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Willie Mays: An Appreciation
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 General
A great tribute to a true icon.
You’re welcome! So you played baseball, right?
I reached my teen-age years in 1951 and I was a baseball fan. I was a batboy for the Atlanta Crackers when Eddie Mathews was their star player. Of course, I became famous for that homer against the Dodgers to win the pennant for the Giants in 1951. So the fifties was a great decade to follow Mays, Mantle, and Mathews through their great seasons. Enjoyed your post.
Both my Father and I were Giants fans for one reason: Willie Mays.
Wonderful. I grew up in the Church of Willie Mays who was my dad’s favorite ballplayer so as a young boy he became, and remains, mine. Dad passed in 2014 but to this day whenever seeing anything about Willie I think of dad and that’s a good thing.
In 1962 Dad and I went onto the field at Wrigley during batting practice and met Willie. The data on baseball-reference.com is incorrect as I remember Mr Mays being at least seven feet tall.
Ha! I can imagine. When I was 7, my dad took me to Wrigley to see Ernie Banks play.
Two other notes on Willie:
In that 16 inning 1-0 duel between Marichal and Spahn that Willie won with the home run, earlier in the game he threw out a Braves runner at home plate preserving the tie.
During the infamous 1965 brawl in which Marichal swung his bat and hit Dodger catcher Johnny Roseboro on the head, it was Mays, in the midst of the chaos, who walked the bleeding Roseboro off the field and sat with him in the Dodgers dugout until medical help arrived.
About a decade ago, I worked with Felix Mantilla’s son. He shared a hotel room with with Hank Aaron when they were on the road in 1958 (even superstars didn’t have their own hotel room). He had some good stories.
Good point on Item 2 – I’d meant to include that in the post but couldn’t figure out how.
His offense alone puts him among the all-time greats, but his defense moves him near the top of that list.
I wish we had more film of him at his defensive peak. Reading about some of those catches and throws is thrilling but too bad no video.
Willie taking the blood splattered Roseboro off the field.
Dodgers manager Walter Alston said “Mays was the only player on either club who showed any sense“.
Willie Mays was my favorite player growing up in the late 60s – early 70s, even though I was in the greater NYC media market. I never got to meet Willie Mays, but in 1987 I met Willie McCovey. There are some superstars who don’t loom as large in person as they do in your mind, but I’m 6′ tall, and I had to crane my neck just to look up and say “he– … hummina hummina … hello” to him. Very polite and charming he was.
I can only imagine how tall Willie Mays must have been to a boy in 1962.
That’s my memory. I heard it on the radio as I was driving about 20 years ago and the description was that the interview had taken place in Houston.
When my family moved to the Bay Area in early Summer 1963 I got to go to Candlestick and see all of those great players. Marichal and McCovey (one of my heroes) were impressive, but the player that put me in awe was Mays. He was, and is, the most athletic ballplayer I’ve ever seen: like a coiled spring at the plate, ready to burst. And roaming centerfield like a lion. He also seemed more engaged in the game, more aware of every second, than any other player out there.
My only regret is that we didn’t move a year earlier so that I could have watched The Duel, the greatest pitched game in baseball history. All of those HofF’ers out there on the field — Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Cepeda, Matthews, Aaron, Spahn (and Perry in the dugout). The winningest pitcher of the ’60s (Marichal, still a kid) and an old man (Spahn) who happened to be the winningest left-hander of all time.
Thanks from a Giants fan, a great post, and tribute to the Say Hey Kid.
Wanted to mention that Joe Posnanski–a terrific writer at The Athletic–recently compiled a “100 best” list for baseball, placing Willie at #1. Posnanski acknowledged that some of his rankings were personal and a bit quirky but he got down to business for the final grouping. Unfortunately, I don’t think his stories supporting each choice can be read without a subscription, but it seems likely this will appear in book form at some point.
He finally finished that huh? I recall him starting it maybe 6-7 years ago and then ‘just quitting it without explanation after he’d done the first 40 or 50.
Yes, it was quite a slog, and I missed lots of it due to cheaping out on subscriptions. The final three were Bonds, Ruth, and Mays.
As I said elsewhere, I would never ask for a many-Like button. But if we had one, this post (and the Comments) would get a bunch. Thanks, tigerlily.
Appreciate that Mark.
I grew up a rabid Pirates fan in that era, and remembered Willie and his Giant teammates with some irritation because they always seemed to find a way to beat my Buccos.
Except for 1960, of course.
Yes, but even more tiresome was living with the Yankees’ dominance, but your Pirates took care of that.
Was it Mays or Mantle the first to be described as a 5 tool player? Great tribute.
Mazeroski! Still, the ’62 World Series was most annoying for Yankee haters.
McCovey said it was the hardest ball he ever hit. Right into Richardson’s glove.
I can’t think of a better player than Willie May’s. He could have held the stolen base record but he only stole a base when he felt the team needed him to. He did everything at an elite level.
Thanks thelonious. It was Mays…well, I’m almost certain it was Mays. Mantle was a pretty decent defensive centerfielder early on; but, he was no Mays with the glove.