close
close

Giants legend Willie Mays dies at 93

PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 1957: Outfielder Willie Mays, of the New York Giants, in the on-deck circle during a Spring Training game against the Baltimore Orioles in March 1957 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images)
Willie Mays was a giant among giants in the sport of baseball. (Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images)

Willie Mays, the iconic Hall of Fame center fielder known as the greatest all-around baseball player of all time, died Tuesday, the San Francisco Giants announced. He was 93 years old.

Nicknamed “The Say Hey Kid,” Mays had a professional baseball career that spanned four decades, starting with the Negro Leagues in the late 1940s and ending with the New York Mets in 1972. In between, he spent 21 years with the New York City. Giants, who would later move to San Francisco

Mays was born on May 6, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama, and was named Willie, not William. Both of his parents were talented athletes, but his father was the one who introduced Mays to baseball. Cat Mays was a semi-professional player on several local black teams and had his son sit in the dugout with him at age 10, after teaching him the fundamentals years before.

By the time he was in high school, Mays was playing in several sports. His professional baseball career began in 1948, when he played for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro League before completing high school. He signed with the Giants after graduating high school in 1950 and earned his call up to the majors in May 1951 after playing just a year in the minors.

Mays was a true five-tool player who excelled in speed, throwing, fielding, hitting for average and hitting for power. He had a career triple-slash line of .301/.384/.557, with 660 home runs, 525 doubles and 338 stolen bases. He was the NL leader in stolen bases four times and led the NL in home runs four times. During 24 seasons in the Majors, he hit only 45 double plays.

In the grand scheme of his career, it didn’t take long for Mays to become the great all-around player we remember today, but it did take a while. Debuting on May 25, 1951, he didn’t put up jaw-dropping numbers – his first hit, a home run, came against the Boston Braves in his fourth game in the majors – but won Rookie of the Year, the first of many honors.

He also earned his nickname ‘The Say Hey Kid’ in his rookie year. It was given to him by his manager, Leo Durocher, or writer Barney Kremenko of the New York Journal American, who said he gave Mays that name because the shy freshman player would blurt out “Say who,” “Say what.” ,’ ‘Say where,’ ‘Say hello.’ In my paper I called him ‘Say Hey Kid’. It stuck.”

Mays spoke and sang backup on “Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)” in 1954, recorded by the Treniers, with music legend Quincy Jones conducting the orchestra.

Mays didn’t get a chance to continue his promising MLB debut until 1954, after serving two years in the Army during the Korean War. He spent most of that time (most of 1952 and all of 1953) playing on military baseball teams with other MLB players and traveling around entertaining the troops.

PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 2: Willie Mays #24 of the New York Giants warms up while catching fly balls on the wall before a Spring Training game on March 2, 1955 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images)PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 2: Willie Mays #24 of the New York Giants warms up while catching fly balls on the wall before a Spring Training game on March 2, 1955 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images)

Willie Mays’ status as an inner-circle Hall of Famer is only part of his legacy. (Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images)

When he returned home in 1954, the switch had been flipped. Mays had the best season of his career, hitting .345/.411/.667 with 41 home runs. He won MVP and was selected for the All-Star Game.

While that was his best season overall, he had many great seasons after that. From 1955 to 1966, Mays finished in the top six of MVP voting in all but one year, won MVP again in 1965 and finished second twice. He was selected to the All-Star Game 20 times in his career (24 times if you count the second All-Star games from 1959 to 1962). He won the All-Star MVP in 1963 and 1968, becoming the first player to win the award twice, and also won 12 Gold Gloves.

Despite his prolific hitting, Mays said he enjoyed fielding more than anything else.

“Don’t get me wrong: I like to hit,” he told Sporting News in 1955. “But there’s nothing like going into the outfield, chasing a ball and throwing someone out trying to get that extra base. That’s really fun.”

As a player, he set many records on the field, but one record off the field set an important precedent for future players. On February 20, 1963, he signed a contract with the Giants worth $100,000 per year, the first six-figure contract in baseball history.

Despite his success on the field, Mays won only one World Series in his 24-year career, with the 1954 New York Giants, who defeated the Cleveland Indians (now known as the Guardians). That series gave us one of the most iconic and greatest plays in MLB history: Mays’ famous over-the-shoulder catch.

The play, still known simply as “The Catch,” came in Game 1 at the Giants’ stadium, the Polo Grounds. The score was 2-2 in the top of the eighth inning and the bases were loaded with Guardians players. Cleveland’s Vic Wertz came up to bat, hitting a ball into the stadium’s cavernous center field. Mays, running at full speed from the shallow center to the wall, managed to track down the ball and make a stunning no-look catch. He then turned on a dime and fired a throw to second base, preventing any runners from scoring.

Mays said he doesn’t evaluate his actions on the field (“I don’t compare them. I just catch them,” he said, via ESPN), but The Catch is still considered one of the greatest of all time.

And Mays never doubted the ball would fall into his glove.

“I’ve had it all,” he said.

Mays began a slow decline in the late 1960s, although he still posted a National League-best .425 OBP in 1971. The Giants traded him to the Mets in May 1972, and he finally played in front of the New York crowd again. .

Although Mays was not named an All-Star in 1972 for the first time in his career, he earned a final nod in 1973, his final season.

After retiring, he became the coach of the Mets until 1979, when he left his baseball contract to become a greeter at an Atlantic City hotel and casino. Then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn banned Mays from baseball because of the gambling connection, but he was reinstated in 1985 by Peter Ueberroth, Kuhn’s successor.

The Giants, who retired Mays’ number in 1972, signed him to a lifetime contract in the 1990s, making him a permanent special assistant to the president. He spent years visiting the Giants’ minor league teams, attending spring training and making appearances on behalf of the club.

Mays is survived by his son Michael. Mays married his wife, Mae Louise Allen Mays, in the early 1970s. She died in 2013 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility. It was a surprise that he wasn’t a unanimous choice. Twenty-three members of the BBWAA did not choose him on their ballots, giving Mays 94.68% of the vote.

New York Daily News writer Dick Young was stunned.

“If Jesus Christ showed up with his old baseball glove, some guys wouldn’t vote for him,” Young wrote. “He dropped the cross three times, didn’t he?”

Despite those 23 Mays-less ballots, Mays was revered in the industry. Years after he retired, many baseball announcers of the era still considered him the best all-around player they had ever seen.

His first manager, Leo Durocher, insisted over the years that Mays came to the majors fully formed as a legend.

“I never taught him anything,” Durocher said. “He taught me. Willie is the best player I’ve ever seen. I have no doubt about it.”

Warren Spahn, who threw the ball that became Mays’ first Major League hit (a home run), recalled that moment years later.

“He went something like 0-for-21 the first time I saw him. His first Major League hit was a home run for me – and I’ll never forgive myself. If I had, we might have been apart forever.” Willie came down.” just knocked him out.” (Note: Mays went 0-for-12 the first time he faced Spahn.)

Even celebrities understood how talented Mays was.

“I can’t stand Willie Mays,” Dodgers fan Cary Grant said in 1971. “Imagine knowing when someone is going to hit the ball and how far and where and at what time the ball is going to land at a certain point and there when the time comes.”

Actress Tallulah Bankhead summed it up simply: “There have only been two authentic geniuses in the world: Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.”

In 2015, Mays received the highest honor the government can bestow on a citizen: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When he received the award from President Barack Obama, he joined Ernie Banks, Yogi Berra and Stan Musial as the only baseball players to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor.