A member of the SABR once said, “There are 499 ballplayers. And then there’s Willie Mays.”
It was way back in the summer of 1973. Camera Day. I was a few months shy of turning 8 years old. My dad nudged me closer to the railing along the third base line so no grown-ups would block my view. Mets players walked around the warning track, stopping every few feet to smile for the cameras. My dad clicked away on his little Kodak Instamatic. I was just feet away from my Mets. Something I still remember 40 years later.
Tug and Harry Parker rode around on the back of the Mets bullpen cart. Jerry Koosman, void of his cap, stopped within arm’s reach. Lanky Jon Matlack smiled broadly. Cleon Jone carried himself with swagger, looking every part the major leaguer. Rusty Staub carried a teddy bear. Then, an eerie hush, the calm before the storm, came over the crowd. The quietness gave way to a volcanic eruption of cheers and shouts. Carrying a baseball bat as if he was born with it in his hand came # 24.
As game time approached and my dad and I walked to our seats in Loge section 5 along first base, he leaned over and told to remember today. One day I would be able to tell my kids that I saw Willie Mays.
I was 7 years old. All I knew about this guy was that he had once played in New York a long time ago and made some important catch once.
When the topic comes up of who is the greatest to ever play the game, I immediately respond without hesitation: Willie Mays. Ruth didn’t have the speed, Williams didn’t have the glove, Cobb, although he played in the dead ball era, didn’t have the power. The Say Hey Kid didn’t just do it all. He did it better than anyone before or since.
Born May 6, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama, William Howard Mays was taught the game of baseball at age 5. His father, William Howard Taft, named after a US president, played in the Negro Leagues for the local iron plant. His mother was a talented basketball and track star. Willie had the genes.
Attending Fairfield Industrial High, Willie set school records in both basketball and football.
Upon graduating, Willie played for the Birmingham Black Barons. He caught the eye of Bud Maughn, a scout for the Boston Braves. Boston was interested in purchasing Mays. However, they dragged their feet and could not come to an agreement with the Barons. Had the Braves moved quicker, it’s likely that Willie would have been teammates with Hank Aaron.
Brooklyn was also interested in Mays, but by the time they got around to it, he’d already been signed by their crosstown rivals, the hated New York Giants.
There was no Roy Hobbs moment when Willie took the field in 1951. He didn’t knock the cover off the ball in his first AB. As a matter of fact, he went 0-for-his first 12. Then, his first hit came: A towering HR off future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. Spahn later joked, “For the first sixty feet, it was a hell of a pitch.”
Willie hit 274-20-68 in 121 games and won the NL Rookie of the Year. It was Mays who was on deck later that season when Bobby Thomson hit ‘the shot heard round the world.’
The Giants lost the Series in 6 to the Yankees. Mays, along with Monte Irvin and Hank Thomson, were the first all-African-American outfield in baseball history.
After only 127 AB’s the following year, Uncle Sam came calling. Willie was drafted into the Army. He would not return to the majors until 1954. He missed 266 games.
But when he did return in 1954, he returned with a bang. He won his first of 2 MVP’s, hitting a league best 345 along with 41 HR’s. The Giants crushed the heavily favored Indians in 4 straight. The Series is best remembered for Willie’s iconic catch off the bat of Vic Wertz. In what is possibly the most popular image in Baseball history, The Say Hey Kid thus elevated himself to mythical proportions. This was the start of a legend. Modest Willie stated years later, “I don’t compare ‘em. I just catch ‘em.”
It was the last World Series the Giants ever won in New York. The team would not win another until 2010.
That season Willie earned $12,500.
The Giants played 3 more years in NY and over that span, Willie averaged 316, compiled 122 HR’s, 551 hits, 112 XBH, knocked in 308. Oh, and also managed to steal 102 bases.
In 1957, he became a member of the 20-20-20 club. 20 doubles, 20 triples and 20 HR’s. No player has done that since.
Willie Mays was not just a great ballplayer. He was fun, colorful and exciting. He had ‘a lot of little boy in him’ and that showed, both on and off the field. “I like to play happy,” he stated. “Baseball is a fun game. I love it.”
Willie was not only larger than life ON the field but off the field as well. He’d frequently hang out in Harlem, playing stick ball with neighborhood kids. When the Giants moved to San Francisco, he continued the tradition, playing in the sandlots with local kids. He truly was loved coast to coast.
Willie had no trouble winning the hearts of San Francisco fans. His first year out west he hit a career high 347. And although the Giants initially struggled in San Francisco, Willie continued putting up
Hall of Fame numbers.
On April 30, 1961, Mays hit 4 HR’s in a game. He was in the on-deck circle when the final out was recorded.
In 1962 the Giants won a tight pennant race and met the Yankees in the Fall Classic. The Giants lost in a heartbreaking 7 games. Willie hit just 250. He would not appear in another World Series until 1973.
July 2, 1963 is what many claim to be the best baseball game ever played. Two future Hall of Famers, Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn, dueled it out. For 16 innings the game was scoreless. It was like a heavyweight fight between two warriors who refused to go down. In the 16th inning, it was Willie Mays who delivered the knockout blow, hitting a HR and giving SF a 1-0 win.
In turn, this added yet another historical fact to the lore of Mays. He is the only player to hit a HR in every inning, 1 thru 16.
It was 1964. Willie’s friend and teammate Bobby Bonds welcomed a son into the world and named him Barry. He asked Willie to be the newborn’s Godfather.
