Simply Baseball Notebook's Legends

Willie Mays

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Willie Mays
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Mel Ott
Harry Heilmann
Stan Musial
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Roy Campanella
Rogers Hornsby


New York/San Fransisco Giants 1951, 53-72  
New York Mets 1972-73 

Let's end the debate right now, Willie Mays is the greatest living baseball player. He has been for a long time (i.e. before Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams passed away), in fact a strong case could be made that he is the best player that ever lived. Willie Mays had it all, could do it all, and did it all with a flair that made him a legend.

Willie Howard Mays was born on May 6, 1931 in Westfield, AL, a small steel mill town near Birmingham. He moved in with his aunt in nearby Fairfield after his parents divorced. Despite the arrangement his father took an active role in his upbringing, especially athletically.

An all around athlete, Mays starred in football and basketball in high school. Because his school did not have a baseball program, Mays spent his summers playing for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues.

Word quickly spread about the ability of the young prodigy, and the New York Giants signed him for $6,000 immediately after graduation. Mays adjusted to life in the pros quickly, hitting .353 in 81 games at Class B Trenton in 1950, and was batting at a .477 clip after 35 games at AAA Minneapolis when the Giants called him up in 1951.

Early in his career Mays struggled mightily, managing only one hit (off Warren Spahn) in his first 26 at bats. Only 20 at the time, Mays began to wonder if he was ready for the majors, but manager Leo Durocher stepped in and acted as the father figure the youngster needed. Handling him gently, Durocher gave the insecure young man the praise and confidence he needed.

Mays responded well, rebounding to hit .274 with 20 home runs and win the NL Rookie of the Year. The Giants, of course, won the NL Pennant that year on Bobby Thomson's dramatic home run which Mays watched from the on deck circle. Mays' rookie campaign ended on a sour note, however, as the cross-town Yankees beat his Giants in six games in the World Series.

Uncle Sam came calling 34 games into the 1952 season - Mays was drafted into the Army. Although he did not see any combat (reportedly played about 180 games of baseball), Mays did lose nearly two seasons in the prime of his career serving his country.

Mays' return to the majors in 1954 created a lot of hype, and he didn't disappoint. Not showing a bit of rust, the center fielder hit .345, belted 41 home runs, drove in 110, scored 119 runs, won the NL MVP, and led the Giants to the World Series.

This time the Giants' opponent in the Fall Classic was the favored Cleveland Indians that won 111 games in the regular season. It was the Indians that looked overmatched, however, as the Giants rolled to a 4-0 sweep. Although Mays hit just .182 (4 for 22), it was his legendary over-the-shoulder catch of a Vic Wertz fly ball that saved Game 1 and served as the turning point of the series.


Mays followed up his magical 1954 season by leading the NL in home runs with 51, while batting .319 with 127 RBI. Mays dipped a little in 1957, hitting .296 with 36 home runs and 84 RBI, but rebounded in 1957 (.333, 35HR, 97 RBI) which was the Giants last in New York.

New York loved Willie Mays, he would spent hours playing stick ball with children on the streets of Harlem. He played the game with a boyish enthusiasm and a showman's' flair - his hat was a size too big so that when he ran hard it would fly off - he made basket catches - he made it all look so easy. He added a style to the game that many had never seen.

While Mays was beloved in New York, the San Francisco fans didn't look at him with the same reverence. Sportswriter Dick Young summed it up best, "Mays never was to San Francisco what he was to New York. When the Giants moved to California, the San Francisco fans saw Mays as 'of' New York. And like any great city, they resent being followers."

On the field, however, Mays remained unaffected, his game-wining home run on the final day of the 1962 season pushed the Giants into a three game playoff with the now Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL pennant. Like in 1951 the Giants defeated the Dodgers in a ninth inning rally and lost to the Yankees in the World Series. Mays played brilliantly that year, hitting .304 with 49 home runs and 141 RBI, but finished second to LA's Maury Wills in the NL MVP voting.

Mays won his second MVP in 1965 with a .317 average, a career high 52 home runs, and 112 RBI. After hitting .288 with 37 home runs and 103 RBI in 1966, Mays production began to dip. After sub par 1967, '68, and '69 campaigns, Mays did rebound to hit 28 home runs and hit .291 in 1970, but at 39 his best years were behind him.

The Giants sent the legend back to his beloved New York in 1972 as he joined the Mets on May 11th. Mays did get one last hurrah as the Mets reached the World Series in 1973, but the Mets lost to the budding A's dynasty in seven games. Mays retired following the season.

In 22 seasons Willie Mays hit 660 home runs, compiled 3,283 hits, stole 338 bases, hit .302, drove in 1903 runs, and scored 2,062 more. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility (amazingly 23 of 432 writers didn't vote for Mays).

The numbers stated above only begin to describe the greatness of Willie Mays. He played the game with an infectious, boyish enthusiam that captured the imagination of city. The only way to truly get a grasp of Mays' greatness is dust off the old, grainy black and white film and watch him play.

-David Zingler, November 2002

Simply Baseball Notebook

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