There is not enough that I could say about Willie Howard Mays. Even though we spell our last names different, I was disappointed as a kid to be told that we weren't related. If you ever saw me play baseball, there would be no question.
It's hard to name one person as the Greatest Player of All Time. This debate came up when Bonds was putting up great numbers in the early part of the decade, but the consensus was still that until some great hitter could get on the mound and win 100 games, the nod has to go to Babe Ruth. After Babe Ruth, there's quite a debate. This guy is one that figures prominently.
Talk about 5 tools. Could he hit for average? Lifetime .302 average brought down considerably by his last few years, but he was a good .320 hitter for the bulk of his career in a tough hitters park. Could he hit for power? 660 home runs with a year of his prime spent serving his country. That number places 3rd on the legitimate home run list (with Griffey at 611 and Thome at 541 unlikely to catch him). Could he run? Stolen bases are not the only criteria, but 338 career stolen bases are good. He went 30-30 twice when that stat meant something, missing by 4 homers of being the first 40-40 man in 1956, 8 years before Canseco was born. Could he field? His range factor was consistently above the league average for center fielders. He could get a jump on a ball. Please remember his catch in the 1954 Series rather than the misjudged fly ball on the track in the 1973 Series. Could he throw? In 1955 he had 23 assists and by 1959 guys stopped running on Willie. The only thing said to be better than his catch in the 1954 Series was his throw into second that kept Larry Doby at third.
He had some pretty impressive minor league numbers, as you can see on the back of his card. He only hit .393 in 455 at bats overall. But look at his numbers in 1951 in St. Paul. You might have a guy hitting .477 after 4 or 5 games on a very occasional basis, but that was Willie's batting average after 35 games. Of course, he'd already been playing in the Negro Leagues, so going to the minors was probably a step down for him. If he hadn't essentially missed all of 1952 and 1953, I think there would be no question but that he would have had 700 lifetime homers. If that were true, Hank Aaron wouldn't have passed him until sometime in 1973. Would Willie have tried to play in 1974 at that point? Who knows? Probably a good thing because he didn't have much left. In 1973 he hit .211 with 6 homers. He had an OPS+ of 81, the only time since his rookie year it dipped below 120 for a full season. Sadly, it was time to go.
I only got to see Willie play once. It was in the 1973 All-Star Game in K.C. I'll never get tired of thanking my dad for taking me on a bus trip to see that game. Sparky Lyle struck him out as a pinch-hitter in the top of the 8th. He was in a Met uniform. Didn't matter, because I'd gotten to see Willie Mays play. I took my son to our local minor league park when it opened to a capacity crowd in 2005 and made sure he was sitting on my shoulders (as a 10 year old....) on the outfield berm so he could see Stan Musial throw out the first pitch. I hope my son looks back on that moment someday the way I look back on having had a chance to see Willie Mays play in person.
I'm glad they gave Willie a good "action" card. One of the things he was known for was hustling and I love the shot. It looks like he's gone from first to third on a single and is sliding just because he wants to. Even at this age, I'm sure Willie could outrun any throw from the outfield not made by Roberto Clemente. If you can't tell, I idolized Willie Mays. It's been a little more difficult as he's gotten older, had the Bally's "scandal" in the 80's and been in a position of having to defend Barry Bonds lately. If you look at this entire set, you're going to find my favorite ballplayers are going to be Willie, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson. Here's to you, Willie!
They can't all be heroes
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