American baseball player
He hit more than 600 home runs. He could reach base almost at will. He had defensive skills that boggled the mind. Willie Mays was one of the finest baseball players to ever step on the baseball field. In a twenty-two-year professional career with the Giants of New York and San Francisco, Mays consistently appeared near or at the top of almost every major statistic. His fantastic play, year in and year out, makes Willie Mays one of the best players baseball has ever known.
Willie Mays was born on May 6, 1931, in Fairfield, Alabama. His father, William Howard, was a steelworker who mined in the all-black town of Fairfield, only thirteen miles from Birmingham. His parents, gifted athletes in their own right, were only sixteen at the time of his birth. Willie's father played center field for the Birmingham Industrial League Semi Pro team, while his mother Anna had been a high school track star. Willie stood to inherit quite a bit of athletic talent from his bloodlines. Even his grandfather pitched for a Negro League baseball team.
Willie's parents divorced when he was three, and he went to live with his father, who, to care for Willie while he was at work, brought in a homeless woman. Even at the age of three, his father had him playing catch, or placed him in the dugout at the Semi Pro games he played in. By the time Willie Mays was a young man, he'd already had more baseball education than most players receive in a lifetime. Since his high school had no baseball team, Willie was playing in the semi-pro leagues around Birmingham. Even if his school had a team, chances are he wouldn't have been challenged by the high school players.
A Way Out
As with many players who grew up poor, and especially black players in the rural South, Willie Mays knew baseball was his ticket out of poverty, a way out of the steelmill life his father knew. It was also a way out of the blatantly racist and segregated South. As a child, Mays would much rather have been playing ball than studying. Rather than books, he focused his intelligence on the only game that ever consumed him. Since he grew up in dugouts and watching his father play, he studied strategy and technique instead of reading and writing.
His time in the dugouts also taught him how to deal with the competition among men while he was just a boy. At only thirteen, Mays played on the Gray Sox, a semi-professional team. By he time he started high school at fifteen, he would make $250 a month on the Birmingham Black Barons. This seemed ideal for a person born into Mays' situation. The money coming in was more than any part time job would ever pay, and he made it doing what he loved. Mays finished high school, but he finished it as a professional baseball player.
Several Father Figures
A big influence on the young Mays was his Black Barons manager, Piper Davis. Davis, who had spent many years as a player and was now a player/manager, saw that Mays was no mere baseball player. Mays was someone with innate talent, and with tutoring and development, he believed Mays could become something even more special.
Tough Times in the North
By the time Willie Mays was nineteen, Jackie Robinson had already broken the color barrier in baseball. When a scout for New York Giants came to watch a Black Barons game, he didn't go to the field to watch Mays. Instead, it was one of his teammates who was supposed to get the looksee. But after a few minutes in the ballpark, the scout realized there was only one player there. Mays had caught his eye. He was signed for a $4000 bonus, plus $250 a month salary, to play in Sioux City, Iowa, on the Giants' Class A team.
Yet there were racial problems in Sioux City, and Mays wasn't allowed to join the team. Instead, the Giants moved him to Trenton, New Jersey, to play in a Class B Interstate League. Mays would become the first black to ever play in that league. But after only a season in Trenton, he went to the Minneapolis Millers to play Triple A ball. This was 1951, and Mays was but a short step from the majors after his first sixteen games of the season. He was batting .608, with a defense that was nothing short of spectacular. Leo Durocher , who would, like Piper Davis, take Mays under his wing, was the manager of the New York Giants. He called up Mays early in the '51 season. The Giants, rather mediocre that year, needed the help of Mays.
