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Wednesday was baseball great Willie Mays’ 89th birthday and I thought I’d post a brief appreciation of his career. I’ve been a baseball fan almost all my life, and since I grew up in northern California and started following baseball circa 1960, the Giants were my favorite team and I gravitated quickly to their best player Willie Mays.
Willie Howard Mays was born on May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama. Willie was a precocious athlete. His father was a semi-pro ballplayer, playing for a company team in the local league made up from coal and steel companies in the area. By the time he was a teenager, young Mays was on his father’s team playing against grown men twice his age. And, although he played on his high school football, basketball and baseball teams, he began his professional baseball career in 1947 at age 16 joining the Chattanooga Choo Choos, who were essentially a farm team for the Negro League Birmingham Black Barons, a team he would join within a year. The Black Barons manager, Piper Davis would become a mentor to Willie. He worked with the young ballplayer on his weaknesses as a player and required that he finish high school. Since the Dodgers had broken the color line with Jackie Robinson in 1947, major league scouts from those teams willing to add black ballplayers to their roster began scouring the Negro Leagues for major league talent and it didn’t take them long to stumble across Mays who had helped the Black Barons to the Negro League World Series in 1948 mainly with his great defensive play.
Mays was found and signed by Giants scout Eddie Montague for $4,000. He would tear through the minors hitting .353 at Class B Trenton as a 19-year old in 1950. He was promoted to the Giants top farm team for the 1951 season, the Triple A Minneapolis Millers and after 35 games in which he was batting .477 (yes, that’s not a typo, he was hitting .477, not .377), he was sent up to the big club. It’s a well-known story that Mays did not start his major league career in an auspicious fashion but it’s worth repeating here. He went for 0-12 in his first three games. He hit a towering home run over the left-field roof in the Polo Grounds off of future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn in his fourth game; however, that would be his only hit in his first seven major league games and so he was batting a less than stellar .038 after his first week in the majors.
When he first came up, his manager Leo Durocher had batted him third in the lineup, but after his slow start he moved Willie down in the order to the eighth spot to take the pressure off. The young center fielder responded and began hitting. He finished his rookie season hitting .274 with 20 HR and that along with his brilliant defensive play helped the Giants to the NL pennant over the crosstown rival Dodgers in a dramatic three-game playoff capped by Bobby Thomson’s home run. The Giants would lose the World Series in six games to the Yankees (a World Series featuring Mays, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio), but Mays had established himself as a major leaguer. After the season he added the Rookie of the Year award to his trophy case, the first of what would be many awards.
With the Korean War raging, Mays was drafted into the Army early in 1952, and he would spend most of that season and all of the 1953 season in the service. Mays spent most of his time in the Army playing baseball. By his estimate, he played 180 or so games while in the service. When he re-joined the Giants for spring training in 1954 there was talk of the Giants, who had slipped to fifth place 35 games behind the Dodgers in 1953, as the favorite for the 1954 pennant with Mays back in the lineup, which is sort of amazing when you consider that a player with only 155 major league games, a .266 batting average, and a .459 slugging average could make such a difference. But, it would come to pass.
Led by Mays, the Giants would win the pennant by five games over the Dodgers with Mays leading the league in batting (.345) and slugging (.667) on his way to winning his first MVP. In the World Series, the 97-win Giants were underdogs to the 111-win Cleveland Indians. Yet, they swept the Indians in four games with Mays’ extraordinary catch and throw in deep center field of a drive by Indians slugger Vic Wertz in the 8th inning of game 1, a 2-2 game with two Indians on and no outs being the decisive play.
Mays had become a superstar in 1954 and over the next dozen years, he played at an MVP level each and every year, averaging a .318/.392/.615 slash line, 40 homers, 118 runs, 109 RBI, 22 steals and 9.6 WAR and 37 Win Shares (WS) per season. However, he didn’t win another MVP until 1965 when he hit a career-high 52 HR (his second 50-homer season when 50 homer seasons were still special) as his Giants lost out to the Dodgers on the last weekend of the season. His 12-year span between MVPs is the longest in history although the recent advanced meta stats of WAR and WS saw him as the best player in his league many times – 10 times according to WAR and 7 times per WS.
