Ode to Willie Mays - The Greatest Giant Ever
by Richard Van Zandt, BaseballEvolution.com
July 28, 2007

With 754 career home runs, Barry Bonds stands on the precipice of surpassing baseball’s most hallowed record. It seems an appropriate time to take a look back on the career of the greatest Giant ever. I’m talking, of course, about Bonds’ godfather, the “Say Hey Kid,” Willie Mays.

That’s right. Ask any Giant fan, and if he truly knows his game, he’ll tell you that Mays, rather than Bonds, is the greatest Giants player of all-time. And that’s no slight on Bonds.

Mays was the ultimate five-tool player. He could hit for average (1 batting title - .345 in 1954, 3 second place finishes and 2 thirds) and power (660 career HR, four-time HR league leader, two 50-HR seasons, six 40-HR seasons, eleven 30-HR seasons). He could run (338 career SB – 1st player ever with 300 SB & 300 HR), he could throw (195 career OF assists) and he could field his position like no other before him (1st ML player ever to win 12 GG – tied for the most ever among OF; 1st all-time in OF putouts with 7,095).

He was a two-time MVP (1954 & 1965 and he was robbed in 1962) and nine other times he was voted in the top 5 and twice more the top 6 (all 11 of his top 6 finishes were within the first 15-years of his 22-year career).

He played in a record 24 All-Star games (set first by Stan Musial, tied by Mays and then Hank Aaron) and his only full season in which he did not make the All-Star team was his rookie year of 1951. He set records for the most hits, runs and stolen bases and tied for the most extra-base hits and triples in the mid-summer classic’s history.

His regular season resume includes over 3,200 hits, 660 home runs and nearly 2,000 RBI. He banged out over 500 doubles and nearly 150 triples in his career. In fact, Mays’ 140 career three-baggers rank as the 4th most among all players whose careers began after 1950, behind just Roberto Clemente, Willie Wilson and Lou Brock.

He is arguably one of the top 5 greatest players in the history of the game.

Mays began his baseball career playing in the Negro Leagues in 1947. In 1950, Horace Stoneham and the New York Giants purchased the teenager’s contract and sent him to the minors. After batting .353 at Class-B Trenton that year, he began the following season with the AAA Minneapolis Millers ,where he hit .477 in 35 games before getting called up to the show.

He career got off to a rocky start as he went hitless in his first 12 big league at bats. Pressure mounted on the 20-year old kid from Westfield, Alabama in an age just 4-years removed from Jackie Robinson’s nation changing major league debut. Then he homered off Warren Spahn (the first of many he would hit off the future Hall of Famer). However, that would be his only hit in his first 25 at bats, and doubts began to creep into the Say Hey Kid’s mind. He sat alone in the clubhouse crying, fearing manager Leo Durocher would send him back to the minors. Durocher, however, reassured Mays, telling him that he was the best centerfielder he’d ever seen and that the job was his as long as he was the manager no matter what he hit.

Mays responded by hitting .287 the rest of the way to finish at .274 with 20 home runs while winning the 1951 Rookie of the Year award. Despite rallying to make the playoffs on the back of Bobby Thompson’s famous Shot Heard ‘Round the World, the Giants lost the World Series in six games to the New York Yankees in the only time Mays and Joe DiMaggio ever played on the same field at the same time (Mays, Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson in game 1 of the series also made history by forming the first all-black OF in ML history).

However in 1952, with the season just 34 games old, Mays was drafted by the U.S. Army. Though he never set foot in the Korean conflict, he would miss the rest of that year and the entire 1953 season, possibly causing him a chance at baseball immortality. While in the Army however, Mays kept himself fit by playing baseball, with various accounts suggesting he played as many as 180 games during his time in the service.

He returned in 1954 to put up a line of .345/.411/.667 with 41 HR and 110 RBI. He won the batting title, led the league in slugging and was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player (coincidentally, Aaron in 1954 won the National League Rookie of the Year Award). But more importantly than those statistical accomplishments, Mays led the Giants to victory in the World Series against the powerful Cleveland Indians, who had won 111 games during the regular season.

In that series, of course, Mays made possibly the greatest catch in baseball history when he chased down Vic Wertz’ long drive an amazing 449 feet from home plate in the vast expanses of center field at the Polo Grounds (some however would argue that his 1951 grab in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field measuring 451 feet from home plate which he caught with his bare hand was better, and still others maintain that his amazing catch and throw at the Polo Grounds on August 15 of that same year against Brooklyn was the greatest PLAY of all-time).

Though Mays hit a modest .286 (4-for-14) in that series, that catch was a series changer as the Giants swept the highly favored Indians in what to this day stands as the Giants last World Championship.

The following year, he hit .319 with a .400 OBP and again led the league in slugging with a .659 mark, while belting a league-leading 51 home runs and finishing 4th in the MVP voting. This gave Mays a two-year total of 92 in the seasons directly following the nearly two full seasons he missed while in the service. With a total of 660 career home runs, this begs not just the question of whether or not Mays would have hit 700 home runs, but also whether he, and not Aaron, would have been the first player ever to surpass the great Babe Ruth as baseball’s all-time home run king. It’s certainly not inconceivable to imagine that Mays – who played in 150 games or more for a record 13 consecutive seasons from ’54 through ‘66 – could have hit another 55 home runs in the roughly 270 or so games he gave away to his country.