|1931||Born May 6 in Fairfield, Alabama, the only child of William Howard and Anna Sattlewhite Mays|
|1934||Moves with his father after parents divorce; remains close to his mother|
|1937||Begins education in segregated school in Alabama|
|1944||Plays semiprofessional baseball at age 13 with the Gray Sox|
|1946||Enters Fairfield Industrial High School, takes courses in dry cleaning|
|1946||Plays center field for Birmingham Industrial League while his father plays left field|
|1947||Begins play for Birmingham Black Barons, playing baseball with men ten years his senior|
|1948||Makes professional Negro Leagues debut on July 4|
|1950||Graduates from Fairfield High School|
|1950||New York Giants buy out Mays' Black Barons Contract. He is youngest black man ever signed by the major leagues|
|1950||Racial bias in Sioux City prevents Mays from joining their minor league team|
|1950||Puts up impressive numbers with Class B Inter-State League in Trenton, New Jersey, hitting .477 and 8 home runs in 35 games|
|1951||Becomes #3 batter in Giants' starting lineup on May 25|
|1952||Drafted by U.S. Army in May. Continues to play baseball|
|1954||Receives honorable discharge and returns to Giants|
|1954||Makes spectacular over-the-shoulder no-look catch, known simply as "The Catch"|
|1954||Makes appearances on Ed Sullivan Show and Colgate Comedy Hour|
|1955||Bus boycott in Alabama, started by Rosa Parks, gains world's attention|
|1955||Moves to Englewood, New Jersey|
|1956||Marries Marguerite Wendell|
|1957||New York Giants move to San Francisco|
|1958||Adopts infant son Michael|
|1963||Divorces Marguerite Wendell|
|1964||Appointed captain of the Giants|
|1965||Becomes national spokeperson for the Job Corps|
|1965||Mays remains silent and uninvolved in Civil Rights struggles, says "I don't picket … I'm not mad at the people who do. Maybe they shouldn't be mad at the people who don't"|
|1971||Marries Mae Louise Allen|
|1972||Traded to New York Mets|
|1973||Retires from Baseball|
|1973-79||Becomes coach and goodwill ambassador for New York Mets; would become public relations worker and make public appearances on behalf of many companies in 1980s and 1990s|
|1974||Inducted into the Black Hall of Fame|
|1979||Only player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this year|
|2000||Honored with "Say Hey Day" at Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco|
|2002||Sees his godson, San Francisco Giants left fielder Barry Bonds, make it to the World Series|
Willie Mays became the starting center fielder for the Giants on May 25, 1951. But whether it was nerves or something else, Mays could muster only one hit in his first twenty-five at bats. Durocher, however, saw the fire in Mays and knew that patience was necessary. He never lost faith. Though the Giants had a lackluster season, with the help of Mays—who eventually came out of his slump—they finished strong, tying their rivals the Brooklyn Dodgers in the last game of the season and forcing a playoff for the pennant.
This put Mays in a game that would include one of the most famous hits in baseball history. Mays' teammate, Bobby Thompson, came to bat in the bottom of the ninth. The Giants were down, but Thompson hit a three run homer off of Brooklyn Dodger Ralph Branca. The "Shot Heard Round the World" clinched the pennant for the Giants, but they went on to lose to the Yankees in seven games.
In spite of his poor start that year, Mays garnered the National League Rookie of the Year honor for his twenty home runs and .274 batting average. At the conclusion of the season, however, he would be called into the army and serve his two years (primarily as a baseball instructor).
The First Full Season
Mays returned to the Giants in 1954 for his first full season and led his team to a world championship. That season he hit .345, blasted forty-one home runs, and won the league's Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award. He also led the league in batting average.
During the 1954 World Series, Mays made what is perhaps one of the most famous defensive plays in baseball. "The Catch," as it has come to be known, was a blind, over the shoulder basket pick Mays made while running down a ball heading toward the fence. When it dropped into his glove, the fans were amazed. Willie had robbed the Indians' Vic Wertz of what should have been an extra base hit. Mays' catch held the Indians to only one run that inning, and the Giants re-tied the game, going on to win it in the tenth.
As recently as 2002 Mays would tell the New York Daily News that his famous catch, "Doesn't come close to the one I made in Ebbets Field off the Dodgers' Bobby Morgan the first week of the '52 season." That was a catch where, in the ninth with two outs and the bases loaded, Morgan's line drive over the shortstop found Mays diving, head first, to make the play. He hit the fence, knocked himself out, but still came up with the ball.
His accomplishments on the field could fill volumes. In 1955, Mays hit fifty-one homers, only the seventh person at the time to do so. He led the National League in triples and slugging percentage, and was second in stolen bases. In 1961 he became only the fifth player to hit four home runs in a single game. And then in 1962, led the Giants back into the World Series, the culmination of a stellar season, with 141 runs batted in—his career high.
Willie Mays made twenty-four straight All-Star appearances and had more than 3000 career base hits. His effortless play would be summed up in single word by writers and fans, who called him "graceful" and "elegant." Truly a joy to watch at every part of the game, Mays was perhaps most stunning on the basepaths. Starting in 1956, he led the league in stolen bases four years straight. In addition to this, he averaged forty-five home runs per season for the first half of the sixties. At the end of his career, he would walk away with 660 home runs and 1903 RBIs. Willie Mays was a Renaissance player, the guy who could do it all.