Mays led the league four times each in home runs (1955, 1962, 1964 & 1965) and stolen bases (1956-1959) and there is still only one other player (Chuck Klein) who has led his league in these two disparate categories at any point in his career during the post-1920 lively-ball era. In addition to HR & SB, he led the league in batting average, on-base percentage (twice), slugging average (5 times), hits, triples (thrice), total bases (thrice), walks, and runs scored (twice) at various points in his career. He is also the only player to have both a four-homer game and a three-triple game in his career and he is one of seven players to have a 20-20-20- season (20 doubles, 20 triples and 20 home runs) adding in a fourth 20 (SB – 38) to boot. He is a member of both the 30-30 club (30 HR & 30 SB) and 50-20 club (50 HR 20 SB). He also has one of the best All Star Game records to be found. Playing in 24 ASG in twenty different seasons, he hit .307 and he holds All Star Game records for most hits (23), runs (20), triples (3) and stolen bases (6), while twice being named the games MVP.
Mays was also a brilliant defensive centerfielder, perhaps the best ever but, in any case, among a small handful of the best defensive outfielders of all time. His 12 Gold Gloves are tied with Roberto Clemente as the most ever for an outfielder. Of course, he’s famous for the basket catch and his most famous defensive play (the catch & throw in the ’54 series mentioned above) probably wasn’t his best. As for his best, some mention a one-handed grab of a slicing drive off the bat of Rocky Nelson in Pittsburgh, while others (including Willie) mention a 1952 catch of a drive in Ebbets Field off the bat of Bobby Morgan in which Mays dove horizontally into the wall to make the catch.
Perhaps the only knock on Mays’ record is his relatively poor showing in his five postseasons (four World Series in 1951, 54, 62 and 73 and the 1971 and 1973 NL playoffs) in which he hit only .247 with 1 home run. However, Mays was an outstanding player in high-pressure situations. His 22 extra-inning home runs are the most ever. One of those extra-inning homers won a famous 1-0 16-inning pitching duel between Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal in which both pitchers pitched a complete game (something we’re unlikely to ever see again). His solo HR in the bottom of the 8th against Houston in game 162 of the 1962 season enabled the Giants to tie the Dodgers for the league lead and in the first game of their three-game playoff, his two homers off of Sandy Koufax propelled the Giants to victory and a 1-0 series lead.
Getting back to a chronological look at Willie’s career, his last great season was at age 35 in 1966. After that, Willie returned to mere mortal as a ballplayer but still a good one. At age 39, he hit 28 homers and at age 40 he led the league in on-base percentage and stole 23 bases in 26 tries as the Giants won the NL West. Early in the 1972 season, the Giants traded Mays to the New York Mets for pitcher Stan Williams and $50,000. It was a homecoming of sorts (recall that the Giants played in New York through 1957 moving to San Francisco in 1958) and Mets fans showed their appreciation for Mays, although the 41-year old was by this point a part-time player. His time with the Mets is probably most remembered by his slipping and falling while chasing a flyball in the 1973 World Series. Mays retired after the 1973 season.
To this day, Mays has some of the most impressive career statistics of all time – 3,283 hits, 660 home runs, 2062 runs scored, 338 stolen bases, 6,066 total bases, a .302 batting average and so forth. His playing career was capped by his selection into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1979. After his playing career, he stayed in the game as a coach for the Mets and later the Giants. In 1983, he and Mickey Mantle took positions with different casinos in Atlantic City as greeters and MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in one of his many bone-headed moves promptly banished both from baseball unless they quit their associations with the casinos. Both declined and it was left to Kuhn’s successor, Peter Ueberroth to reinstate both shortly after he assumed his post. More recently, he has assumed a role as sort of ambassador for the game.
Before ending this appreciation, I suppose I should briefly discuss Mays’ personal life. Early in his career, the Giants set him up in Harlem boarding house of David and Anna Goosby and had veteran Monte Irvin room with him on the road. While in Harlem, Mays did regularly play stickball with neighborhood kids more often than not ending with a trip to a soda shop as per the legend. These ended though when Mays got married in 1956. He and first wife had one adopted child (a son) before divorcing in 1963. Mays remarried in 1971 and that marriage lasted until his wife’s passing in 2013. Although generally outgoing and personable Mays, who was a clubhouse leader during his playing days, has generally kept his personal feelings and beliefs close to the vest. In putting this together, I looked unsuccessfully for a radio interview of Mays during his playing career in Houston and in which he discussed his Christian faith (as best I recall). Sans that, I do have a couple of videos highlighting Mays’ career.
In 1955, the Treniers, an R&B group released a single “Hey Willie” (3:15) and the high-pitched voice you hear is indeed that of Willie Mays.
Below is about a five-minute video appreciation of Mays’ career. It features various baseball announcers and reporters discussing Mays along with various highlights of Mays in action. Watching those highlights will make clear why Willie gave such joy to baseball fans friend and foe alike.
Happy belated birthday, Willie!Published in