An Introduction to the Legends of Baseball
| Hank Aaron
| Yogi Berra
| Ty Cobb
| Joe DiMaggio
Lou Gehrig | Rogers Hornsby | Mickey Mantle | Willie Mays | Stan Musial | Cal Ripken Jr
Jackie Robinson | Pete Rose | Babe Ruth | Ted Williams | Cy Young | The Baseball Hall of Fame
They throw the ball, I hit it. They hit the ball, I catch it.
Some people consider Willie Mays to be the greatest all around baseball player of all time, but almost everyone agrees that he was, at the very least, one of the best - belonging in the same class as Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. He was a well rounded player, being a fantastic hitter, baserunner and centerfielder. He was consistently a great player for the New York Giants and a good player in his later years for the New York Mets. Mays is truly one of baseball's greats and was really the first legendary African American player to play the game1.
Mays has achieved a number of accomplishments in the game. He belongs to the 3,000 hit club, (hitting a career total of 3,283). He also has the third most career home runs in history with 6602. His 2,062 runs is the fifth best total in history and his 1,903 RBI total is the eighth best ever. He was the first player to join the 300-300 club by hitting 300 homers and stealing 300 bases. He received the Gold Glove award as a centerfielder twelve times in his career and was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1954 and 1965.
Through most of Mays' early seasons, debate raged as to who was the best centerfielder of the decade. At the same time that Mays was playing the position, two more of the best centerfielders were on different New York city teams. Mickey Mantle with the Yankees and Duke Snider with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mays was statistically better in a number of ways and made seemingly impossible plays, especially when they were most important.
Mays was nicknamed the 'Say Hey Kid' by sportwriter Barney Kremenko who noticed his friendly tendency to greet fellow players by saying 'Say hey'. He played the game so well that he made it look fun and easy. In fact, Mays was having fun when he played. He once said:
I can never understand how some players are always talking about baseball being hard work
His Life and Career
Willie Howard Mays Jr. was born 6 May, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama. He enjoyed baseball as a child. His father later said 'I never saw a boy who loved baseball the way Willie always did'. He attended Fairfax Industrial High School in Birmingham, Alabama. There he excelled in basketball and football because his school did not have a baseball programme. He eventually joined the Negro National Baseball League on a team called the Birmingham Barons. He played impressively for Birmingham and once Jackie Robinson had beaten the race barrier in 1947, other Major League teams were looking for fresh talent in the Negro Leagues. When he was 19 years old, the New York Giants bought his contract from the Barons for 6,000 dollars. He went into the minor leagues in 1950. He played in the Interstate League in New Jersey and the American Association in Minnesota. In his stay in Minnesota, he hit an incredible .477 batting average.
New York Giants
He made his Major League debut in May, 1951. He did poorly at first, not making a single hit in twelve at bats. The Giants manager Lou Durocher had confidence in him though. Mays was kept in centerfield despite his poor performances. He would prove himself soon enough. His first hit was also his first home run, which renewed his confidence in himself and his hitting slump ended. With Mays inspiring them, the Giants went from the bottom of the National League to winning the Pennant in a dramatic play-off against the Brooklyn Dodgers. So Mays made it to the World Series in his rookie season, meeting fellow rookie centerfielder and long-term rival Mickey Mantle in the encounter with the Yankees. The Yankees triumphed however, fuelling the rivalry between the New York teams. One thing Mays did win was the NL Rookie of the year title.
Just as he was making some real impact as a major leaguer, Mays was drafted into the US Army in 1952. He only appeared in 34 games in 1952 before he had to go into the special services playing baseball to entertain the troops. He kept in shape, playing about 180 games in the army, and returned in 1954 for his first full season (and one of his best seasons). The anticipation was great for Mays' return and he obliged by earning the National League Most Valuable Player Award with a .345 batting average, 41 home runs and 110 RBI. He and the Giants made it to the World Series that year against Cleveland. In the first game, Mays made a very well known play that was ranked as the tenth most memorable moment in baseball by Mastercard. He caught a high fly ball at the outfield wall with the score tied late in the game and made a spectacular double play that let the Giants upset the Indians and win the Series in four games, their first series win since 1933. At the end of the 1954 season, the Associated Press gave Mays their Athlete Of The Year Award.
In 1955, Mays had his first season without the management of Lou Gurocher who had believed in him and kept him going in the Major Leagues. He led the league in home runs with 513, triples with 13 and slugging average with .659. In 1956, Mays completed his first of three consecutive season titles for stolen bases.
However, Mays never quite took his position as a Major Leaguer too seriously. He was very enthusiastic about his sport and always seemed cheerful. He even played in the streets with New York children in Harlem. New York City received Mays warmly for his humility and good nature. He became very popular in New York City, but after 1957 that whole situation changed.
San Francisco Giants
In 1957, the New York Giants moved to San Francisco, California. New Yorkers were devastated over the move, as they were losing one of their most beloved and oldest teams, as well as losing a New York hero, Willie Mays.
When he went to the Bay City, Mays' popularity waned and fans booed him4 although his playing continued to be terrific. He hit 35 home runs, a .333 batting average and 97 RBI in 1957, showing that he was still a strong player. The Gold Glove award began this year and Mays was received one each of the first 12 years. On 30 April, 1961 Mays hit four homers in one game in Milwaukee.
The Giants greatest rivals continued to be the New York Dodgers and Yankees though. They regularly battled with the Dodgers for the Pennant and the Yankees for the World Series. In 1962 after Mays hit a game winning home run that led the Giants into the playoffs, they were tied with the Dodgers and went into yet another Pennant battle with their former New York rivals. Mays and the Giants won a close series for the Pennant and they went into the World Series. The Yankees won the championship though in a bit of déjà vu from the early 1950s. Around this time, people began to notice that Mays might beat out Babe Ruth's career home run record of 714. Hank Aaron, who was around at the same time would eventually take this record with 755, but Mays holds third place with 660.
Throughout the early 1960s, Mays was competing with great sluggers like Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron for batting titles and the attention of the country. Still a dominant force, in 1965 he hit 52 homers to become only the fifth person to complete two seasons with fifty or more homers. 1965 however, was also his last season with a batting average above .300, and Mays started to fade. 1966 was the last of eight consecutive seasons where Mays hit 100 RBI and 100 runs. In 1969 the Sporting News named him 'the player of the decade'
New York Mets
After 19 games in the 1972 campaign, the Giants traded the aging Mays to the New York Mets where he only played 69 games, but was not a full time player. His average that year was a disappointing .250. He stayed for one more season as a player, in 1973 he only played 66 games and hit a career low batting average of .211, although he did hit the game-winning single to clinch the division title and his fourth and final trip to the World Series. On 20 September, 1973 Mays announced his retirement from the game and he stopped playing only five days later on 25 September, which was Willie Mays Day at Shea Stadium.
When his career as a player ended, Mays became a part-time hitting coach for the Mets, liaising with another job as a greeter for a hotel. In 1979, the year that he was elected into the baseball Hall of Fame, the Baseball commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, issued a controversial order saying that Mays had to chose between his jobs, and Mays quit his job at the Mets, effectively banning himself from baseball for his association with gambling. In 1985 a new baseball commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, let him have his job back, and he returned to his post as part-time hitting coach.
After he retired, Mays continued his interest in baseball. He had encouraged new players throughout his career and continued to do so. In fact, one new prospect he had encouraged, Bobby Bonds, made Mays the godfather of his son, future slugger Barry Bonds, who as of 2003 holds the record for most home runs in a season and is threatening Mays' third place position in career home runs.
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