Related Biography: Baseball Coach Piper Davis
Though he would never get a chance to play in the major leagues, Piper Davis teamed with Artie Wilson, who went on to the majors, to form one of the outstanding double-play combinations in Negro League baseball.
Davis became one of the best player/managers in the Negro leagues, both playing and coaching Willie Mays, serving as one of the young Mays' father figures as he made his way to the majors.
During the 1948, 1949, and 1950 seasons, Davis would lead his team, the Birmingham Black Barons, with a .353 batting average. He also led the 1948 Negro National League in RBIs, and his team would go on to win the 1948 Negro League World Series.
In 1951, Davis became the first black signed by the Boston Red Sox, though he would never play in a major league game.
Piper Davis was an outstanding athlete, utilizing his skills not only on the baseball field, but also playing basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters.
The Most Determined
Davis and Durocher were prophetic in their claims that there was something more to Mays than met the eye. During his time with the Giants, depending on what the team needed and what Durocher asked of him, Mays was able increase the number of home runs if need be. Yet just as often, "Say Hey"—a nickname he earned because he often forgot his teammates' names—was satisfied reaching base. Once on base, he could drive pitchers nuts with his speed. Regardless of how he chose to hit the ball, he would average .300 for his career, with almost thirty home runs per season.
His greatness came with a small price, however. Though he was blessed with talent, his work ethic was above and beyond that of most ballplayers. Mays continually worked himself to the point of exhaustion—even once collapsing at the plate. Willie Mays simply wanted more than his body could physically give him.
Mays married Marghuerite Wendell, in 1956. They had a baby boy, Michael, just two years later. In 1957 the Giants moved to San Francisco. Mays, however, wasn't on top of the world. He was a New York hero, and he loved it in The Big Apple. The move west would be difficult, and it sent bad blood flowing between Mays and the fans. The people in California didn't revere Mays like the folks did back in NYC. Additionally, he was having trouble at home, and his divorce to Marghuerite would become finalized in 1963.
Mays called it quits in 1973 while playing for the New York Mets. He has been called one of the—if not the—greatest baseball players of all time. Though he came from the South and played baseball during the years when Civil Rights fighting was the toughest, Mays remained silent about his feelings throughout his career. He chose to take an apolitical stance, instead putting everything into baseball. Some critics say he should have given more back to the place he came from, but Mays chose to take his anger out on the little "white" ball that he could control, catching it effortlessly as well as hitting harder than most other players.
Asked years later why he never publicly supported the Civil Rights Movement, according to the Encyclopedia of African-American Cuture and History, he said: "I don't picket in the streets of Birmingham. I'm not mad at the people who do. Maybe they shouldn't be mad at the people who don't.
After his retirement Mays said that, "I've given every bit of energy to baseball." In 1979, along with Mickey Mantle , Mays was ordered to cut ties with baseball for doing PR work for an Atlantic City casino. This was the same year he was voted into the hall of fame, and he would be allowed fully and completely back into baseball in 1985, though not without some ill will towards the Commissioner of Baseball.
|NYG: New York Giants; NYM: New York Mets; SFG: San Francisco Giants.|
In his long career, Mays hit more than 600 home runs, tore up the basepaths with his speed, and robbed batters of sure hits with his phenomenal defense in the outfield. Willie Mays was one of the finest baseball players to ever step on the baseball field.
Address: Say Hey Inc., 51 Mount Vernon Lane, Atherton, CA 94206.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY MAYS:
(With Jeff Harris) Danger in Center Field, Argonaut Books, 1963.
(With Howard Liss) My Secrets of Playing Baseball (illustrated by David Sutton), Viking, 1967.
(As told to Charles Einstein) Willie Mays: My Life In and Out of Baseball, Bookthrift Co., 1978.
(With Maxine Berger) Play Ball, Wanderer Books, 1980.
(With Lou Sahadi) Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays, Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1951||National League Rookie of the Year|
|1954||Sporting News Major League Player of the Year|
|1954||Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year|
|1954, 1965||National League Most Valuable Player|
|1954-73||National League All-Star Team|
|1957-68||National League Gold Glove Award|
|1963, 1968||All-Star Game Most Valuable Player|
|1970||Sporting News Baseball Player of the Decade|
|1970||First Commissioner's Award|
|1973||Inducted into California Sports Hall of Fame|
|1975||Inducted into Black Athletes Hall of Fame|
|1979||Inducted into National Baseball Hall of Fame|
|1979||Inducted into Alabama Sports Hall of Fame|
|1999||MLB All-Century Team|
|1999||Uniform #24 retired by San Francisco Giants|
Where Is He Now?
