Saying Goodbye to the Say Hey Kid, Willie Mays (1931–2024)

Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Willie Mays was the gold standard. We can debate whether he was the greatest baseball player who ever lived or merely on the short list of those with a claim to the title. Based upon both the legend and the statistics, we’re on more solid ground declaring that Mays was the game’s greatest all-around player, accounting for his skill and achievement at the plate, on the bases, and in the field. Combining tremendous power, exceptional speed that factored on both sides of the ball, and preternatural grace afield, the man could do it all on the diamond, and he did it with an endearing, charismatic flair. “The Say Hey Kid” — a nickname bestowed upon him when he was so fresh on the scene that he didn’t know his teammates’ names — projected a youthful exuberance and an innocence that made him an icon.

Mays began his professional career while still in high school, with the Birmingham Black Barons, signing a $250-a-month contract in July 1948, when he was just 17 years old. He was supposed to return to Birmingham this week, one of three Negro Leagues alumni from the 1920-48 period — along with Bill Greason and Ron Teasley — slated to attend a major league game tonight between the Cardinals and Giants at historic Rickwood Field, the country’s oldest professional ballpark. Sadly, Mays passed away two days ago, in an assisted living facility, at the age of 93.

Mays was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979. At the time of his death, he was its oldest living member, a distinction he inherited when Tommy Lasorda died on January 7, 2021, and one that now belongs to 90-year-old Luis Aparicio.

Standing just 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, Mays did not cut a particularly imposing figure at first glance, but he was seemingly all muscle and sinew, with broad shoulders, oversized hands, and lightning-quick reflexes. Beyond his physical gifts — and not to be overlooked, his mental ones, for he meticulously studied pitchers to memorize their strengths, learned to decode catchers’ signals, scrutinized infielders’ positioning so that he knew when to take an extra base — his stature extended well beyond baseball and into popular culture. “There have only been two authentic geniuses in the world,” Alabama-born actress and Giants fan Tallulah Bankhead once said. “William Shakespeare and Willie Mays.”

Twelve years younger than Jackie Robinson and four years behind him in joining the National League, Mays battled racism and segregation, but his experiences and his approach differed from that of the pioneering Dodger, who nonetheless criticized Mays for not doing more. “He didn’t have Robinson’s barrier-breaking import; he didn’t even integrate the Giants,” wrote the Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin in 2021. “What Mays did, though, was no less important. With his dazzling flair and ebullient personality, he became the first Black ballplayer to cross over into the greater public consciousness — to win over White America.”

“It’s because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for president,” said President Barack Obama in 2015 while presenting Mays with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

As a player, Mays was a sight to behold. Writing for The New Yorker in 1962 (his first year covering baseball), Roger Angell marveled at the spectacle of his famous basket catches (“[He] caught flies in front of his belt buckle like a grocer catching a box of breakfast food pulled from a shelf.”) and his electrifying baserunning exploits:

“He runs low to the ground, his shoulders swinging to his huge strides, his spikes digging up great chunks of infield dirt; the cap flies off at second, he cuts the base like a racing car, looking back over his shoulder at the ball, and lopes grandly into third, and everyone who has watched him finds himself laughing with excitement and shared delight.”

“Mays could do all the things you look for in a player better than anybody I ever saw,” said Leo Durocher, a former opponent of Ty Cobb at the tail end of the latter’s career, a teammate of Babe Ruth for three seasons, and Mays’ first manager with the Giants. As he wrote in his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last:

“If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases, and performed a miracle in the field every day, I’d still look you right in the eye and tell you that Willie was better. He could do the five things you have to do to be a superstar: hit, hit with power, run, throw and field. And he had the other magic ingredient that turns a superstar into a super Superstar. Charisma. He lit up a room when he came in. He was a joy to be around.”

In a 23-season career in the National League with the Giants (1951–52, ’54-72) and Mets (1972–73), Mays compiled staggering numbers: 3,283 hits, 660 home runs, and 336 stolen bases while batting .304/.385/.564 for a 157 OPS+. He was the first player to pair 300 homers with 300 stolen bases, and the second to pair 3,000 hits and 500 homers, after longtime rival Henry Aaron. More recent research into the portion of his Negro Leagues career that is now considered major league has officially added another 10 hits and one stolen base to those totals, though no box score has been found for the lone home run he hit for the Black Barons in 1948, or for several of the other games he played. He also played for the Black Barons in 1949 and ’50 before being signed by the Giants, but the Negro American League for those seasons is not officially regarded as major league by Major League Baseball.

