Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Mays, the “Say Hey Kid” who thrilled baseball fans with his hitting and basket catches for more than two decades, turned 90 on Thursday.
Mays is the oldest living member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. During his career, he was a two-time National League Most Valuable Player and won a batting title. He hit 660 home runs, stroked 3,283 hits and drove in 1,903 runs. Mays earned 12 Gold Gloves and 24 All-Star Game berths.
Mays was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, appearing on 409 of the 432 ballots cast.
Mays was a powerful hitter who collected 1,323 extra-base hits during his career, but his fielding drew gasps from baseball fans. His back-to-the-plate, over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz’s long drive in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series is simply known as “The Catch” and remains one of the great defensive plays of the Fall Classic. Mays, after making the catch, whirled and fired the ball back to the infield to preserve a tie game, won in the 10th inning by the Giants.
New York sportswriter Dan Daniel would write that all great catches “fade out of the book as the Mays classic moves to the top.”
Asked to compare the catch with others he had made, Mays shrugged.
“I don’t compare ‘em,” he said. “I catch ‘em.”
Mays played 22 seasons in the major leagues, beginning in 1951 with the New York Giants. He followed the Giants west to San Francisco in 1958 and stayed with the team until 1972 when he was traded back to New York to play for the Mets. In his debut with the Mets, on May 14, 1972, Mays homered in his second at-bat against his former team – his 647th career four-bagger.
Mays played in four World Series – in 1951, 1954, 1962 and 1973.
“My definition of Willie Mays walking into a room is chandeliers shaking.” Leo Durocher, Mays’ first manager in the majors, wrote in his 1975 autobiography, “Nice Guys Finish Last.” “And what made him even more appealing was that he didn’t know it.”
There is still something magical about Willie Mays.
Author James S. Hirsch, who wrote a biography of Mays in 2010, said the player “represented the quintessential American dream.”
“He was the poor Depression-era Black kid from the segregated South who overcame insuperable odds to reach the pinnacle of society,” Hirsch wrote. “And he succeeded by hewing to the country’s most cherished values -- hard work, clean living, and perseverance.”
Willie Howard Mays Jr. was born May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama, and grew up in the mill towns outside Birmingham. His father, Willie “Cat” Mays, also played baseball. The younger Mays played baseball, basketball and football at Fairfield High School.
“He was always a great athlete,” childhood friend Otis Tate once said. “But he was better in basketball and football.”
Mays played a few months in 1950 with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues before his contract was bought by the Giants the day after he graduated from high school in 1950. Mays played one season at Class B Trenton and then was promoted to Triple-A Minneapolis in 1951. He was hitting .477 in 1951 with Minneapolis when he was called up to the major leagues, making his debut May 25, 1951, at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park.
Although Mays went 0-for-12 and 1-for-26 to start his career with the Giants, the one hit was a towering home run against future Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn.
“When I’m not hitting, I don’t hit nobody,” Mays once said. “But when I’m hitting, I hit anybody.”
Baseball fans in New York immediately gravitated toward Mays, who would be seen playing stickball in the streets of Harlem when he was not patrolling center field at the Polo Grounds.
According to author George Vecsey, Mays said hitting a rubber ball with a broomstick helped his hitting. “It’s good for my batting eye,” Mays explained. “If you can hit that little ball with that little stick, you can sure hit a baseball with a big bat.”
On Aug. 31, 1951, Mays hit two home runs against the Pittsburgh Pirates at the Polo Grounds and later hit a home run in a stickball game, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.
Mays spent most of 1952 and all of 1953 in military service, and the time in the service most certainly cost him a shot at overtaking Babe Ruth for the career home run crown. Mays hit 20 homers his rookie season and followed it with 41 and 51 homers in 1954 and 1955. Mays did have the satisfaction of seeing his godson, Barry Bonds, become the all-time home run leader when he passed Mays’ contemporary, Hank Aaron, on Aug. 7, 2007.
On April 30, 1961, Mays became the ninth major leaguer to hit four home runs in a game, connecting at Milwaukee’s County Stadium to lead the Giants to a 14-4 victory.
On Sept. 22, 1969, Mays joined the 600-homer club when he connected off San Diego’s Mike Corkins. At the time, only Ruth had more career home runs.
“I think anyone who saw him will tell you that Willie Mays was the greatest player who ever lived,” teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Monte Irwin once said.
Mays transcended baseball, and a generation of young players grew up running the bases with their caps flying off their heads, just like Willie Mays.
Mays even got respect from football coaches.
When the University of Florida edged the University of Miami 17-14, on Sept. 4, 1982, the game-winning catch was made by James Jones. The fullback backpedaled toward the goal line, reached up and made a one-handed grab for a 17-yard touchdown catch.
“A Willie Mays deluxe,” Gators coach Charley Pell told reporters after the game.
Leave it to Durocher to have the last word about the “Say Hey Kid.”
“If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases, and performed a miracle in the field every day, I’d still look you right in the eye and tell you that Willie was better,” Durocher wrote in “Nice Guys Finish Last. “He could do the five things you have to do to be a superstar: Hit, hit with power, run, throw and field. And he had the other magic ingredient that turns a superstar into a super superstar. Charisma. He lit up a room when he came in. He was a joy to be around.”
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