Mays continues to remain heavily involved in the world of baseball, and he remains in the spotlight. In the 2002 World Series, Mays received quite a bit of press. His godson, Giants slugger Barry Bonds—who is often compared to Mays—had a phenomenal Series, even though his team would eventually lose to the Angels.
Mays rarely gives interviews, but during the series the pride he felt for his godson was evident. Still, reporters could not get him to answer the question: "Who is the greatest, you or Barry?" Mays only answered, "We are not going to get into the greatest."
He has also served as a lecturer for the Federal Job Corps, done work for the Help Young America campaign, and makes appearances on behalf of several companies he's under contract with.
(With Ron Smith) The Sporting News Selects Baseball's Greatest Players: A Celebration of the 20th Century's Best (Sporting News Series), McGraw Hill, 1998.
Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. 17 Volumes. Detroit: Gale, 1998.
Grabowski, John F. Willie Mays. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
Mays, Willie, and Maxine Berger. Play Ball. Wanderer Books, 1980.
Mays, Willie (as told to Charles Einstein). Willie Mays: My Life In and Out of Baseball. Bookthrift Co., 1978.
Mays, Willie, and Jeff Harris. Danger in Center Field. Larchmont, NY: Argonaut Books, 1963.
Mays, Willie, and Howard Liss. My Secrets of Playing Baseball (illustrated by David Sutton). New York: Viking, 1967.
Mays, Willie, and Lou Sahadi. Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Mays, Willie, with Ron Smith. The Sporting News Selects Baseball's Greatest Players: A Celebration of the 20th Century's Best (Sporting News Series). New York: McGraw Hill, 1998.
Adande, J.A. "One of Greatest Has a Special Bond With Barry." Los Angeles Times (October 21, 2002).
Atlanta Constitution (June 10, 1988).
Curry, Jack. "Even at 71, Mays Can Take Some Good Swings." New York Times (October 21, 2002).
Ebony (October 1966).
"Hall Induction Included Giant Letdown for Mays." Los Angeles Times (August 5, 1999).
Jet (March 27, 1980).
Jet (March 3, 1986).
Jet (April 10, 1989).
Los Angeles Times (March 13, 1989).
Madden, Bill. "Willie Mays says his best catch wasn't in 1954." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (July 9, 2002).
Martinez, Michael. "Willie Mays statue unveiled at Pac Bell." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (March 31, 2000).
New York Times (February 12, 1966).
New York Times (April 26, 1966).
New York Times Magazine (July 11, 1954).
Roderick, Joe. "Bonds swings for baseball Immortality." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (March 26, 2001).
Sporting News (September 1, 1986).
Sports Illustrated (October 6, 1986).
Time (July 26, 1954).
Time (November 12, 1979).
Time (April 1, 1985).
"Willie Mays says milestone HR was no big deal." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (July 4, 2002).
"Willie Mays." http://www.baseball-reference.com/ (November 10, 2002).
"Willie Mays." http://www.pubdim.net/baseballlibrary/ (November 10, 2002).
Sketch by Eric Lagergren
"Mays, Willie." Notable Sports Figures. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mays-willie
"Mays, Willie." Notable Sports Figures. . Retrieved February 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mays-willie
Mays, Willie 1931–
Willie Mays 1931–
Former professional baseball player
Willie Mays has often been described as the finest all-around baseball player ever to pick up a bat. During his 22-year-long professional ballplaying career, most of it with the Giants of New York and San Francisco, Mays displayed superlative skill in every aspect of the game. He hit for average, hit for power, stole bases, played center field with almost magical grace, and set several records for durability. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the name “Willie Mays” was a synonym for baseball excellence, and he remains the standard against which young players measure their versatility on the ballfield.
From the time he could first walk, Mays was either throwing, catching, or hitting a baseball. Mays was born on May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama, the son of a steelworker who also played a good center field for the local Birmingham Industrial League semi-pro team. Mays’s mother, Ann, had been a high school track star, and it was clear from a very early age that Willie had inherited his parents’ athletic gifts. According to his father, William Howard Mays, Sr., young Willie learned to walk at the age of six months, and soon thereafter the two center fielders were playing catch with each other, father instructing son in the rudiments of the game that would one day make him famous.
