Throughout the 150+ year history of Baseball there are only a few truly iconic images burned into our psyche: A solemn Lou Gehrig standing at a microphone. Babe Ruth pointing his bat towards the outfield ‘calling his shot.’ Jackie Robinson running onto the field in 1947 and changing not only the game but America. Bob Gibson, cap low over his head, staring in for the sign. Hank Aaron, a black man in the deep south, rounding 2nd after hitting number 715, being patted on the back by two white fans. Bill Buckner bending over but a ball scooting by. Kirk Gibson hobbling around the bases.
However, perhaps the most classic image of all is of the number 24, back to the plate, running all out, catching a line drive over his shoulder, in the depths of the Polo Grounds.
People generally enjoy a hearty debate. Politics, abortion, gun control. Or important issues like ‘Who is the greatest player to ever play the game?’ When I’m asked I confidently state Willie Mays.
Babe Ruth meant more to the game and for all intents and purposes, saved Baseball after The Black Sox Scandal. But Ruth didn’t have the speed. Teammate Lou Gehrig also lacked speed. Rickey Henderson didn’t hit for any power. Mike Schmidt had a mediocre career Batting Average. Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest natural hitter of all time, lacked defensive skills. Willie Mays did it all. And did it all well. A five tool superstar.
Born on May 6, 1931 in Westfield, AL, he began playing in the Negro Leagues by the time he was 16. On May 25, 1951,Mays broke into the majors with the NY Giants. He didn’t exactly set the world on fire, going 0-for-12. His first hit was a mammoth blast that came off Warren Spahn who was en route to becoming the winningest LHP in history. Giants announcer Russ Hodges stated that ‘Even if this kid never hits another one, people will still talk about it.’ There were 659 more to follow.
To this day, anytime a center fielder makes an over the shoulder catch with his back to the plate, we immediately conjure up images of Willie’s catch nearly 60 years ago.
It was Game 1 of the 1954 World Series when Vic Wertz of the heavily favored Indians hit a rocket to straight away CF. With men on base, Willie turned and ran. And ran. And ran some more. Center Field was 475 feet deep (65 feet deeper than Shea).The only question was would Wertz be held to a triple. Catching the ball was simply out of the realm of possibility. But we all know what happened.
Ted Williams stated once, “The All Star Game was created for Willie Mays.” Giants manager Leo Durocher said, “He can hit, he can run, he can field. If he could cook, I’d marry him.”
There were great players. And then there was The Say Hey Kid. On April 30, 1961, Willie joined an exclusive club by hitting 4 HR’s in a single 9 inning game. He was on deck when the final out was recorded. On July 2, 1963, Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal dueled it out for an unheard of 16 innings before Mays won the game with a solo blast in the 16th. He is the only player in history to hit at least a single HR in 16 different innings. Willie is also the only player to have a 4 HR game and a 3 triple game. He played in at least 150 games per year for 8 straight seasons. He is one of just 8 players to reach 100 RBI’s 8 straight seasons and surpassed 95 RBI’s 12 of 13 consecutive seasons.
His stats are impressive. He appeared in 24 All-Star Games, second only to Hank Aaron. He won 12 Gold Gloves…but the award was not even created until Willie’s 6th season in the majors. He is one of only 5 OFers to have won at least 10. He recorded 7095 put-outs, most in history.
Along with Aaron and Ruth, Mays was one of only three players at the time of his retirement to have surpassed 600 HR’s. The man in 4th, Frank Robinson, was nearly 100 behind him. His 660 total still places him 4th. Of his 660 round-trippers, 22 came in extra innings.
In addition to his power and glove, Willie compiled 3283 hits and retired with a 302 Bat Ave. There were also 2062 Runs, 523 doubles, 140 triples, a 557 career slugging percentage, 384 OBP and 1903 RBI’s. And he missed two years for military service.
For the 8 year period of 1955-1962, Willie also stole 221 bases, being caught just 64 times. A 78% success rate is good. But keep in mind, Willie was a clean-up hitter.
Sporting News named Willie ‘The Ballplayer of the Decade’ for the 1960’s. And why not? Mays didn’t play in the day of steroids and small bandboxes. He played during a time when pitching dominated the game. Koufax and Drysdale were in the same division as the Giants. There were also guys like Seaver, Gibson and Carlton. And the stadiums were cavernous.
But Willie Mays was more than stats and numbers. He played the game with flare and knew how to capture the dreams of fans everywhere. He wore a hat too small so it would fly off his head while running the bases, making him look ‘so fast.’ ‘Basket Catch’ entered our vocabulary thanks to Willie. Both in NY at the outset of his career and later in San Francisco, Willie would be seeing playing stickball with neighborhood kids in downtrodden areas.
In May1972, the Giants were struggling financially. GM Horace Stoneham traded the aging legend to the Mets for pitcher Charlie Williams and $50,000. Upon returning to the city where his career began Willie once again showed flare for the dramatic. In his first game as a Met, the 40 year old hit a HR and gave the Mets a victory—over the San Francisco Giants.
His final HR, # 660, came off of Don Gullett on August 18, 1973. Willie announced his retirement, ‘saying good-bye to America’ on Sept 25, 1973.
The Mets, however, managed to squeak out the division title and get by The Big Red Machine in the playoffs. At age 41, Willie Mays was in the World Series, playing against the team across the Bay from San Francisco. Willie got the first Mets hit in the fall classic and went for 2-7 overall. However, the heartbreaking moment came when the aging superstar lost a routine fly ball in the sun. After the game, Willie stated, “Growing old is just a helpless hurt.”
After retirement, Willie served as a coach for the Mets until 1979. Shortly after his enshrinement in Cooperstown, Willie, along with Mickey Mantle, was suspended from Baseball by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn due to the fact they were employed as ‘Greeters’ for an Atlantic City casino. This was overturned by Peter Ueberroth in 1985.
In 1999, Mays was listed at the #2 spot on the All-Century Team. His #24 has fittingly been retired by the Giants, although he offered his number to his God-son Barry Bonds. Barry refused, opting to go with #25 worn by his father Bobby when he had played for the Giants. On July 14th, 2009 Willie was the special guest of President Obama for the All-Star Game in St. Louis and flew on Air Force One.
Outside the main entrance to AT&T Park where the Giants play is a larger-than-life statue of The Say Hey Kid. If you’re interested in seeing it next time you’re in San Francisco, you can find the stadium in the heart of downtown. It’s located at 24 Willie Mays Plaza.