Mays is 13th all-time in hits, 12th in runs batted in (1,909), seventh in runs scored (2,068), sixth in homers, fourth in total bases (6,080), and third among position players in Wins Above Replacement (Baseball Reference’s version, used throughout this piece) among position players (156.2). His numbers and rankings would be even higher had he not lost most of 1952 and all of ’53 — his age-21 and 22 seasons — to military service during the Korean War. Uninterrupted, he might well have beaten Aaron to the 700-home run plateau and perhaps to Ruth’s record of 714 homers. He hit as many as 52 homers in a season, and reached the 40-homer mark six times. On April 30, 1961, he became the eighth player to hit four home runs in one game, doing so against the Braves at County Stadium in Milwaukee.

Mays made 24 consecutive All-Star teams, including two per year from 1959–62; won 12 consecutive Gold Gloves from the inception of the award in ’57 through ’68; and led the league in home runs and stolen bases four times apiece and in batting average once. As statheads have discovered after the fact, he led in OPS+ six times and in WAR 10 times; only Ruth, Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby, and Barry Bonds led in the last of those categories more often, the first three of them doing so before integration.

Perhaps most remarkable from among the numbers is Mays’ 13-year run after being discharged from the Army. From 1954–66, he slugged .601, posted a 166 OPS+, and averaged 40 home runs and 9.5 WAR. All 10 of his league leads in WAR occurred in that span; in the other years, he placed second twice and fourth once, with 7.8 WAR. Mays topped 10.0 WAR six times, the last of those in 1965; in the 59 seasons since, the entirety of civilization has combined to do so 16 times. Despite this dominance, Mays was elected the National League’s Most Valuable Player just twice, in 1954 and ’65. He could have easily claimed another half-dozen such awards; as it is, he finished among the top five in the voting in seven other seasons, each while leading the NL in WAR.

Mays helped the Giants to pennants in 1951, ’54, and ’62. They won the World Series only in 1954, sweeping a heavily favored 111-win Cleveland team. During the eighth inning of Game 1, Mays made what might be the most famous defensive play in baseball history, simply dubbed “The Catch.” With the score tied 2-2, Cleveland had runners on first and second base when slugger Vic Wertz launched a fly ball deep to center field. Mays ran over 90 feet to track it down, catching it over his shoulder with his back to home plate, an estimated 421 feet deep into the Polo Grounds’ center field. In one motion, he caught the ball, then turned and fired it back to the infield to prevent lead runner Larry Doby from scoring.

The Giants escaped that inning without allowing a run and won 5-2 in 10 innings. Mays sparked the decisive rally, drawing a one-out walk, stealing second base to trigger an intentional walk, then scoring on Dusty Rhodes’ pinch-hit three-run homer.

Willie Howard Mays Jr. was born in Westfield, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham, on May 6, 1931. His parents, both teenagers at the time, had athletic backgrounds. His mother Annie Satterwhite was a standout in track and basketball during high school; she led her team to three consecutive state championships in the latter sport. His father, Willie Sr., was a steelworker who played semiprofessional baseball as an outfielder in the Tennessee Coal and Iron League. Nicknamed “Cat,” he was the son of a sharecropper who pitched in local industrial leagues, Walter Mays.

Cat and Annie separated when Willie was a baby. She moved to Birmingham, remarried, and died during the birth of her 11th child in 1953. With Cat making just $2.60 per day in the steel mill during the Great Depression, the household — which included a friend of the elder Mays as well as several cousins — was poor. Willie later recalled going to school without shoes. When he was 10, he and his father moved to Fairfield, another Birmingham suburb; Cat got a job as a Pullman porter on the Birmingham-to-Detroit line, leaving his son to be raised by two of Annie’s orphaned sisters, Aunt Sarah and Aunt Ernestine.

By the time he was 10, Mays could hold his own with 15-year-olds. When he was in seventh grade, he joined Industrial League games, filling in when a team was missing players or if the score got out of hand. At Fairfield Industrial High School, he starred in football as a quarterback and in basketball as a forward. The school didn’t have a baseball team, and so Mays played second base and center field alongside his father on the Fairfield Industrial League team and the semiprofessional Gray Sox. By age 16, Mays joined the Chattanooga Choo Choos of the Negro Southern League, a minor league feeder team for the Black Barons, though he had to wait until the school year ended. He played shortstop until one of his throws was so powerful that it took off the first baseman’s glove; the team then moved him to center field.