The parents of Willie Mays were divorced when he was only three, but Willie continued to live with his father, which meant that he continued to play baseball. It was not long before Mays realized that baseball offered him a way out of the steel mills, and he later frankly admitted that when given the choice he always preferred playing ball to doing schoolwork. Not only did Mays play ball constantly, he would sit in the dugout with his father’s Industrial League teammates and listen to baseball strategy and technique, absorbing the game’s finer points and learning to be at his ease in a competitive environment. Mays literally grew up on a ballfield and for that reason developed the habits and skills of a big league ballplayer at an astonishingly early age. By the age of thirteen, he was playing on a semi-professional team called the Gray Sox.
At one point, father and son played in the same outfield in the Birmingham Industrial League, the younger Mays in center and the elder in left. So gifted was Mays as a teenager that his friends urged him to try out for the Birmingham Black Barons, the local entry in the Negro Leagues, which was then the black equivalent of the major
Born William Howard Mays, Jr., May 6, 1931, in Westfield, AL; son of William Howard (a steelworker) and Ann Mays; married Marghuerite Wendell, 1956 (divorced, 1963); married Mae Louise Allen, November 1971; children: Michael (adopted). Education: Received diploma from Fairfield Industrial High School.
Played for Birmingham Black Barons (Negro League), 1947-1949; signed by New York Giants for Class B Trenton team, 1950; led league in hitting with .353 average; joined New York Giants, 1951, after brief stint in Triple A League; helped Giants to pennant; led Giants to world championship, 1954; tied Giants’ home run record at 51 in 1955; led National League in stolen bases four consecutive years, 1956-1959; became fifth player ever to hit four home runs in one game, 1961; drove in career high of 141 runs, 1962; hit 500th home run, 1965; hit 600th home run, 1969; became ninth player ever to get 3,000 career base hits, 1970; traded to New York Mets, 1972; retired after 1973 season with 660 home runs, second only to Babe Ruth. Lecturer to youths for Federal Job Corps program. Military service: U.S. Army, 1952-53.
Awards: Voted Most Valuable Player, 1954 and 1965; All Star team selection 24 consecutive years (most of any player); voted into Hall of Fame, 1979, on first ballot; Randolph Award, 1980.
Addresses: c/o Media Relations, San Francisco Giants, Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA 94124.
leagues. Blacks and whites did not yet play baseball together at this point in America’s history; Negro League teams played throughout the South and in some northern cities, often to large crowds and with some financial rewards, but black Americans could not play in the so-called “big leagues.”
Therefore, when the fifteen-year-old Mays was asked by the manager of the Birmingham Black Barons to join his squad, he immediately accepted the offer and took over center field on a team comprised of men ten years his senior. Mays was initially paid a salary of $250 a month to play with the Black Barons, far more money than he could have earned at part-time jobs as a high-school student. He eventually finished high school, but he did so as a professional baseball player.
The manager of the Black Barons, Piper Davis, became an important tutor to the outstanding young ballplayer. Davis recognized and helped perfect Mays’s innate abilities while also serving as something of a father figure for the teenaged member of his Black Baron team. The Black Barons traveled as far as Chicago and New York, often riding all night in a secondhand bus to make the next day’s game and lodging in mediocre hotels in the “colored part” of each town; yet the irrepressible Mays thrived on the routine of constant competition and challenge.
By the time Mays had secured for himself the center fielder’s spot on the Black Barons, legendary ballplayer Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in major league baseball, and the Negro Leagues were being scouted heavily by the newly integrated professional teams. One such scout for the New York Giants came to a Black Barons game to watch a teammate of Mays, but it was Willie Mays who captured his attention; the scout raved to his supervisors in the Giants’s organization about him. The Giants had already signed a number of black baseball players, and it was not long before they offered Mays a $4,000 bonus and $250 a month salary to play for their Sioux City, Iowa, Class A team. He was nineteen years old.
Racial problems in Sioux City prevented Mays from joining the team in 1950, however, and he went instead to Trenton in the Class B Interstate League, becoming the first black ever to play in that league. His .353 average led the league in hitting. Mays then began the 1951 season playing for the Minneapolis Millers in AAA ball. The young center fielder was nothing less than a sensation in Minneapolis, where after the season’s first sixteen games he was batting .608 and routinely making amazing plays in the outfield.
