When Willie Mays reported to begin his career with the New York Giants 1951, he packed lightly. When he walked into the visitors’ clubhouse at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Mays carried a shaving kit, seven bats, his glove, and the clothes on his back. It was less than three weeks after his twentieth birthday.
I’m not sure if Willie needed that shaving kit at that age, but with the bat and glove the former negro league standout soon showed the National League how special he was.
“He’s going to be the greatest to ever lace on a pair of spiked shoes,” Giants manager Leo Durocher said a few months later, when Mays had established himself as one of the top rookies in baseball.
It’s difficult now to understand how unique Willie Mays was when he first performed for the Giants. Today, we witness remarkably athletic ballplayers at almost every position. Those of us in our 50s have seen Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds and Mike Trout. We watched Bo Jackson do unforgettable things on a baseball field. We watched Eric Davis swing his bat through the strike zone lightning quick and run like a deer. We saw Andruw Jones play shallow and still glide back to snare fly balls, and we remember the incredible throwing arm of Jay Buhner and Vladimir Guerrero Sr. When we see an outfielder run 30 yards for a ball, pivot, and fire a laser to second base, we take it for granted.
But when Willie was doing all those things it was new. He was the man who came down from a higher league. He was a kid with unbelievable talent, and he played at that high level longer than any other man in baseball history.
Struggled at the start of his career with the Giants
Mays went 0-for-13 when he came up to the Giants. Then, the first time he faced Warren Spahn, he smashed a home run to deep left-center field for his first big league hit. He proceeded to go 0-for-13 again before placing his name in the hit column once more. But from there, young Willie took off, and his inspired play sparked the G-Men.
“He was something like zero for twenty-one the first time I saw him,” Spahn said later. “His first major league hit was a home run off me and I’ll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out.”
When Mays was summoned to the big leagues on May 25, 1951, the Giants were 17-19 and looking up at the Brooklyn Dodgers. But with Mays in center field, the team went 81-40 and caught the Bums. Their thrilling win in a three-game playoff served as Willie’s initiation to pennant race baseball. Three years later he led the Giants to their last championship in New York. That was the same season he won his first Most Valuable Player Award.
Led Giants to Championship in 1954 as League MVP
Mays could have been MVP nearly every season. Starting in 1954, the year the Giants won the World Series, Mays led the league in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) ten times in a 13-year stretch through 1966. But, as is the practice in baseball, the MVP was usually awarded to someone who played on a pennant-winning team. Willie’s Giants won two pennants after his rookie season, in 1954 and 1962. But in the latter season he finished second in the MVP race. Mays finished second in MVP voting twice, third twice, and fourth twice. But everyone knew he was the greatest player in the league, even the best players who shared his era.
“I can’t believe that Babe Ruth was a better player than Willie Mays,” pitcher Sandy Koufax insisted. “Ruth is to baseball what Arnold Palmer is to golf. He got the game moving. But I can’t believe he could run as well as Mays, and I can’t believe he was any better an outfielder.”
Best defensive center fielder of all-time
Most observers pegged Mays as the greatest center fielder to ever chase down a fly ball. He had great speed and even better instincts, and Willie’s throwing arm was also deadly. But to Willie, playing center field wasn’t a big deal, and he didn’t play the game to make catches that would be memorable.
“I don’t compare ’em, I just catch ’em,” Willie said.
Mays often defied physics with his incredible accomplishments on the field.
“The catch off Bobby Morgan [a backhanded grab of the Brooklyn Dodger’s line drive in September 1951 at Ebbets Field] in Brooklyn was the best catch I ever made,” Mays said late in his career. Jackie Robinson and Leo Durocher were the first people I saw when I opened my eyes.”
“He would routinely do things you never saw anyone else do,” said Giants’ president Peter Magowan. “He’d score from first base on a single. He’d take two bases on a popup. He’d throw somebody out at the plate on one bounce. And the bigger the game, the better he played.”
Mays won 12 Gold Gloves, the first when he was 26 years old, the last when he was 37. He kept himself in trim, athletic shape, and when he was 40 years old he hit 18 homers and stole 23 bases.
Hero of the Polo Grounds and New York
As much as his playing skill, Mays won over fans with his infectious personality and approach to the game. He usually had a smile on his face, and wore his cap back on his head, making it easier to fly off when he was chasing a baseball or running the bases. At the Polo Grounds in New York, Mays was cheered louder than any Giant in history.
Several times early in his career, before or after his own game, Willie would stop in a side street in Harlem or another section of the city to play stickball with kids. He earned his nickname “Say Hey” for his habit of saying that phrase to people he met.
In the 1950s, New York boasted three star center fielders: Mays, Mickey Mantle with the Yankees, and Duke Snider for the Dodgers. “Willie, Mickey, and The Duke” were legends in the city, but among the three it was Mays who was the most complete player, and the most approachable.
When the Giants bolted for San Francisco for the 1958 season, Mays took his star west and kept slugging homers and stealing bases and winning Gold Gloves. Three times at windy Candlestick Park on The Bay, Mays led the league in home runs. He livened his pace for homers in the 1960s, and it seemed as if he might eventually threaten Babe Ruth’s career record. But it was Aaron who had a late career surge and accomplished the feat.
It was a testament to Mays’ greatness, that despite the brilliance of Aaron, who was almost an exact contemporary, Mays was heralded universally as the supreme player in the game.
“I was never the match for Willie, not in every phase of the game like he was,” said Aaron, who passed away in 2021.
Mays completed his 23-year career with 24 All-Star Game selections, two MVP awards, one batting title, four home run titles, four stolen base crowns, 12 Gold Gloves, and the Rookie of the Year Award in 1951.
He hit 660 home runs, batted .301 with 3,293 hits, 2,068 runs, 1,909 runs batted in, and 338 steals in 3,005 games. He left the Giants in 1972 to join the Mets back in New York, and in his final season he helped the team win the pennant. Mays had a key hit in the winning rally in Game Two of the 1973 World Series.
Mays was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility. In 1999, he was selected to MLB’s All-Century Team. He rates as the greatest center fielder in history in rankings here at BaseballEgg.com, but his legend as a player went beyond numbers and accolades. His greatness was his brilliance and star power.
“They invented the All-Star game for Willie Mays,” said Ted Williams.