By Lenny Moon
Arguably, the greatest player the game of baseball has ever witnessed has gracefully turned 90 years of age. Born May 6, 1931, Willie Howard Mays in this author’s humble opinion was clearly the greatest five-tool master of the diamond “ever” (power, speed, arm, defense and hit for average). The only argument should be who was second, third etc. If the criteria is the greatest impact on “America’s Pastime” then the argument shifts into perhaps Jackie Robinson or Babe Ruth. But none yet born has been able to impact the game between the lines in as many ways as the Birmingham, Al native, whose career spanned from 1951-73.
Widely known for his power, the San Francisco Giants legend is currently sixth on the all-time home run list with 660 round trippers, trailing only Barry Bonds (762), Henry Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714), Alex Rodriguez (696) and still active Albert Pujois (667). Let’s delve into the aforementioned sluggers ahead of Mays. Three of the five ahead of “The Say Hey Kid” performed in the steroid era to go along with the “watered down” pitching staffs in more contemporary times. The exception on the list is of course Aaron who was Mays’ contemporary and actually a Negro Leagues product as well. Mays played for the Birmingham Barons (1948-50) before being signed by the New York Giants in 1951. “The Hammer” played for the Indianapolis Clowns (1952) prior to being signed by the Milwaukee Braves in 1954 (Robinson integrated the big leagues in 1947 when signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers). Another variable is that the Mays/Aaron era was matched with some of the most impressive pitchers in any era of MLB.
During the “Say Hey Kid’s” regime, hurlers such as Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton, Whitey Ford, Fergie Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Warren Spahn among others are all represented in Cooperstown as hall of famers. The ballparks were much larger making it more challenging to knock one out of the park. With the continued expansion of MLB franchises, a pitcher who would have otherwise labored in AA or AAA level competition were now major leaguers in the modern game. As for Babe Ruth, an asterisk would be in order in that he did not compete during the integrated segment of the game’s history obviously no fault of his own doing. The Babe will and should be credited with introducing the long ball to the game and was the first to post 60 home runs in a single season. Back to the versatility of Mays, that’s just the power segment of the five-tool star’s skill set.
Defensively, no one tracked balls hit into the alleys of MLB ballparks better than Mr Mays. Perhaps the most widely played catch by any outfielder transpired during the 1954 World Series when the Giants were pitted against Cleveland in the cavernous Polo Grounds in New York. On a full sprint while heading toward the wall and back to the infield, Mays snared the clout by the Indians Vic Wertz and in one motion uncorked an accurate throw into second base to prohibit the runners from advancing. He was later quoted as saying that the play was nothing special indicating that was fairly routine by his standards but magnified because it was the World Series. His patented “basket catch” was a style that he incorporated to insure that the ball would remain playable as long as he “kept the play (and the ball) in front of him” as only he could explain.
All told, there simply has not been a more complete player I the history of the league than Willie Mays. If the situation called for it, he proved that he could steal bases as he led the National League in four consecutive seasons, earned a record 12 Gold Gloves, finished with 3283 hits, 2062 runs, 1903 runs batted in and wrapped up his incredible career with a .302 batting average. Mays was selected to 24 All-Star Games, was named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team among many, many other accolades. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re living in the midst of the greatest baseball player who ever lived and LennyMoonSports would like to take this opportunity to wish the “Say Hey Kid, Willie Mays” a Happy 90th and continue to shine as royalty to America’s Pastime.