Such initial success was highly unusual at the AAA level, and Mays’s name quickly became familiar to Leo Durocher, the manager of the New York Giants. The Giants were suffering through a mediocre season in 1951, and Durocher saw no reason to delay the elevation of Mays to the major league level. On May 25, 1951, Mays became the starting center fielder and number-three hitter in the New York Giants’ lineup. Durocher’s confidence in Mays was unbounded, and even after Mays’s slow start (only one hit in his first twenty-five at bats) Durocher never doubted that Mays would remain his center fielder for the next ten years. Like Davis, manager of the Black Barons, Durocher took an almost fatherly interest in enabling the young star to realize his enormous potential.
By mid-August of the 1951 season, neither the Giants nor their young prodigy appeared to be going anywhere fast. Mays showed flashes of brilliance but he was still only a rookie, and the Giants remained thirteen and one-half games back of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League pennant race. The Giants went on to sweep a three game series with the Dodgers, however, and after winning sixteen games in a row they managed to catch their rivals on the last day of the regular season and force a play-off for the pennant. In one of the most famous episodes in baseball history, Mays’s teammate Bobby Thompson won the third and deciding game of the ensuing play-off with a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning. In the World Series, the Giants faced their crosstown rivals, the New York Yankees, and after a fine series lost in seven games to the perennial champions. Mays hit only .182 in the series, but in recognition of his 20 home runs and .274 batting average he was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year for 1951.
Although Mays was not the star of that 1951 pennant-winning Giants team, his obvious talent and superlative grace on the ballfield made him one of the most talked about players in the major leagues. Still only 20 years old, Mays was certain to develop into one of the game’s leading players, but he and his fans would first have to endure a two-year hiatus while Mays served in the U.S. Army. The army did not waste Mays’s talents, employing him primarily as an instructor on its baseball teams, but many observers wondered how the lay-off would affect Mays’s still-maturing abilities.
Mays answered that question with an extraordinary return in 1954, when he led the Giants to a world championship while hitting .345, 41 home runs, and winning the Most Valuable Player Award. Mays led the league in batting average, and in the first game of the World Series he made a catch of such remarkable skill that it has ever since been known simply as “The Catch.” Mays appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Colgate Comedy Hour and was then hustled off to play winter ball in Puerto Rico for the Giants. The apparently tireless center fielder could have used some rest, but as a favor to the Giants he played all winter in Puerto Rico, also leading that league in hitting and slugging percentage. Giants’ management rewarded Mays with a fat new contract, and he entered the 1955 season as an indisputable superstar.
It should not be forgotten that 1954 was Mays’s first full season in the big leagues. What is especially remarkable is that the promise shown by his 1954 season would later be confirmed in season after season of excellence, beginning with the 51 homers he clubbed in 1955. Not only was Mays the seventh player in the history of the game to hit 50 or more home runs in one season, he also led the National League in triples and slugging percentage, was second in stolen bases, and led all outfielders with 23 assists.
Mays’s combination of speed and power had never been seen before: sluggers do not often steal bases, and they are often maladroit in the outfield. While Mays was not a particularly big man, he was so gifted an athlete and he hit the baseball squarely and hard with such regularity that he could reportedly alter the number of home runs he hit depending on the needs of his team. In 1955, for example, Durocher asked Mays to supply the Giants with power, so he hit 51 homers; the year before, Durocher had been worried that Mays was thinking too much about the fences, so he limited himself to five homers in the last third of the season and won the batting title. When left to follow his own inclinations, Mays would generally hit about 30 home runs while batting somewhere above .300, a pattern he maintained for nearly the whole of his long career.
The 1955 season saw the departure of Durocher as manager of the Giants. He was replaced by Bill Rigney, but under neither man were the Giants considered contenders for another title. Mays would never be as close to a manager as he had been to Durocher, but by this point in his career, he could play for anyone: in 1956, he hit “only” 36 home runs but led the league with 40 stolen bases, the first of four consecutive years in which he stole more bases than anyone else in the National League. Mays also married for the first time in 1956, wedding Marghuerite Wendell just before his 25th birthday. The couple remained together for about seven years, adopting a baby boy, Michael, in 1958 before divorcing at the close of the 1962 season.
