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THE BEST TO PLAY THE GAME: Willie Mays

April 28, 2014
INDIANA SPORTS PAGE



Willie Mays was one of the greatest players to ever play the game.  He was perhaps the best “all-around” player to play the game.  He could hit, hit with power, run, field and throw. His manager Leo Durocher once said, “If he could cook, I would marry him.”

 

THE EARLY YEARS:

William Howard "Willie" Mays Jr. was born May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Ala., just outside of Birmingham. Mays's parents, Ann and Willie Sr., divorced when he was just three years old, and he was primarily raised by his aunt Sarah. Mays' father and grandfather both had been baseball players, his father and namesake a talented player for the Negro team with the local iron plant. By the age of 5, Mays was playing catch with his father, and by 10, he was sitting on the bench during his father's games.

So it didn't take long before Mays was playing himself -- semipro ball by the age of 16. Mays played baseball, basketball and football in school, excelling in all of them. In 1948, at 17, he joined the Birmingham Black Barons, which made it all the way to the Negro Leagues World Series.

Because he was still in high school at the time, Mays played only on Sundays during the school year. Still, he performed well enough the grab the attention of several major league scouts, including one from the New York Giants. The team purchased his contract once he graduated in 1950, assigning Mays to its Trenton affiliate.

 

Mays hit 660 homeruns, leading the league four times.  He hit over 50 in a season twice. Mays also led the league in triples three times, runs scored twice, batting average once, slugging percentage five times and stolen bases four times. 

Mays hit over .300 ten times in his 22 years and had a span of 12 consecutive years where he hit .290 or above.  He won the NL MVP Award twice (1954 and 1965).  On April 30, 1961, Mays hit four homeruns in a game against Milwaukee. 

In the field, Mays was quick, graceful and colorful.  He wore a smaller hat so it would fall off as he chased after fly balls, adding to the flair of his spectacular defensive abilities.  Mays was so good in the field he won 11 gold gloves.  Who can forget his over the shoulder catch on a 460 foot drive by Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series?  That catch was considered one of the greatest of all time. Mays was the master at the “basket catch”, holding his glove out in front of him and letting the ball drop in.  

Mays was playing with the Minneapolis Millers in 1951 where he was hitting .477 when the Giants called him up to the big league club.  He actually began his Major League career going 0-22 but Durocher kept him in the line-up.  Mays hit .307 in 24 All-Star games.  In two oddities, Mays drove in 100 plus runs 10 or more times yet never led the league in RBI’s. Also, despite 660 career homeruns, he failed to hit a homerun in 71 World Series at-bats.

 

AFTER BASEBALL:

After retiring, Mays remained in the New York Mets organization, helping out as the team's hitting instructor until the end of the 1979 season.

That same year, Mays, along with Mickey Mantle, accepted a public relations job with Bally's casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Because of the gambling connection, even though no sports betting exists in New Jersey, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn banned the pair from baseball-related activities (Commissioner Peter Ueberroth lifted the ban in 1985).

During the 1981 baseball strike, Terry Cashman released the song "Talkin' Baseball", which was inspired by a picture of Mays, Mantle and Snider and recalled the glory days of of baseball in the 1950s.

After Ueberroth lifted Mays' ban from baseball, he became a fulltime special assistant to the Giants, a position he has held for close to 25 years. He also serves on the advisory board of the Baseball Assistance Team, an organization dedicated to helping former players through financial and medical difficulties.

LEGACY:

Mays' No. 24 jersey was retired by the San Francisco Giants in 1972, the same year he left the team. Mays' godson is slugger Barry Bonds, whose father Bobby was a teammate and close friend of Mays in San Francisco. Mays offered his jersey number to his godson to wear, but Bonds declined, opting instead to wear his father's No. 25.

In January 1979, Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility. Somehow, 23 of the 432 voters did not see fit to make the election unanimous.

The current stadium of the San Francisco Giants is located at 24 Willie Mays Plaza, and every May 24 in the city of San Francisco is celebrated as Willie Mays Day.

Mays was ranked second in The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999. His career total of 7,095 outfield fielding putouts remains the major league record. 

 

Quick Facts

Name

Willie Mays

Occupation

Baseball Player

Birth Date

May 6, 1931 (age 82)

Education

Fairfield Industrial High School

Place of Birth

Westfield, Alabama

AKA

Willie Mays

Willie Howard Mays

Full Name

Willie Howard Mays Jr.

Zodiac Sign

Taurus

 

“When I'm not hitting, I don't hit nobody. But, when I'm hitting, I hit anybody.”

“Baseball is a game, yes. It is also a business. But what is most truly is is disguised combat. For all its gentility, its almost leisurely pace, baseball is violence under wraps.”

—Willie Mays

 

“Baseball is a game, yes. It is also a business. But what is most truly is is disguised combat. For all its gentility, its almost leisurely pace, baseball is violence under wraps.”

—Willie Mays


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