“There have been only two geniuses in the world”, actress Tallulah Bankhead said, “Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare”. A trifle exaggerated perhaps (is Shakespeare THAT good?), but the former Giant was arguably the greatest baseball player of all time.
William Howard “Willie” Mays Jnr. was born on 6th May 1931 in Westfield, Alabama of talented sports playing parents. He came to prominence through playing for Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro American League and, having been declined by the Brooklyn Dodgers, was signed by the New York Giants on the day he graduated from high school in 1950.
After an impressive early season spell with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association at the beginning of the following season he was called up for his Major League debut on 25th May 1951. Despite career lows in batting average, RBIs and HRs that year he was still voted Rookie of the Year. His speed and agility in centre field were gaining notice, and in one game against Pittsburgh, he stopped a 475 foot drive with his bare hand.
Missing most of the 1952, and all of the 1953, seasons through Army service, he returned to the Giants in 1954, helping them to win their last World Series before 2010 and being voted National League MVP. His phenomenal over the shoulder running catch in deep center field off Vic Wertz at the Polo Grounds, which is still regarded as one of the most spectacular pieces of fielding in baseball history, was instrumental in securing a first game win against the Cleveland Indians, leading to a four game sweep of the series.
In 1957, the last season of the Giants’ tenure in New York, he won the first of his 12 consecutive Golden Glove awards. There were few more exhilarating sights than Mays in full sail, chasing a long fly ball, oversize cap flying off his head as the ball sunk into his enormous, wide-palmen hands. He perfected the “basket” catch in which the glove was held waist-high and face up like a basket. Along with Joe diMaggio he is also reputed to have had the greatest throwing arm in the game.
His reception in San Francisco, following the Giants’ relocation in 1958, was not a particularly welcoming one – he was booed whilst the locals took rookies like Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey to their hearts and he and his wife experienced racial prejudice in their attempts to find a home in the city. His wholehearted, stylish performances won over the fans and in 1961 he hit 4 home runs against the Milwaukee Braves in County Stadium and was on deck when the Giants’ final innings closed. He is the only Major League player to have a 4 home runs and a 3 triple game.
His final World Series for the Giants was in 1962 when, having beaten the Dodgers in a three game play-off, they lost in seven to the Yankees. He won his second league MVP with a career high 52 home runs. He played in 150 games for 13 consecutive years between 1954 and 1966, another Major League record. Despite hitting his 600th home run in 1969 he had an injury hit season, but returned to his best form and helped the Giants win the National League West in the following year. He was named “Player of the Decade” for the sixties by The Sporting News in 1970.
In May 1972, unable to guarantee him a retirement income, the Giants traded the 41 year old Mays to the New York Mets for pitcher Charlie Williams and $50 ,000. He made his debut on the 14th against the Giants, hitting a home run. His final home run, number 660, was made against the Reds on 17th August the following year. He also made 3,283 hits and ran in 1,903 batters in his career.
For his two seasons in New York he was the oldest regular position player in baseball and the oldest to figure in a World Series Game during the series that the Mets lost to the A’s. He stayed with the club until the end of the 1979 season as hitting instructor.
On 23rd January 1979 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, colecting 95% of the ballots. But the period after his retirement was a difficult one, culminating in his being banned from baseball for working, along with Yankees legend Mickey Mantle, as a meeter and greeter for Bally’s Casinos in Atlantic City. Although the ban was eventually rescinded, the decision affected Mays badly, inducing him to shun many public appearances, including All-Star games.
In 1999 he was included in the Major League All-Century team in a popular vote by fans.
There is no doubting the affection in which he is held, not only by Giants’ fans but the citizens of San Francisco. Since 1986 he has served as Special Assistant to the President of the San Francisco Giants, a lifetime appointment. The address of AT & T Park is 24 Willie Mays Plaza and a larger than life statue of Mays in full slugging mode stands proudly in front of the main entrance.
Although his #24 shirt had been formally retired, and even when Mays offered it to his godson Barry Bonds, who had visited him in his locker room in search of bubble gum when just five years old. Such was the esteem in which he is held, however, that Bonds refused and opted to wear the #25 jersey instead.
At former mayor Willie Brown’s instigation, and with the subsequent endorsement of mayor Gavin Newsom, he is now commemorated every 24th May in San Francisco which has been designated Willie Mays Day. On his 79th birthday in 2010 the California Senate proclaimed Willie Mays Day in the state, and three years before, he had been inducted into the California Hall of Fame by Governor Arnold. Schwarzenegger.
For all the adulation and honours accorded him in California, it should not be forgotten that he is no less idolised on the East Coast for his services to New York at the beginning and end of his career. This was evident when he joined the Giants organisation on 21st January 2011 in parading the newly won World Series trophy, visiting the grade school built on the site of the old Polo Grounds in Harlem, answering the students’ questions and distributing memorabilia.
I can’t finish this piece without reference to more of Mays’s remarkable playing achievements:
- selected for the All-Star Game a (tied) record 24 times, including 20 consecutive years between 1954 and 1973;
- MVP in the All-Star Game twice (1963, 1968);
- the only player to have hit a home run in every innings from 1 to 16;
- a record 22 extra innings home runs;
- only one of five National League players to have hit at least 100 RBIs in eight successive seasons;
- stole 338 bases; and
- 7,095 outfield fielding putouts – Major League record
But the statistics and records do scant justice to his genius – constantly on the move, athletically and mentally, whether at the plate, on base or in the outfield, he was a menace to the opposition from start to finish.
I started with a quotation and I shall end with one. Mays, who, in all modesty, believed himself to be the best baseball player ever, summed it up in these simple words: “If you can do that – if you run, hit, run the bases, hit with power, field, throw and do all other things that are part of the game – then you’re a good ballplayer”. Well, he could do all of those things with a level of skill, style and, above all joy, unparalleled in the game’s history.