When the Black Barons visited Chattanooga, Mays met infielder/manager Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, who told him to have his father get in touch if he were interested in playing for money while counseling that he would lose athletic eligibility in high school if he did. About a month into his tenure with the Choo Choos, Mays left the team to return home, sick of eating “stale bread and sardines” and enduring other hardships of travel. He impressed Davis at a tryout at Rickwood Field, and joined the Black Barons, playing only on weekends thanks to an agreement between his father, Davis, and Fairfield High’s principal. In his first professional appearance after signing a contract, the nightcap of a July 4, 1948 doubleheader against the Memphis Red Sox, he started in left field, batted seventh, and collected two hits off future Hall of Famer Chet Brewer. He took over center field when the regular, Bobby Robinson, broke his leg.

Mays shone defensively, and while he struggled offensively (official stats for the 13 games validated by MLB have him at .233/.313/.326 in 48 plate appearances), he did collect key hits in the Negro American League playoff series against the Kansas City Monarchs and the Negro League World Series against the Homestead Grays. According to accounts of Game 3 of the World Series — the only one won by the Black Barons — he made two standout defensive plays, robbing a double with a catch against the center field wall in the fourth inning and throwing out Buck Leonard trying to go from first to third in the sixth. He drove in Bill Greason with the winning run in the 10th on a hot shot up the middle.

Mays continued to play for the Black Barons in 1949 and ’50. According to the Biographical Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball, he batted .311 in 75 games in 1949, and .330 with a .547 slugging percentage in ’50.

By this point, with Robinson having already broken the color line by debuting for the Dodgers in 1947, scouts for AL and NL teams had taken a keen interest in Mays. The Braves tried to sign him, as did the Red Sox, who signed Davis in the winter of 1949-50, hoping it would provide a conduit to Mays; Davis was released after just 15 games despite being the team’s best hitter. Roy Campanella implored the Dodgers to sign Mays after he threw out Doby at the plate in a barnstorming game following the 1949 season, but the Dodgers’ scout was put off by Mays’ inability to hit a curveball.

Davis’ connections to New York Cubans owner Alex Pompez, whose team played in the Polo Grounds, led to Giants legend Carl Hubbell, by then the team’s farm director, watching Mays play against the Cubans in 1949. After Hubbell and owner Horace Stoneham saw Mays again in 1950, the Giants’ interest heightened; ultimately, scout Ed Montague — father of the longtime umpire — closed the deal, paying Black Barons owner Tom Hayes $10,000 for Mays’ contract and signing Mays to a $4,000 bonus and a $250 monthly salary. The Giants sent the 19-year-old Mays to their Class B Trenton affiliate in the Interstate League. Mays hit .353/.438/.510 with four homers and seven steals in 81 games, thriving despite bearing the burden of being the league’s first Black player and enduring racist taunts at opposing ballparks. During his Hall of Fame induction speech, Mays recalled hitting two homers and a triple in one game at Hagerstown and then two homers and a double in the next. “On the loudspeaker, now, they say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we know you don’t like that kid playing center field, but please do not bother him again because he’s killing us.’”

Durocher took over as Giants manager in mid-1948, and oversaw the integration of the team the following season, when outfielder Monte Irvin and third baseman Hank Thompson joined. He was the right man for the job, having played a pivotal role in integrating the league while serving as the Dodgers’ manager in the spring of 1947, snuffing out a clubhouse rebellion from a faction opposed to Robinson’s arrival. Durocher lobbied to have Mays break camp with the team in 1951, after a spring exhibition in which he hit a double and a home run for the team’s top minor league club, the Triple-A Minneapolis Millers. When Stoneham denied the request, Mays laid waste to the American Association, hitting .477/.524/.799 with eight homers in 35 games. The Giants called him up in late May, but Mays balked, believing he couldn’t hit major league pitching. Durocher asked him his batting average.

“.477,” replied Mays.

“Do you think you could hit .250 for me?” replied Durocher. Mays answered in the affirmative, and the manager ordered him to report. Joining a team that had three other Black players (backup catcher Ray Noble, Thompson, and Irvin, the last of whom was assigned to be his roommate), Mays debuted on May 25 against the Phillies in Philadelphia, going 0-for-5 but reaching on an error. He went hitless in his first 12 at-bats before homering to left field off the Braves’ Warren Spahn. “For the first 60 feet it was a helluva pitch,” said Spahn.

