Say Hey! Say Willie!

Left to right, Willie Mays, Mayor Ed Lee, Giants President and CEO Larry Baer, and SFMTA Board Member Malcolm Heinecke chat in front of Willie's cable car No. 24 before the dedication ceremony.

Left to right, Willie Mays, Mayor Ed Lee, Giants President and CEO Larry Baer, and SFMTA Board Member Malcolm Heinecke chat in front of Willie’s cable car No. 24 before the dedication ceremony.

 

A great event at the Cable Car Barn May 6 to celebrate the 85th birthday of the incomparable Willie Mays. How incomparable? President Obama sent a video tribute calling him “the greatest living ballplayer,” great enough for the president to award Mays the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year.

Why the Cable Car Barn? To “bring together two moving national landmarks”, as President Obama said. He noted that San Francisco’s cable cars were named the first national historic landmark that moved, “except for Willie running the bases.” The president’s fandom was plain to see, as was that of the invitation-only in-person audience that came to see cable car 24 (naturally) dedicated to No. 24, Willie Mays.

President Obama speaks via video at the dedication of cable car 24 to Willie Mays.

President Obama speaks via video at the dedication of cable car 24 to Willie Mays.

SFMTA Board Member Malcolm Heinecke, who is also Mays’ personal attorney, thought of the tribute. Market Street Railway helped SFMTA implement it by providing the car’s history, which turns out to be wonderfully appropriate.

Originally built in 1887 for the Ferries & Cliff House Railway, the original owner of the Powell cable lines, Car 24 received its last major renovation by Muni crafts workers in 1958, the year the Giants — and Willie Mays — moved to San Francisco from New York. It’s also the only cable car to go on a “road trip” will still in active service with Muni — representing San Francisco at the big Chicago Railroad Fair in 1949 (where it actually operated on a short stretch of specially-built cable track) and to the Shriner’s Convention in Los Angeles in 1950.

Following a speech by Mayor Ed Lee, officials unveiled a photo blow up of a new plaque mounted on the car honoring Mays. Then everyone piled onto Car 24 for a ceremonial ride that included a very rare, probably unprecedented moment: reversing the car on the  barn’s motorized turntable with a full load to point it to the exit gate on Washington Street. Click the black video box below to see it.

Then Car 24 and guests were off for a brief trip “around the horn”, as cable car folk describe the non-revenue turn left on Powell from Washington used to put cable cars into and out of service. Willa Johnson, one of Muni’s two female gripmen, took the controls for the run. The Chronicle’s Steve Rubenstein wrote a great story on the whole event. Again, click the black box below to watch Car 24 leave the barn for the first time as “the Willie Mays cable car.”

It was great to see Willie Mays ringing the conductor’s bell on his cable car, and even more to see the outpouring of genuine affection for someone who has been a positive symbol of San Francisco to millions of people — just as the cable cars have.