President Barack Obama was on board Air Force One, on the way to the St. Louis for the 2009 All-Star Game, where he was set to throw out the first pitch. Still fresh into his first term, President Obama turned to Willie Mays to tell him just how important he was to his own personal success.
"It was because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for president," President Obama recalled on Tuesday evening as the White House erupted in applause during the ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Mays and another baseball legend and Hall of Famer, the late Yogi Berra, were among the 17 recipients of the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. Larry Berra, the oldest Berra son, accepted the medal on his father's behalf.
Mays and Berra were honored alongside the likes of Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand and Stephen Sondheim, receiving an award "presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors," according to the White House website.
"Today we celebrate some extraordinary people," President Obama said. "Innovators, artists and leaders who contribute to America's strength as a nation."
President Obama described Berra, who passed away on Sept. 22, as someone who was born to play baseball but loved his country. Before his playing career ever began, Berra enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II and served during the invasion of Normandy on D-Day.
Berra then enjoyed a 19-year career in the Majors, including 18 with the Yankees, with whom he won three American League Most Valuable Player Awards and 10 World Series rings. President Obama quoted a biographer, saying, "Berra had the winningest career in American sports," in addition to becoming arguably one of the most quotable figures in history.
"What could be said about Yogi Berra that he couldn't say better himself," President Obama said with a laugh.
Berra continued to serve after his career, supporting the armed forces and as an ambassador for Athlete Ally, which promotes LGBT rights in sports.
Berra and Mays join fellow Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Stan Musial as players who have been awarded the Medal of Freedom.
Mays, one of the game's first African-American players, spent 22 years in the Majors -- 21 with the Giants (six in New York and almost 15 in San Francisco). He finished his career with 660 home runs, fifth on the all-time list. President Obama joked that he would not mention The Catch, perhaps Mays' most iconic moment, because Mays insists that was not his best catch.
Mays also served in the U.S. Army, drafted in 1952 during the Korean War. When he returned to the Majors in 1954, not only did he win the National League MVP Award, he helped lead the Giants to a World Series victory.
"We had never seen an all-around five-tool player quite like Willie before, and we haven't seen once since," President Obama said. "In his quiet example, while excelling on one of America's biggest stages, [he helped] carry forward the banner of civil rights."
Mays, 84, sat to President Obama's right as the ceremony continued, wearing a Giants cap. He removed the cap when he was presented with the medal, waving it to acknowledge the crowd.
"This is an incredible group, even by the standard of Medal of Freedom recipients," President Obama said. "This is a class act."
Jamal Collier is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.