Monday, March 14, 2011

Willie Mays: The Say Hey Kid

Great Legends of Sport

Every time I look at my pocketbook, I see Jackie Robinson.
Willie Mays

I always enjoyed playing ball, and it didn't matter to me whether I played with white kids or black. I never understood why an issue was made of who I played with, and I never felt comfortable, when I grew up, telling other people how to act. 
Willie Mays

They invented the All-Star game for Willie Mays.
Ted Williams

He would routinely do things you never saw anyone else do. He'd score from first base on a single. He'd take two bases on a pop-up. He'd throw somebody out at the plate on one bounce.
And the bigger the game, the better he played.
Peter A. Magowan, Giants president

The Say Hey Kid: Willie Mays, standing, wearing baseball uniform, with arm around shoulders of Roy Campanella, seated, in 1961. Campanella was a catcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1948 to 1958, when he was paralyzed in an automobile accident.
Photo Credit
: World Telegram & Sun photo by William C. Greene, 1961

Source:  U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Willie Mays established the standard of the all-around baseball player, and the epitome of athletic grace, who could do it all: hit with power and for average, steal bases and play the outfield like no one else, including making  one of the greatest defensive plays in baseball history during the 1954 World Series. It was no idle boast when Mays declared himself the greatest player he's ever seen.

Many others would agree, including Giants president Peter Magowan: "He would routinely do things you never saw anyone else do. He'd score from first base on a single. He'd take two bases on a pop-up. He'd throw somebody out at the plate on one bounce. And the bigger the game, the better he played."

During his 22-year major league baseball career (1951-73), chiefly with the Giants, first in New York and then with San Francisco to where the team moved in 1958, the speedy center fielder (5ft-11 in., 170 pounds) stole 338 bases, won 11 Gold Gloves for defensive skill, amassed 3,283 hits, and slugged 660 home runs and had 1,903 RBIs.

Mays, who batted right and threw right, had a lifetime total of 7,095 outfield fielding putouts, which remains the major league record. Mays won two MVP awards and tied Stan Musial's record with 24 appearances in the All-Star Game.  (His full statistics can be found here.)

Willie Mays, number 24, is one of only four players in the history of the game to have more than three-thousand hits and more than five hundred home runs. (The three others are Hank Aaron,  Eddie Murray, and Rafael Palmeiro.) In 1999, Mays placed second to Babe Ruth on The Sporting News' List of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, making him the highest-ranking living player. Later that year, he was also elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.

Mays was a star in his rookie year, when he was named the National League's Rookie of the Year in 1951, playing with an eager energy and charisma that earned him the nickname of the Say Hey Kid. He never eraned close to the astronomical salaries common to players today. His initial salary was $5,000 a year. It was $105,000 in 1963 and $165,000 in 1973 when he retired.

Born to Athletic Parents

William Howard Mays, Jr. was born to William Mays and Annie Satterwhite in Westfield, Alabama, outside Birmingham on May 6, 1931. His parents never married, and he was raised by his aunts. His father, a steel-worker, was a talented local baseball player, who also played centerfield for the local Birmingham Industrial League semi-pro team. His mother was a gifted basketball and track star in high school. His father had introduced his son to baseball at an early age, and by age ten, he was sitting on the bench at his father's industrial league games.

Mays attended Fairfield Industrial High School, where he excelled in many sports, including basketball and football, before he graduated in 1950. Baseball was an easy pick for him, Mays later said: "My father didn't have money for me to go to college. And at that particular time they didn't have black quarterbacks, and I don't think I could have made it in basketball, because I was only 5' 11". So I just picked baseball."

In 1947, when he was 15, Mays was already playing professionally with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League. Around this time, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in April 1947, when Robinson became the first African-American player in major league baseball, putting on the uniform for the Brooklyn Dodgers. This would greatly ease Mays' entry into the professional leagues.

Before that would take place, however, Mays would help the Black Barons win their pennant and advance to the 1948 Negro Leagues World Series, where they lost 4 games to 1 to the Homestead Grays. while he hit .226 for the season, his fielding and base-running skills were already developed and gaining notice from major league scouts.

One such scout from the New York Giants noticed Mays, and he was signed as an amateur free agent on June 20, 1950. He was offered a $4,000 signing bonus and a salary of $250 a month to play for their Sioux City, Iowa, Class A team. He was nineteen years old. He quickly made a mark in the minors, but not without initial difficulties, which his playing overcame, says one biography site:
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.
Leo Durocher became both a father figure and advocate for Mays, who said.
He always made sure I knew what suit to buy and how to dress. He’d never holler at me. If he had something to say, he’d talk soft. When we were in California, I’d stay at his house, and when we went on the road, his kid was my roommate. Chris Durocher, he was about 7. We’d go on the road, and Leo would say, "You got him," so for two weeks, I can’t go nowhere, can’t do nothing. I think that was Leo’s way of looking after me.
After the Army & The Catch

After the 1951 season, Mays served two years in the U.S. Army, where he was employed as an instructor on its baseball teams. Many wondered how the lay-off would affect Mays' still-maturing abilities. If there was any doubt, it was put to rest when he returned for the 1954 season. He won the batting title, hitting .345, slugging 41 home runs, and winning the Most Valuable Player Award.

