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4/19/2013 9:00 P.M. ET

Giants legend Mays' wife passes away

SAN FRANCISCO -- Mae Louise Allen Mays, the wife of Giants legend Willie Mays, died in her sleep Friday morning in the couple's Atherton, Calif., home after a 16-year bout with Alzheimer's disease. She was 74.

Mays and his wife of 41 years initially crossed paths in 1951, his rookie season with the New York Giants. As Mays recounted in "Say Hey," his 1988 autobiography with Lou Sahadi, he autographed a photo for Mae, whose mother told him that she was a baseball fan.

"I looked around in my pocket and found a picture of me wearing a suit and I autographed it to this little girl in pigtails," Mays said.

Their formal introduction resulted from the future Hall of Famer's most prolific day in baseball -- his four-homer performance at Milwaukee on April 30, 1961. According to Mays, Ed Sullivan flew him to New York to appear on his popular Sunday night television show. Afterward, Mays went to Small's Paradise, a Harlem nightclub owned at the time by Wilt Chamberlain. The basketball star suggested to Mays that he and Mae should meet and gave him her phone number.

The next day, as Mays related in his autobiography, he made the call.

"You don't know me, but I'm Willie Mays," he said.

"And I'm Martha Washington," a skeptical Mae replied.

They dated periodically until getting married during Thanksgiving weekend in 1971, following Mays' final full season with the Giants.

"Mae died peacefully and without pain," Malcolm Heinicke, the Mays family attorney, said in a statement. "Willie is now grieving the loss of his beautiful wife of more than four decades, but he is staying strong by remembering all of the many experiences they enjoyed together. Mae was a beautiful person, and although her illness took some of her memories late in life, Mae passed with full knowledge that Willie loved her dearly. Willie appreciates all of the well wishes of his friends and fans during this difficult time."

"On behalf of the Giants partnership, front office, team, alumni and fans, we express our heartfelt condolences to Willie and his family with the passing of his beloved Mae," Giants president and chief executive officer Larry Baer said in a statement. "I was honored to know Mae and to witness how Willie loved and cared for her."

Author Jim Hirsch dedicated his recent Mays biography to Mae, stating that her "grace and beauty touched the soul of a legend."

Mae Louise Allen was born on May 26, 1938. She grew up in the racially segregated Homewood section of Pittsburgh, where she was an accomplished sprinter. She attended the University of Pittsburgh where she was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and earned a degree in sociology. She went to graduate school at Howard University, where she obtained a master's degree in social work. Mae worked in child welfare and, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, she eventually became a "pioneer in getting single adoptions started in San Francisco."

A private funeral service will be scheduled in the near future. In lieu of flowers, it is requested that donations be made to the Say Hey Foundation Inc., P.O. Box 2410, Menlo Park, Calif., 94026.

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.