Mays went just 2-for-26 over his first seven games, still convinced he couldn’t hit major league pitching. “As long as I’m the manager of the Giants, you are my center fielder,” said Durocher. “You are the best center fielder I’ve ever looked at.” Mays responded by collecting 20 hits over his next 13 games. In the majors to stay, he made his presence felt, batting .274/.356/.472 with 20 home runs and seven steals. He gained popularity by playing stickball with kids in Harlem, then treating them to ice cream before heading to the Polo Grounds.

The Giants were 17-19 before Mays’ arrival, running fifth in an eight-team league. By August 11 they were 59-51, in second place but 13 games behind the league-leading Dodgers. Aided by a system in which they relayed stolen signs from their center field clubhouse using a buzzer system, they caught up to the Dodgers, tying them on the penultimate day of the regular season. The two teams finished at 96-58, then squared off in a best-of-three playoff to decide the pennant. Mays went just 1-for-10 during the series; he was on deck when Bobby Thomson hit “The Shot Heard ’Round the World” off reliever Ralph Branca to win the pennant.

Mays went just 4-for-22 in a losing cause against the Yankees in the World Series, but his regular season performance made him the runaway winner in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. He played just 34 games the following season before being drafted into the Army, though before he left he made a play that Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully believed eclipsed even “The Catch.” On April 18, 1952 at Ebbets Field, pinch-hitter Bobby Morgan hit a ball into the left-center gap where Mays dove for the ball. In 2016, meeting Mays for the first time in the AT&T Park television booth, Scully recounted the catch directly to Mays: “What happened was you hit the warning track, no helmet, you hit your head on the concrete wall, you rolled over on your back holding the ball in your glove on your chest. Henry Thompson came over, reached in, took the ball out of your glove, held it in the air, and they called [Morgan] out.”

The Army assigned Mays to Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia. He served as an athletic instructor and played baseball, perfecting the basket catches that would soon become his trademark, until he broke a bone in his foot while sliding into third base in July 1953.

The Giants, who won 92 games and finished second without Mays in 1952, slipped to 70-84 in ’53. They welcomed Mays back with open arms; on Opening Day 1954, he homered off the Dodgers’ Carl Erskine in his third plate appearance, the decisive blow in a 4-3 victory. It was the first of 41 homers he would clout that year while batting .345/.411/.667. He made his first All-Star team, and won the NL batting title while also leading in slugging percentage, OPS+ (175), and WAR (10.5). He was elected the NL MVP, receiving 16 of 24 first-place votes. With 97 wins, the Giants outdistanced the Dodgers by five games en route to another pennant. Mays went 4-for-14 in the World Series against Cleveland. In addition to his famous catch, he collected three hits and drove in two runs in a 6-2 win in Game 3, and added an RBI double in the clincher.

The 1947–57 period is often called a golden age of baseball for New York City, with at least one of the city’s three teams reaching the World Series in all but one of those years (1948), and either the Giants or Dodgers squaring off against the Yankees seven times. With Mays’ return from military service, the three teams’ center fielders — along with Mickey Mantle for the Yankees and Duke Snider for the Dodgers — wound up at the center of the debate over supremacy. “You could get a fat lip [in] any saloon by starting an argument as to which was best,” wrote Red Smith in the New York Times in 1972. “One point was beyond argument; though: Willie was by all odds the most exciting.”

Though Mays led the league in homers (51), triples (13), slugging percentage (.659), OPS+ (174) and WAR (9.2) in 1955, the Giants won just 80 games, and Stoneham fired Durocher, replacing him with Bill Rigney. Mays became the second player ever to pair at least 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in one season in 1956 (36 homers and a league-high 40 steals), then repeated the feat the following year (35 homers and a league-high 38 steals), but the Giants slipped below .500 in those two campaigns while drawing fewer than 700,000 fans in each season. Struggling financially, with the Polo Grounds in need of renovation, Stoneham explored moving the Giants to Minneapolis before agreeing to a deal with the city of San Francisco as Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley struck a deal with Los Angeles.