August 22, 1965 is widely regarded as one of the ugliest days in Baseball history. The Giants and Dodgers were embroiled in a tight pennant race. Tension was high, tempers were short. Things boiled over. Juan Marichal hit Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro in the head with a bat. And then all hell broke loose. Red Sox/Yankees had nothing on this. This was not the usual bench clearing brawl where a couple guys tousle and everyone else stands around. This was an all-out war that went on for 14 minutes. Players were bloodied, uniforms shredded. It was Willie along with Sandy Koufax who restored order. Just a few years ago, Marichal stated, “Had Willie and Koufax not ended that, we’d probably still be going at it today.”
The following year, 1965, Willie surpassed another historic milestone. He hit his 500th HR, a blast off of Don Nottebart. When he returned to the dugout he was met by now teammate Warren Spahn. 13 years earlier it was Spahn who gave up Willie’s very first HR. The veteran LHP asked him, “Was it anything like the same feeling?” Willie responded, “Exactly the same feeling. Same pitch, too.”
Shortly after Jerry Koosman got Orioles second baseman Davey Johnson to fly out to left in October 69 and the Mets proved miracles can come true, The Sporting News named Willie Mays ‘The Player of the Decade.’
By early 1972, age was catching up to The Say Hey Kid. The Giants were struggling financially. Owner Horace Stoneham regrettably advised the Giant legend that he could not afford to offer Willie any type of position or financial reward upon his retirement. Enter the Mets.
Mets owner Joan Payson had been a minority shareholder for the New York Giants. In the late 50’s, she fought hard to keep them in New York. Payson watched her beloved Giants move 3000 miles away, longing for the day when her adored and cherished Willie Mays would somehow return to New York. That opportunity presented itself now.
Payson saw the chance, fought hard to get Willie back to New York and offered him a coaching position upon retirement. In early May the Mets sent Charlie Williams and $50,000 to Stoneham. The Say Hey Kid was back in New York, just 10 miles away from where the Polo Grounds once stood. And where the legend of Willie Mays was born.
It was a rainy Sunday, May 14, when Willie wore “NY” on his cap for the first time in fifteen years. In the fifth inning of his debut game, Willie, as always, rose to the occasion. He hit a HR that put the Mets ahead to stay. The losing team was, yes, the Giants.
August 17th of the following season, 1973, Mays hit a solo HR off Reds starter Don Gullett. It was # 660, the final one of his illustrious career.
The Mets shocked baseball once again, coming back from the dead and from last place to find themselves battling the A’s in the World Series. At age 42, Willie became the oldest player to appear in the Fall Classic. He got the Mets first hit in the World Series.
Willie only had 7 AB’s against Oakland. He got 2 hits, including the game winner in the 12 inning Game 2. In spite of Willie’s hit tying up the Series, it was a heartbreaking day for fans of the game. And for fans of Willie. He misplayed a routine fly ball, losing it in the glare of the northern California sunlight. Just across the bay from where Willie established himself as the best fielding CF-er of all time, he dropped a fly ball hit directly to him. After the game, he commented, “Growing old is just a helpless hurt.”
In 1979, William Howard Mays was enshrined in Baseball immortality. He was elected to the Hall of Fame with 95% of the vote. Amazingly, 23 sportswriters did not include Mays on their ballot. Caustic New York columnist Dick Young, never at a loss for biting sarcasm, stated, “If Jesus Christ were to show up with his old glove, some guys wouldn’t vote for him. He dropped the cross three times, didn’t he?”
Willie was at or near the top of every offensive category at the time of his retirement. And in spite of the steroid era, smaller stadiums and weaker pitching staffs, he remains a “giant” among the greats: 660 Home Runs (4th), 1903 RBI’s (10th), 3283 hits (11th), 2062 runs (7th), 10881 at-bats, 557 slugging (19th now but 10th at retirement). All this plus a lifetime batting average of 302 and oh yea, 338 Steals, a 77% success rate on the base paths.
As impressive as these stats were and still are today, keep in mind Willie played the bulk of his career in the 1960’s, a decade dominated by pitching and cavernous stadiums.
He was a 2 time MVP winner (1954, 1965). He won a record 12 Gold Gloves for CF, a remarkable feat considering Willie had 6 years under his belt before the award was even created. And the fact that he played in the swirling unpredictable winds of Candlestick Park. His 24 All-Star games tie him for the most mid-summer classics with Stan Musial. In 1999, Mays was chosen as #2 on the Greatest Players of the 20th century, the only living member. He holds the record for 13 straight years playing 150+ games.
In addition to his accolades, Willie, usually bashful, was honest and forthright. He knew he was good. And so did we. Some of his quotes:
“They throw the ball, I hit the ball. They hit the ball. I catch the ball.” “When I’m not hitting, I don’t hit nobody. But when I am, I can hit anybody.” “The game was easy for me.” When asked who he thinks was the best ball player he ever saw, Willie replied with a broad smile. “I think I was the best I ever saw play.”
As much as fans loved seeing him play, he was equally respected and admired by his peers and contemporaries.
Ted Williams: “They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays.”
Ted Kluszewski: “I’m not sure what charisma is but I get the feeling it’s Willie Mays.”
Mays’ manager Leo Durocher: “He can hit. He can run. He can field. If he could cook, I’d marry him.”
Reggie Jackson: “You used to think if you were winning 5-0 somehow Mays would find a way to hit a 5 run HR.”
Opposing manager Gil Hodges: “I can’t tell my batters not to hit it to him. Wherever they hit it, he’s there anyway.”
It’s been 4 decades since this little scrawny 7 year-old kid with a front tooth missing was nudged closer to the railing at Shea on Camera Day 1973, trying to see past all the tall grown-ups. It’s been 4 decades since my dad told me to remember the day I saw Willie Mays on a Baseball field. It’s been 4 decades and this little kid is now in his late 40’s. And yes dad, I still remember.