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Carchidi: Flyers’ Connection to Baseball Legend Willie Mays



Lou Nolan, Bob Kelly, Willie Mays and Joe Kedlec in 1980. Philadelphia Flyers photo courtesy of Ellen Nolan.
Lou Nolan (left to right), Bob Kelly, Willie Mays and Joe Kadlec at a benefit softball game in Pleasantville in 1980. Photo courtesy of Ellen Nolan.

When you think of Willie Mays, who died at 93 on Tuesday,  you think of the ultimate five-tool player. He was the best all-around player I ever had the privilege to watch, someone who hit for power and average, stole bases, had a great arm, and was absolutely breathtaking in the way he patrolled center field.

“What does Mays have to do with a column on a hockey website?” you may ask.

Well, it turns out that some of the greatest Philadelphia Flyers in franchise history had a chance meeting with the Say Hey Kid in 1980, shortly after they lost a heartbreaking series to the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Back then, Mays was seven years removed from his Hall of Fame baseball career and was working as a goodwill ambassador for an Atlantic City casino, and their softball team faced the Flyers in a benefit game in Pleasantville, N.J.

Those on the Philadelphia Flyers’ softball team say meeting the iconic Mays was a great thrill, even though many of the hockey players were superstars in their own right.

‘Class act’

“I was very impressed with him. We were meeting a star. We weren’t the stars,” former Flyers winger Bob Kelly said on Thursday. “I just remember him being a class act and talking with us about different things.”

“He was interested in learning more about our hockey team,” said Lou Nolan, who was the Flyers’ public-address announcer in those days — and still holds the position. “I remember him asking some questions. It was pretty cool to talk with him. Willie Mays. Holy cow! We all wanted to meet him and shake his hand and learn a little bit about him.”

It was an “honor” to get to talk with Mays, said Joe Kadlec, the former Flyers PR whiz who, who, like Nolan, was on the Flyers’ benefit softball team, along with players like Kelly, Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber, Reggie Leach, Rick MacLeish, Orest Kindrachuk and others.

“We played softball all over back then,” Kelly said. “We played at the Vet, up in North Philly, South Jersey. We played the ironworkers, the firemen. We played everybody. We had a lot of guys who could play ball, so that was fun for us.”

Nothing was more fun than meeting the incomparable Mays.

“He got along with everybody,” Kadlec said. “He was good to the kids and to everybody he met. He was out of that Jesuit mold, if you know what I mean.”

Mays “left a great legacy in what he did for baseball,” Kelly said.

Kadlec remembers watching him play against the Phillies at Connie Mack Stadium. “My aunt and uncle used to take me to Sunday games, and what a thrill it was to watch Willie,” he said.

He recalled the 1958 season, when Mays and Phillies centerfielder Richie Ashburn battled for the batting title. It came down to the season’s last day, and Ashburn edged Mays, .350 to .347. It was the highest average of Mays’ career, and he finished with a lifetime .301 mark and 660 homers. “I saw an old interview the other day and he (Mays) said he was trying to prove he could hit for average instead of just being a home-run hitter,” Kadlec said.

Years later, Nolan said, he appreciated Mays even more.

“He accomplished all he did in the clean era of baseball,” Nolan said. “This was before (the steroid era) and what Mark McGwire did, what Sammy Sosa did, what Barry Bonds did. Mays did it in a clean era with a ball that wasn’t juiced.”

And no one loved the game more than Willie Mays, who was a superstar when he played stickball with kids on the streets of New York City. That was the essence of the man. Forget all his stats. The way he played — cap flying off as he raced for a fly ball, his perpetual smile and the unbridled enthusiasm he displayed on a ballfield — is what made many of us fall in love with the sport.

Sam Carchidi writes a weekly column for Philly Hockey Now. He and Jeff Hare are working on a TV series on the Flyers’ glory days, tentatively called “Bullies.” Carchidi can be reached at

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