After the 1957 season the Giants left New York for the West Coast, moving the franchise to San Francisco, while the Dodgers shifted from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Mays was a much-loved figure in New York, and the transition to the West Coast was perhaps harder on him than on his teammates. Californians did not idolize Mays the way New Yorkers had, and he was justifiably disappointed by the reception he received from the San Francisco press, which adopted a somewhat skeptical attitude to the phenomenon of the East. As a center fielder, Mays also had to cope with the wildly shifting winds common at Candlestick Park, the home of the Giants from 1960 onward. Mays eventually learned the tricks of life out west, however, winning over the fans with his routine brilliance on the field and with the bat. In 1961 Mays became the fifth player ever to hit four home runs in a single game; in 1962 he led the Giants back to the World Series with a career-high 141 runs batted in; and in the following year he joined an exclusive club by smashing his 400th career homer. It was at least possible that Mays could one day catch Babe Ruth as the all-time leader in home runs.
Several times in his long career Willie Mays literally drove himself into the ground, once collapsing from exhaustion while at bat, and he was periodically hospitalized for tests. It appeared that Mays’s extraordinary play in all aspects of the game simply required more energy than he could muster, leaving him vulnerable to the occasional fainting spell. In spite of these sporadic problems, the Giants again rose to excellence in the 1965 season under manager Herman Franks, chasing the Dodgers for the pennant all year only to fall two games short at the end. Franks used Mays as team captain and unofficial coach, often consulting with him on player personnel and strategy, and the 33-year-old Mays responded with the last of his truly great seasons. He finished with 52 home runs, including the 500th of his career, and won his second Most Valuable Player award. His performance was especially impressive because the other great stars of the 1950s—including Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle, Dodger outfielder Duke Snider, and Braves southpaw pitcher Warren Spahn—had for the most part ceased to play at their peak levels of performance. Eleven years after his first MVP award, Mays continued to play baseball as well as he ever had.
The only question remaining for Mays was Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs. Mays passed the records of many of the game’s all-time greats—immortal Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig’s 493, New York Giants outfielder Mel Ott’s 511, and four-time American League home run champ Jimmie Foxx’s 534—until at last Mays was alone with the Babe, still 170 homers distant. Mays’s many years of continuous effort had taken its toll, however, and after the 1966 season his home runs and batting average both began to taper off. But by the time he wound up his career with the New York Mets in 1973, he had made a strong case for himself as the greatest all-around player in baseball history.
The record of his accomplishments is long—the combination of his 24 straight All Star Game appearances, his more than three thousand career basehits, and his first-year election to the baseball Hall of Fame with 94.6% of the possible votes was unparalleled—but Mays will be remembered as much for the wonderful effortlessness of his play as for the numbers he racked up. In the field, at bat, and on the bases, he remained for more than twenty years the epitome of athletic grace.
(With Maxine Berger) Play Ball !, J. Messner, 1980.
(With Lou Sahadi) Scy Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays, Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Mays, Willie, and Lou Sahadi, Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays, Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Smith, Robert, Baseball, Simon & Schuster, 1947, reprinted, 1970.
Atlanta Constitution, May 20, 1986; June 10, 1988.
Ebony, October 1966.
Jet, March 27, 1980; March 3, 1986; April 10, 1989.
Los Angeles Times, June 3, 1988; March 13, 1989.
Newsweek, September 10, 1951; July 19, 1954.
New York Times, February 12, 1966; April 26, 1966.
New York Times Book Review, June 5, 1988.
New York Times Magazine, July 11, 1954.
Sporting News, September 1, 1986.
Sports Illustrated, October 6, 1986.
Time, July 26, 1954; April 1, 1985.
"Mays, Willie 1931–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mays-willie-1931
"Mays, Willie 1931–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved February 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mays-willie-1931
Born: May 6, 1931
African American baseball player
During the twenty-one seasons in his major league career, Willie Mays hit more than six hundred home runs. Besides being a solid hitter, Mays also has been called the game's finest defensive outfielder ever and perhaps its best baserunner as well.
William Howard Mays Jr. was born on May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama, the son of a steelworker who played center field for the local Birmingham Industrial League semi-pro (a professional league independent of Major League Baseball) team. Mays's mother, Ann, had been a high school track star, and it was clear from a very early age that Willie had inherited his parents' athletic gifts. According to his father, William Howard Mays Sr., young Willie learned to walk at the age of six months, and soon thereafter the two center fielders were playing catch with each other, father instructing son in the basics of the game that would one day make him famous.
The parents of Willie Mays were divorced when he was only three, but Willie continued to live with his father, which meant that he continued to play baseball. It was not long before Mays realized that baseball offered him a way out of the steel mills, and he later admitted that when given the choice he always preferred playing ball to doing school-work. Not only did Mays play ball constantly, he would sit in the dugout with his father's Industrial League teammates and listen to baseball strategy and technique, absorbing the game's finer points and learning to be at his ease in a competitive environment. By the age of thirteen, he was playing on a semi-professional team called the Gray Sox.
