By Glen Sparks
Happy Say Hey Day. Willie Mays, the fabled Say Hey Kid, turned 85 years old today. The Hall of Famer remains one of the greatest players in baseball history. That will never change. Talents like Willie Mays do not come along every century.
Mays played 22 seasons in the majors (1951-52, 54-73), for the Giants (both in New York and San Francisco) and, at the end, the New York Mets. He belted 660 career home runs (fifth all-time), drove in 1,903 runs (11th all-time), batted .302 with a .384 on-base percentage and made every MLB All-Star team from 1954-1973. Mays collected 3,283 hits and still ranks 11th on the all-time hits list.
“I can’t believe that Babe Ruth was a better player than Willie Mays.” – Sandy Koufax
Born in Westfield, Ala., not far from Birmingham, Mays starred in basketball and football at Fairfield Industrial School. Fairfield didn’t field a baseball squad, so Mays played on a semi-pro team, alongside his talented dad, William “Cat” Mays.
Roy Campanella, the Brooklyn Dodgers catcher, saw a 17-year-old Mays play in the Negro League World Series in 1948. Campy begged the Dodgers to sign the young man. A scouting report ended any chance of that. “The kid can’t hit the curveball,” according to the report.
The New York Giants swopped in. Mays began his big-league career by going 1-for-26 (.038). He wasn’t hitting the curveball, the fastball, anything. Soon, things began to change. Mays won the National League Rookie of the Year award in ’51. He smacked 20 home runs and batted .274 in 121 games.
Mays missed much of 1952 and all of ’53 due to military service. Then, he really began to make life miserable for opposing pitchers. The right-handed batter slugged at least 30 homers in 11 seasons and topped the 40-home run mark six times. He belted 50-plus home runs twice, in 1955 (51) and 1965 (52). Mays led the league in homers four times.
Over his career, Willie Howard Mays finished in the top six in the MVP voting 12 times, including every season from 1957-66. He even stole 338 bases and led the league four times.
He did all this, and he made all those great plays in center field, most famously against the Cleveland Indians’ Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series. Mays collected a dozen Gold Gloves, an award not given out until 1957.
Mays was, in the opinion of many, baseball’s most perfect player.
“If he could cook, I’d marry him,” – Leo Durocher
“They throw the ball, I hit it. They hit the ball, I catch it.” – Willie Mays