Willie Mays

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Willie Mays

During his 21 seasons with the San Francisco Giants, Willie Mays (born 1931) hit more than 600 home runs. Besides being a solid hitter, Mays also has been called the game's finest defensive outfielder and perhaps its best baserunner as well.

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 ball-playing 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 steel-worker who also played a good center field for the local Birmingham Industrial League semi-pro team. Mays' 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.

High School Pro

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 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' organization about him. The Giants had already signed a number of black baseball players, and it was not long before they offered Mays $4,000 bonus and $250 a month salary to play for their Sioux City, Iowa, Class A team. He was nineteen years old.

The Talk of New York

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.

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. 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.

660 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 54—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.

Further Reading

Mays, Willie, and Lou Sahadi, Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays, Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Smith, Robert, Baseball, Simon and 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. □

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Willie Howard Mays Jr

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