San Francisco did not exactly roll out the red carpet for Mays. In November 1957, he and his first wife Margherite sought to buy a three-bedroom house in Sherwood Forest, an all-white neighborhood with views of the Pacific Ocean. Mays met owner Walter Gnesdiloff’s $37,500 asking price, but neighbors pressured Gnesdiloff into refusing Mays’ offer, with one telling the San Francisco Chronicle, “I certainly wouldn’t like to have a colored family near me.” The story became front-page news. San Francisco mayor George Christopher publicly offered to put up Mays and his wife in his own home (Mays respectfully declined), and public pressure led Gnesdiloff to go through with the sale. The local branch of the NAACP lobbied for an ordinance to outlaw racial discrimination in the sale or rental of private dwellings. In 1963, California passed the Rumford Fair Housing Act, and five years later, discriminatory zoning was outlawed nationwide. For Dr. Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, “It all went back to Willie Mays.”

Mays’ battle to buy a house was a prominent example of his fighting for civil rights and speaking out against segregation. “If neighbors don’t want you, what’s the good of buying,” he said when his offer was denied. “But talk about a thing like this goes all over the world, and it sure looks bad for our country.” Even so, in the coming years he would face criticism — particularly from Robinson — that he wasn’t doing enough. In 1968, Robinson called Mays “a do-nothing Negro in the area of race relations.”

The criticism stung, but much like Aaron, Mays had his own style. “Jackie did a lot of things for the race,” Mays told John Shea for his 2020 book 24: Life Stories and Lessons From the Say Hey Kid. “I did what I did. I didn’t always go out and talk in the public. Sometimes I’d do it behind the scenes… I didn’t tell everyone what I did.”

“He never succumbed to the weight of carrying his race,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. “Every single player who broke into the majors in that timespan felt that added pressure of representing their race. There was a feeling of, ‘Oh, man, I can’t afford to fail.’ But Willie shouldered that tremendously well.”

San Francisco resisted Mays in other ways as well, as Smith wrote in 1972:

“[T]he welcome accorded Willie Mays was restrained, if not downright cool. Willie played center field, a social error in San Francisco. As far as the residents of the Bay Area were concerned, that position was the exclusive property of the homegrown demigod, Joseph Paul DiMaggio, and anybody who tried to muscle in was an imposter. Though Willie led the Giants with a batting average of .347 and 29 home runs, the fans voted [Orlando] Cepeda the team’s most valuable player. Not long afterward, Nikita Khrushchev visited California and as his car moved through the San Francisco streets, crowds along the curb applauded. ‘What kind of town is this?” demanded the late Frank Coniff, an old Giant fan who was covering the tour for the Hearst papers. ‘They cheer Khrushchev and boo Willie Mays!”

The Giants finished in third place in three out of four seasons from 1958–61, maxing out with 85 wins while playing in minor league Seals Stadium in the first two of those years before moving to Candlestick Park, where swirling winds and frigid temperatures worked against hitters. The team led the NL for two and a half months in 1959 before frittering away a lead in September and losing out in a three-way race to the Dodgers, who beat the Braves in a best-of-three playoff. Mays was sometimes at odds with Rigney, who in 1958 predicted that he would surpass Ruth’s single-season record of 60 homers; he hit just 29, and believed that falling so short cost him in the eyes of fans.

During their otherwise lean years, the Giants were amassing a tremendous pool of talent, one that included back-to-back Rookies of the Year in Cepeda (1958) and Willie McCovey (1959). In a pioneering foray into the Dominican Republic that began before they left New York but didn’t come to fruition until they were in San Francisco, the Giants signed Juan Marichal and the three Alou brothers, Felipe, Matty, and Jesús. In 1962, under second-year manager Alvin Dark, Mays hit an NL-high 49 homers in a 10.5-WAR season. The Giants overcame a four-game deficit over the season’s final 10 games to tie the Dodgers at 101-61, then beat them two out of three in another end-of-season playoff. Mays homered off Sandy Koufax and Larry Sherry in the opener, then drove in a run and scored in a four-run ninth inning of the third game as the Giants came from behind to claim the pennant. Facing the Yankees in the World Series, Mays went 7-for-28, albeit while driving in just one run; the Giants lost in seven.

Mays became the game’s highest-paid player with a salary of $105,000 in 1963. He remained at the top of his game, leading the NL with 47 homers, a .607 slugging percentage, a 172 OPS+, 11.0 WAR in 1964, then repeating the feat in ’65, at the age of 34, with career highs in homers (52), OPS+ (185), and WAR (11.2) to go with a .645 SLG. His solo home run off the Astros’ Don Nottebart on September 13, 1965 made him the fifth player to reach 500 homers, after Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, and Ted Williams. Mays beat out Koufax to win his second MVP award in 1965, but neither that big season nor the one before it were enough to get the Giants over the hump; they finished fourth, four games out in ’64, and second, two games behind the Dodgers, in ’65.

