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
By Glen Sparks
On Jan. 17, 1970, The Sporting News named Willie Mays its Player of the Decade for the 1960s. That probably isn’t surprising (although Hank Aaron beat out Mays in many important categories.). The Giants great might also be the Player of the Second Half of the 20th Century, or of all-time. He could do it all. Let’s take a look at Willie’s great life and career:
- Born May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Ala., to semi-pro baseball player Willie Mays Sr. and high-school sprinter Anna Satterwhite, Mays grew up in nearby Fairfield. Willie Jr. began playing for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro leagues when he was 16 years old.
- The New York Giants signed Mays in 1950. The Giants promoted their prospect to the big club in 1951 after Mays hit .477 through 35 games for the Minneapolis Milers of the American Association.
- Rookie Mays went 0-for-12 to start his big league career. He ripped a home run off the Milwaukee Braves’ Warren Spahn and promptly went 0-for-13. Mays recovered and won the 1951 N.L. Rookie of the Year award.
- The young Mays really did play stick ball on the New York City streets. He lived in a rooming house in Harlem near the Polo Grounds. Local kids waited for their new hero to get home, or they’d wake him up on a Saturday morning. Mays and the boys and girls would play stick ball by the hour. Often, Willie treated the kids to a post-game trip to the local soda shop.
- Remarkably, San Francisco fans gave Willie a cool reception after the Giants moved there following the 1957 season. San Francisco, meanwhile, gave Nikita Khrushchev a warm welcome when the Soviet leader visited that city. One columnist wrote: “San Francisco is the darnedest city I’ve ever seen in my life. They cheer Khrushchev and boo Mays.”
- Fans in northern California soon warmed up to their superstar. Mays and Willie McCovey provided a great one-two combo in the middle of the Giants’ batting order. Mays enjoyed one big year after another. He led the league in homers three times in San Francisco and drove in at least 100 runs from 1959 through 1966. The team won 902 games in the 1960s, more than any other team. They only played in one World Series, though, losing to the New York Yankees in 1962.
- The right-handed hitter belted 660 home runs over his 22-year career (1951-73, out for military service much of 1952 and all of 1953). He drove in 1,903 runs and batted .302. He slammed 52 homers in 1965, collected 141 RBI in 1962, and hit .347 in 1958, all career highs.
- Mays collected 3,283 career hits. He scored 2,062 runs. He had a career high of 208 hits in 1958 and 130 runs scored in 1962.
- The Alabama-born slugger retired with a .384 on-base percentage, a .557 slugging percentage and a .941 OPS with a 156 OPS+. He led the N.L. slugging and OPS five times each and OPS+ six times.
- Mays topped the National League in steals four times (1956-59). He stole 338 bases in his career, including 40 in ’56.
- Mays won MVP awards in 1954 and 1965. He finished in the top six in the voting 12 times.
- A defensive whiz, Mays famously ran down Vic Wertz’ fly ball in the 1954 World Series. Mays sprinted to the deepest part of the Polo Grounds and hauled in the ball, over his left shoulder. He won 12 career Gold Gloves (1957-68) in his career.
- The Giants traded Mays to the New York Mets in May of 1972, for pitcher Charlie Williams and $50,000 in cash. He played in his last game in Game 3 of the 1973 World Series. The all-time great grounded into a force play.
- Mays retired with 156.2 WAR points. He set a career high in 1965 (11.2) and finished above 10.0 six times. From 1954 through 1966, he ended every season with a WAR of at least 7.6.
- Baseball writers voted Mays into the Hall of Fame in 1979 (first ballot, of course) with 94.7 percent of the vote. “He would routinely do things you never saw anyone else do.” – former Giants owner Peter MagowenRead an excellent book about Mays: Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James S. Hirsch.