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Willie Mays was a national treasure

If you’re a member of Generation X, the only time you got to see Willie Mays play was in the 1989 baseball comedy, Major League. Actually, people my age didn’t get to see the real Willie Mays; we got to watch actor Wesley Snipes play Willie Mays Hayes, a fictional character, who was more a bumbling idiot than he was a baseball star.

The real Willie Mays, who died on Tuesday at the age of 93, was almost a mythical character to baseball fans of the Generation X era. We never got to see him play, but we grew up learning everything there was about him.

What did we learn? Willie Mays may have been the best baseball player ever. We say that because that’s what our elders, the folks who actually got to watch him play, told us.

Mays was the quintessential five-tool player. He could run, hit, hit for power, field and throw. And Mays wasn’t just okay at some of those things and great at others. No, every one of his five tools was elite. If Mays’s manager asked him to hit more home runs, he’d do just that; he did that a lot, leading the league in that category four times and finishing his career with 660. On April 30, 1961, in a matchup against the Milwaukee Braves at old County Stadium, Mays joined the short list of players with four home runs in a single game in a 14-4 victory. If his team asked him to reach base more often, he had the talent to do that. In fact, in 1954, the first of his two National League MVP seasons, Mays had 36 home runs through the end of July, but Giants manager Leo Durocher asked him to hit fewer of them because he wanted his star player to reach base more often. The result? Mays hit just five more home runs, but he finished the season with a .345 average and won his only batting title. Mays ended his career with a .301 batting average and a .384 on-base percentage. He had a total of 3,293 hits over 23 seasons. He scored 100 runs or more 12 different times. He also drove runs in, to the tune of 1,909 career RBI. If his team needed him to steal bases, Mays could do that. He led the National League in stolen bases every season from 1956 through 1959 and finished his career with 339.

What about Mays’s defensive tools? According to CBS Sports, he had an arm good enough to finish with at least 10 outfield assists nine times. Speaking of Mays’s howitzer of an arm, he used it to play quarterback for Fairfield Industrial High School in Fairfield, Alabama, in the late 1940s. As per Mays, who also played baseball and basketball in high school, football was his best sport and quarterback his best position. Unfortunately, the times being what they were, Black athletes were barely allowed to play football in the 1940s, let alone quarterback. Back to his Major League career. Mays won a record 12-straight gold gloves as a centerfielder. He first did so while trying to navigate the cavernous centerfield at the old Polo Grounds in New York, and then later, he found a way to master the San Francisco crosswinds when the Giants moved there in 1958 and eventually started playing in Candlestick Park.

Back to the Polo Grounds. I don’t know what you think the best defensive play in baseball history is, but the most famous one occurred in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series between the Giants and Cleveland Indians. That’s right, nearly 30 years before Joe Montana and Dwight Clark teamed up in the final minute of the 1981 NFC title game in San Francisco, Mays authored his own “The Catch” in New York. In the top of the eighth inning of a tie game, Cleveland’s Vic Wertz launched a drive 425 feet to dead center. Like a wide receiver, Mays turned his back and raced to where he thought the ball would be, before making an over-the-shoulder catch and then twirling around and throwing the ball back toward the infield. The play saved two runs and preserved the tie. New York would go on to win and sweep the Indians in four games.

Born in Westfield, Alabama, in 1931, Mays grew up during a very segregated time in our nation’s history and did so in a state that was perhaps ground zero for the Jim Crow laws of the South. Yet, even though Mays had to start out in the Negro Leagues, and even though his MLB career began just a few years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Mays was quickly embraced by Giants fans upon making his debut in 1951. Despite a rough start to his career, Mays would go on to be named National League Rookie of the Year, while the Giants clinched the National League pennant thanks to Bobby Thompson’s famous “Shot Heard Round the World” in the deciding game of the 1951 playoff against the Dodgers.

In many ways, Mays was the first African American baseball player that both white and Black people openly cheered for. He may have also been the first African American baseball player that kids of all races loved and looked up to. There is no doubt Mays faced discrimination, even in New York City, but he certainly didn’t allow it to get him down–at least not publicly.

There was a time when New York boasted three Major League teams–including the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants–complete with three future Hall of Fame center fielders. The Yankees Mickey Mantle was one of them. The Dodgers Duke Snider was another. However, the Giants Mays may have been the most popular baseball player in the Big Apple at that time. Mays was so popular that Dodgers fans gave him a standing ovation at old Ebbets Field during his last at-bat after being drafted into the military for the Korean War.

That’s right, Mays missed most of 1952 and all of 1953 while serving his country. That was the reality for a lot of baseball greats in those days, and one has to wonder–like with a lot of baseball greats in those days–what kind of stats Mays would have ultimately wound up with.

While Mays was beloved in New York, he didn’t necessarily receive a warm welcome when the Giants moved to the Bay Area in 1958. He also faced open discrimination in San Francisco, and the “Say Hey” public persona kind of disappeared for a while.

Thankfully, Mays found his footing again in 1962, as he led the Giants to the National League pennant. Three years later, at the age of 34, Mays led baseball in home runs with 52. He also won his second MVP award.

Mays was still playing at a high enough level late in his career that The Sporting News named him Player of the Decade for the 1960s. 

Like all great players, Mays’s skills began to dip as he reached his 40s, and he was ultimately traded to the New York Mets early in the 1972 campaign. Mays may have recaptured the love of his old New York faithful, but he never did reclaim his old superstar prowess. However, he was a member of the 1973 Mets team that won the National League pennant but lost the World Series to the Oakland A’s in seven games.

Mays would then call it a career after 23 magnificent seasons that included a record 24 appearances in the All-Star Game. (That’s right, he was that good.)

Mays was obviously a First-Ballot Hall of Famer in 1979. He was named to Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team and MLB’s All-Time Team.

In many ways, Mays was the last star of a golden era of baseball that began in the 1930s when players like Babe Ruth were still around and ended in the 1970s when cookie-cutter stadiums and free agency changed the sport, while the NFL became America’s new pastime.

Willie Mays was an American hero, a legit five-tool superstar and perhaps the greatest baseball player who ever lived.


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