During this time, Mays took on an increased leadership role. In 1964, Dark appointed him to be the first Black team captain in AL/NL history, a move that he hoped would defuse controversy centered around some questionable statements he had made regarding the racial makeup of the team. Mays tried to mediate between Dark and the team’s numerous Black and Latino players, but tensions boiled over when the manager told Newsday’s Stan Isaacs, “We have trouble because we have so many Spanish-speaking and Negro players on the team. They are just not able to perform up to the white ballplayer when it comes to mental alertness.” Though Dark explicitly exempted Mays from this gross generalization, Mays refused to speak to him over the season’s final two months, and the manager deservedly got the axe at season’s end, replaced by Herman Franks.

Mays played a prominent role as a peacemaker on August 22, 1965, when Marichal and Dodgers catcher John Roseboro got into a heated altercation that climaxed with the pitcher hitting the catcher in the head with his bat. Amid the bench-clearing brawl, Mays led the bloodied Roseboro to safety. NL president Warren Giles suspended Marichal for eight days and fined him as well. He praised Mays’ conduct: “This man was an example of the best in any of us.”

The 1965 season was the first of four straight second-place finishes for the Franks-led Giants during the final years before the advent of division play. With expansion in 1969, the team moved to the NL West… and finished second behind the Braves. On September 22 of that season, Mays smacked a pinch-hit homer off the Padres’ Mike Corkins to become the second player, after Ruth, to reach 600 for his career. According to a UPI report, Mays called his shot earlier in the game. While sitting on the bench, a message on the scoreboard invited fans to “Come tomorrow night and see Willie hit no. 600.” Despite not being in the starting lineup, Mays retorted to his teammates, “Tomorrow night? I’m going to hit it tonight.”

The milestones kept coming. Mays collected his 3,000th hit on July 18, 1970 via a single off the Expos’ Mike Wegener.

Mays had been unusually durable, averaging 152 games during the 154-game seasons from 1954–61 and 157 games in the 162-game seasons from 1962-66. Starting in 1967, injuries, rest, and periodic bouts of fatigue or exhaustion — which had plagued him as far back as ’58 — limited him to an average of 136 games during the back half of his 30s. He still performed at a high level, averaging 21 homers, 10 steals, a 141 OPS+ and 5.0 WAR from 1967–71.

In 1971, with McCovey battling injuries, Mays made 39 starts at first base, a position where he’d only briefly dabbled previously. By this point, Bobby Bonds was playing alongside him in right field, with young outfielders George Foster and Dave Kingman occasionally squeezed into the lineup as well. Led by a quartet of Hall of Famers (Mays, McCovey, Marichal, and Gaylord Perry), the Giants won 90 games and the NL West title. They fell to the Pirates in a four-game National League Championship Series; in Game 2, Mays hit his lone postseason home run, a garbage-time two-run shot with the Giants down 9-2 in the ninth.

Though the Giants drew 1.1 million fans that year — their first time above one million since 1967 — they ranked 10th in attendance in the 12-team NL, crowded by the A’s, who had moved from Kansas City to Oakland for the ’68 season. Concerned about finances (including Mays’ $165,000 annual salary), Stoneham secretly negotiated a trade to send the 41-year-old Mays back to New York, as a Met. The deal went down on May 11, 1972, with the Mets sending pitcher Charlie Williams and $50,000 to the Giants, who retired Mays’ no. 24.

Mays hit what proved to be a decisive home run in his Mets debut on May 14, and he was effective in a part-time role, batting .267/.402/.446 with eight homers in 242 plate appearances. With a knee that required regular draining, he slipped to .211/.303/.344 in 239 PA in 1973, and told the Mets he would retire at season’s end, but asked them to withhold the news until September. He played just three of the team’s final 30 games. On September 25, the team held a night in his honor, showering him with gifts and affection. “As you know, there always comes a time for someone to get out,” Mays told the assembled crowd. “And I look at these kids over there, the way they are playing, and the way they are fighting for themselves, and it tells me one thing: ‘Willie, say goodbye to America.’”