In 1956, Mays, who would lead the league in stolen bases from ’56 through ’59, led the league with a career high 40 and missed beating Jose Canseco to the 40/40 club by just 4 home runs and 32 years. In 1957, the Giants’ last season in New York, he batted .333 with 35 HR and stole 38 bases while leading the majors with 20 triples. And in 1958, he helped introduce Major League Baseball to the City of San Francisco.

Playing his home games where DiMaggio used to roam at old Seals Stadium (which featured a 360 foot left field, 410 foot center field, 415 foot right center field and 350 foot right field, not to mention the same swirling winds that afflicted Candlestick Park and now reside at Willie Mays Field), Mays struggled with just 29 home runs, but he collected a career-high 208 hits to finish second in batting at .347 and third with a .419 OBP (despite collecting 3 hits on the final day of the season, he lost the title to Richie Ashburn who also tallied 3 knocks). He also finished as the top runner up to Ernie Banks in the MVP voting. Unsure at first, by season’s end San Francisco was sold on the Say Hey Kid from New York City.

Mays would finish in the top 6 in the MVP voting the first nine years the Giants played in the City by the Bay, though Candlestick’s stiff and unforgiving winds (which were even worse before the ‘Stick was enclosed to accommodate the 49ers following the 1971 season) surely denied him of many home runs despite the fact that he averaged nearly 40 a year from 1958 through 1966.

He hit 40 for the first time in San Francisco in 1961, including four in a single game on April 30 at the Milwaukee Braves (Aaron hit two home runs in that same game himself, and Mays stood on deck when the final out was made). Then in 1962, Mays hit 49 home runs to become the first San Francisco Giant to lead the league. That season, he finished second in MVP voting and led Giants to the World Series, where they lost an agonizing heartbreaker to the Yankees. In 1965, Mays hit .317 with a career-best 52 home runs to lead the league for the second consecutive year and win the second MVP award of his career.

Willie Mays made baseball history on September 22, 1969. Pinch-hitting against Mike Corkins of the expansion San Diego Padres, Mays became just the second player ever to hit 600 career home runs. Less than a year later, on July 18, 1970, Mays collected the 3,000th hit of his big league career (off of Mike Wegener of the Expos) to become the first player ever to surpass both 600 HR and 3,000 hits.

Mays would remain second on the all-time HR list until Aaron surpassed him for good with his 649th career jack on June 10, 1972 (a grand slam off of Wayne Twitchell of the Phillies). Ironically, when Mays retired following the 1973 season, just as Bonds now sits poised to surpass Aaron, Aaron himself was in fact sitting on 713 career home runs, on the precipice of surpassing baseball’s most hallowed record, a record that if not for a simple twist of fate could have been Mays’ before it was Aaron’s.

Mays finished his career 3rd all-time in home runs, runs and total bases. When he retired he was 4th all-time in extra-base hits, 8th in hits (5th among RHB), 9th in walks (5th in IBB) and 16th in doubles (among players who began their careers after 1950, Mays was second behind only Aaron). His 640 home runs as a center fielder still rank as the most ever.

When his career was over, Mays had knocked in a total of 1,903 runs, good for 8th all-time. Again, were it not for his time in the Army, Mays surely would have finished his career as one of just four players ever to have collected over 2,000 RBI.

Mays’ numbers began to dip beginning in 1967 at age 36 when he hit just .263/.334/.453 with 22 home runs, the fewest in a full season he’d hit since his rookie year. Nevertheless in 1970, the 39-year old Mays rebounded to hit .291/.390/.506 with 28 HR. In 1971 at age 40, he hit 18 HR and drew a career high 112 walks to post a career best .425 OBP.

After beginning the following season batting just .184 with no home runs in his first 19 games, Mays was traded by the financially struggling Giants to the New York Mets in exchange for Charlie Williams. In his first game as a Met, he provided the winning margin with a home run against Don Carrithers of the Giants (naturally). He would bat .267 with a .402 OBP and 8 HR in 69 games that season for the Mets in the city where his big league career began.

Mays’ career was nearly finished when the Mets acquired him. They primarily coveted him to put fans – who still worshipped him from his days at the Polo Grounds – in the stands. Nevertheless, he provided the Amazin’s with strong veteran leadership. In the second game of the ’73 World Series Mays, whose 22 career extra-inning home runs are the most ever, delivered the game winning base hit in the 12th inning. It would be the last hit of his major league career.

Willie Mays could do it all. Leo Durocher once said of Mays, "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 that other ingredient that turns a superstar into a super superstar. He lit up the room when he came in. He was a joy to be around."

He had revolutionary skills and was way ahead of his time. He was a major player in the evolution of the game of baseball.

Willie Mays – no offense to Barry Bonds, who is the greatest player I’ve ever seen play – was and still is, The Greatest Giant Ever.

Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Richard resides in San Francisco, California and can be reached at richard@baseballevolution.com.