Willie Mays, RIP
06/19/2024
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Centerfielder Willie Mays has died at age 93.

Mays is probably the least unreasonable choice you could make as the greatest baseball player of all time. A majority of expert observers would likely disagree that he was the best ever, but absolutely none would scoff at your choice.

As I recall enthusing to my dad in the 1960s, Willie could hit for average, hit for power, run the bases, field, and throw extraordinarily well.

It would not be unreasonable to argue that Mays competed against the largest talent base ever assembled in baseball. He played (1951-1973) when baseball was still America’s dominant sport, but (of course) after the end of the color line. Even the recruitment of Latin Americans like Roberto Clemente was already well advanced during his decades in the National League. (Heck, Willie had a Japanese teammate in 1965-66.)

At the time, he was widely considered the greatest of the National League quintet of superstars who came up in the 1950s, ahead of Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Clemente, and Ernie Banks. When Aaron rather than Mays broke Babe Ruth’s career record of 714 homers, that opinion was cast into doubt, but the long view today seems to favor Mays over Aaron, although what a choice.

The peer who might have been even better than Mays at their peaks was American Leaguer Mickey Mantle, who probably had both more power and more speed. And Mantle got on base more on walks, while Mays didn’t make a huge effort to walk until his age 40 season in 1971 when, apparently noticing his declining power before pitchers did, he suddenly led the league in both walks and on-base percentage.

But Mantle was often injured and/or hung-over.

Both Mays and Aaron, in contrast, were immensely durable. Willie, for example, played in at least 150 games per season in 1954 through 1966 after returning from most of a couple of seasons in the military.

If Mays hadn’t missed most of 1952 and all of 1953 in the Army, would he have broken Ruth’s career homer mark?

He wound up with 660, 54 behind Ruth. Mays hit 20 homers in his not quite complete 1951 rookie season, 41 in 1954, and 51 in 1955. So the idea that he would have hit 55 more without his military service seems reasonable.

In fact, 715 homers is my best guess for Mays career total without the draft. Mays remained an impressive offensive force up through 1972, his first season back in New York with the Mets at age 41. But at age 42 he was in decline and thus retired after the World Series.

I suspect if Mays hadn’t missed most of 1952-53, the career totals after the last game of 1973 would have been:

Mays 715
Ruth 714
Aaron 713

That would have been a memorable end to the season.

But Aaron was 33 months younger and hit 40 homers in his remarkable 1973 campaign, so I suspect Mays would have been content to enjoy holding the record for one off-season and then concede it to Aaron in 1974 rather than attempt to eke out one more season at age 43.

Willie’s back-to-home-plate catch of Vic Wertz’s sure triple in the 1954 World Series is the most famous defensive play in baseball history, for various reasons, such as that it was the first time a lot of people saw Willie Mays on TV and we have surprisingly good video of it:

But Mays and Vin Scully (Dodger announcer for two-thirds of a century) agree that his greatest catch came two years earlier in an early 1952 game just before he went in the Army. From the Society for American Baseball Research:

Scully said that as soon as Morgan hit the ball “you knew it was an extra-base hit. Everyone knew that except Willie.” Scully described how Mays ran and leapt parallel to the ground “like an arrow” to snare the ball. Mays hit the gravel warning track and “bounced headfirst into the concrete wall.” He rolled onto his back but held on to the ball. “That,” Scully said, “was the greatest single play I’ve ever seen.”

In 2020 Mays wrote the book 24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid, with John Shea. He tells readers, “That (the catch off Morgan) was a good catch, better than the World Series catch. I believe my best catch.”

We don’t have video of that.

[Comment at Unz.com]

 

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