So gifted was Mays as a teenager that he began playing for the Birmingham Black Barons, the local entry in the Negro Leagues, which was then the major leagues for African American players. Playing center field, Mays was paid a salary of $250 a month to play with the Black Barons, far more money than he could have earned at part-time jobs. He eventually finished high school, but he did so as a professional baseball player.
By the time Mays had secured for himself the center fielder's spot on the Black Barons, legendary ballplayer Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) had broken the color barrier in major league baseball (African Americans were not allowed to play in the major leagues until Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947), and the Negro Leagues were being scouted heavily by the newly integrated (consisting of players of all races) professional teams. One such scout for the New York Giants came to a Black Barons game to watch a teammate of Mays, but it was Willie Mays who captured his attention; the scout raved to his supervisors in the Giants' organization about him. The Giants had already signed a number of black baseball players, and it was not long before they offered Mays a $4000 bonus and $250-a-month salary to play for their minor league team (team controlled by a major league club to develop the talent of its players) in Iowa.
The talk of New York
Through the 1950 and the beginning of the 1951 season Mays tore through the minor leagues and was promoted to the Minneapolis Millers, a AAA club, the last stop before the major leagues. Mays's success was highly unusual at the AAA level, and his name quickly became familiar to Leo Durocher (1905–1991), the manager of the New York Giants. The Giants were suffering through a poor season in 1951, and Durocher saw no reason to delay the elevation of Mays to the major league level. On May 25, 1951, Mays became the starting center fielder and number-three hitter in the New York Giants' lineup.
By mid-August of the 1951 season, neither the Giants nor their young star appeared to be going anywhere. Mays showed flashes of brilliance but he was still only a rookie, and the Giants remained thirteen and one-half games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League pennant race. The Giants went on to sweep a three game series with the Dodgers, however, and after winning sixteen games in a row they managed to catch their rivals on the last day of the regular season to force a play-off—three games that would decide the winner of the league championship. In one of the most famous episodes in baseball history, the Giants won the third and deciding game of the play-off. In the World Series, the Giants faced their crosstown rivals, the New York Yankees, and after a fine series the Giants lost in seven games. In recognition of his 20 home runs and .274 batting average during the season Mays was named the National League's Rookie of the Year for 1951.
After a stint in the U.S. Army, Mays returned in 1954, when he led the Giants to a world championship while hitting .345, with 41 home runs, and winning the Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award. Mays led the league in batting average, and in the first game of the World Series he made an over-the-shoulder catch of such remarkable skill that it has ever since been known simply as "The Catch." Giants' management rewarded Mays with a fat new contract, and he entered the 1955 season as a superstar.
Doing it all
It should not be forgotten that 1954 was Mays's first full season in the big leagues. What is especially remarkable is that the promise shown by his 1954 season would later be confirmed in season after season of excellence, beginning with the 51 homers he clubbed in 1955.
After the 1957 season the Giants left New York for San Francisco, where Mays found it difficult to fit in. Mays eventually learned the tricks of life out west, however, winning over the fans with his routine brilliance on the field and with the bat. In 1962 he led the Giants back to the World Series with a career-high 141 runs batted in; and in the following year he joined an exclusive club by smashing his 400th career homer. It seemed possible that Mays might one day catch Babe Ruth as the all-time leader in home runs.
The only question remaining for Mays was Babe Ruth's (1895–1948) record of 714 career home runs. Mays passed the records of many of the game's all-time greats until at last he trailed only the Babe, by 170 home runs. Mays's many years of continuous effort had taken their toll, however, and after the 1966 season his home runs and batting average both began to drop. But by the time he wound up his career with the New York Mets in 1973, he had made a strong case for himself as the greatest all-around player in baseball history.
The record of his accomplishments is long—the combination of his twenty-four straight All Star Game appearances, his more than 3,000 career base hits, and his first-year election to the baseball Hall of Fame with 94.6 percent of the possible votes was unparalleled—but Mays is remembered as much for the wonderful effortlessness of his play as for the numbers he racked up.
For More Information
Burkhardt, Mitch. Willie Mays. Los Angeles: Melrose Square Publishing Company, 1992.
Mays, Willie, and Lou Sahadi. Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
McCormack, Shaun. Willie Mays. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2003.
"Mays, Willie." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mays-willie
"Mays, Willie." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved February 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mays-willie