles. I tried not to treat Don any differently after finding out who he was. I wanted to invite myself into his apartment, see if he had his Cy Young award sitting there, get an obligatory picture with him. But I never did.

Toward the end of my time living there, I noticed that Don seemed a little less with it. I’d say hello and he wouldn’t always respond. That’s when I started calling him “Cy Young.” He always perked up in response to that. Maybe I should have been calling him Cy Young all along.

The last time I saw Dodgers legend Don Newcombe, I borrowed a wrench from him so I could take apart a piece of furniture when I was moving out. He passed away a few years ago at the age of ninety-two. And now Willie Mays, who began his career with the New York Giants and then cemented it with the San Francisco Giants, has passed away at ninety-three. Two New York baseball legends who became California baseball legends. Two brave pioneers who helped break the color barrier. Two people who lived long enough to see themselves become history. And I only ever borrowed a wrench from one of them.

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