His stellar performance continued in the 1954 World Series, which the Giants won, when Mays made one of the finest defensive plays in major league baseball history. It has become baseball lore, and simply called The Catch:
The Catch refers to a memorable defensive baseball play by Willie Mays on September 29, 1954, during Game 1 of the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians at the Polo Grounds in New York on a ball hit by Vic Wertz. The score was tied 2-2 in the top of the eighth inning. Starting pitcher Sal Maglie walked Larry Doby and gave up a single to Al Rosen. With runners on first and second, Giants manager Leo Durocher summoned left-handed relief pitcher Don Liddle to replace Maglie and pitch to Cleveland's Wertz, also a left-hander.
Wertz worked the count to two balls and a strike before crushing Liddle's fourth pitch approximately 420 feet to deep center field. In many stadiums the hit would have been a home run and given the Indians a 5-2 lead. However, this was the spacious Polo Grounds, and Giants center fielder Willie Mays, who was playing in shallow center field, made an on-the-run over-the-shoulder catch on the warning track to make the out.
Having caught the ball, he [Mays] immediately spun and threw the ball, losing his hat in characteristic style. Doby, the runner on second, might have been able to score the go-ahead run had he tagged at the moment the ball was caught; but as it was, he ran when the ball was hit, and then had to scramble back to retag and only got as far as third base
The Catch: Willie Mays, no. 24, drags in Vic Wertz's drive at the warning track  in the 1954 World Series. It was on September 29, 1954, during Game 1 of the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians at the Polo Grounds in New York. It is one of the most famous catches in major league baseball history and an iconic sports photo.
Source: The Catch

Sportswriter Arnold Hano has described the throw, which is equal to the catch: "But the throw! What an astonishing throw to make all other throws ever before it, even the four Mays himself had made during fielding practice, appear the flings of teenage girls. This was the throw of a giant, the throw of a howitzer made human."

Willie Mays has described the throw as more important in a 2010 article in The New York Times:
“As I’m running, I’m thinking I’ve got to get this ball back to the infield because I’d scored many times from second base on balls like that,” Mays said.

The instant the ball settled in his glove, he planted his foot and propelled himself into a whirl, flinging the ball on a line to second base. He held the runner at third, and the Indians never scored. The Giants won in 10 innings.
After more than two decades with the Giants, Mays was traded, and returned to New York. On May 11, 1972, the San Francisco Giants traded Mays to the New York Mets for Charlie Williams and $50,000. His last regular season game was on September 9, 1973.

His final hit was during the 1973 World Series, a 12th-inning single up the middle against the Oakland Athletics, which put the Mets ahead in a game they hung on to win. In that series, the final one and fourth one Mays would play, the New York Mets lost to the Oakland Athletics in seven games.

Post Playing Days

After hanging up his glove in 1973, Willie Mays remained for a time with the Mets organization, before becoming a public relations executive with Bally's Resorts and Colgate-Palmolive. In 1986, Willie Mays returned to the San Francisco Giants organization, where he serves as special assistant to the president of the club. In 1993 the Giants made this a lifetime appointment.

Mays married twice. He married Margherite Wendell Chapman (1926–2010) in 1956 in which they adopted Michael, who was born in 1959, and the couple divorced a few years later. In November 1971, Mays married Mae Louise Allen.

Mays was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility, gaining 409 of the 432 votes, or almost 95% of the votes cast. At his induction, it was said: "Willie Mays, the 'Say Hey Kid,' played with enthusiasm and exuberance while excelling in all phases of the game — hitting for average and power, fielding, throwing and base running."  said the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

As to the claim of who was the greatest baseball player, Babe Ruth or Willie Mays, my response is that both were great and both served the interests of baseball when it was needed: Ruth as baseball's savior after the doldrums of a scandal, and Mays as the greatest and graceful all-around player of his time.

[Disclosure: some friends and I met and got Willie Mays' autograph in the early 1970s when he was with the New York Mets, and we were  kids hanging around the Queen Elizabeth Hotel waiting for players to board the bus for the ballpark. He was gracious and spoke to us for a few minutes.]

The last word goes to another baseball great Sandy Koufax, hall-of-fame pitcher with the Brooklyn (and later Los Angeles) Dodgers, who said: "I can't believe that Babe Ruth was a better player than Willie Mays. 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."