The Mets managed to win the NL East title with an 82-79 record and included Mays on the postseason roster. When Pete Rose barreled into shortstop Bud Harrelson in Game 3, inciting a bench-clearing brawl, Shea Stadium fans threw objects at Rose, prompting Reds manager Sparky Anderson to pull his team from the field. After the umpires threatened the Mets with a forfeit, Mays joined Tom Seaver and manager Yogi Berra in imploring the crowd to allow play to resume; the Mets won 9-2. Mays finally made his first appearance of the series in Game 5, collecting an RBI single and scoring in a 7-2 win.

Mays played in the first three games of the 1973 World Series against the A’s. He misplayed two balls in center field in the late innings of Game 2, but drove in the go-ahead run with a single off Rollie Fingers in the 12th inning of what became a 10-7 win. That proved to be the final hit of his career, as he grounded out in a pinch-hitting appearance in Game 3. The Mets lost in seven.

After his playing career, Mays served as a part-time coach and goodwill ambassador for the Mets and did public relations work for the Colgate-Palmolive company as well. In 1979, he was elected to the Hall of Fame, receiving 94.7% of the vote. While the absurdity of 23 clowns in the BBWAA leaving him off their ballots almost defies belief, it’s worth noting that Mays received the highest share of the vote of any player after the inaugural class of 1936 and before Aaron received 97.8% in ’82.

In 1979, Mays’ association with the Mets ended when he signed a 10-year deal to represent Bally, an Atlantic City-based casino and hotel company. Though sports wagering was not legal in Atlantic City — thus removing one avenue of potential conflict — and employees were prohibited from gambling at the casino, commissioner Bowie Kuhn decided that Mays could not hold a job with a company that promoted gambling while also holding a salaried position in baseball. Forced to choose, Mays opted for Bally’s $100,000 annual salary over the Mets’ $50,000; Kuhn forced Mantle to make a similar decision in 1983. In 1985, new commissioner Peter Ueberroth reinstated both icons; Mays became a part-time hitting coach for the Giants. Later in the decade, he signed a lifetime contract to serve as a front-office consultant.

Mays’ presence was a factor when free agent Barry Bonds, his godson, signed with San Francisco after the 1992 season. When the Giants left Candlestick (by that point known as 3Com Park) to move into their new home (originally Pacific Bell Park, now Oracle Park), they gave it the address 24 Willie Mays Plaza. Prior to the venue’s official opening on March 31, 2000, the Giants unveiled a statue of Mays in front of its entrance. The Mets finally made good on an unfulfilled promise from former team owner Mrs. Joan Payson, who died in 1975, and retired Mays’ no. 24 in 2022.

Was Mays the best player ever? It’s a debate for the ages, one that contains only a handful of plausible candidates and one that’s not going to be settled at the tail end of a 5,000-word tribute, but here’s my view. Neither Cobb nor Ruth played against integrated competition, and likewise for Negro Leagues stars Oscar Charleston (the proto-Mays, a center fielder who could do it all) and Josh Gibson. Neither Aaron nor Williams had Mays’ defensive prowess, nor did they play such important positions. Mantle, the contemporary whose preternatural skills rivaled those of Mays, was the better hitter (172 OPS+ vs. Mays’ 155), but he didn’t have Mays’ longevity; Mays was also the far superior center fielder (185 runs above average, second among center fielders; Mantle was 37 below average). With the careers of Mike Trout and two-way marvel Shohei Ohtani still incomplete, the younger Bonds might be the top alternative — though some may consider the influence of performance-enhancing drugs on his career to be disqualifying. As I noted in The Cooperstown Casebook in 2017, in a comparison alongside Bonds and Ruth, the only two position players with higher WARs, Mays derived a higher share of his value from defense (again, 185 runs above average) and baserunning and double play avoidance (71 runs above average) than either of the other two. Though he has only about a 21-run advantage over Bonds in that baserunning metric, that margin is suppressed by Mays’ military service, and could well be larger. Then again, Bonds and Ruth both were several hundred runs better than Mays in the batting component of WAR, and we haven’t even brought Ruth’s pitching into the equation.

Segregation, pitching, PEDs… they all complicate the debates. We’ll never settle the argument definitively, and thankfully, we don’t have to. Given what he could do on the bases and in the field in addition to at the plate, I still think it’s reasonable to call Mays the best all-around player the game has seen. Your mileage may vary, but one thing is inarguable: Regardless of who else comes along, and what they accomplish, we will never see another Willie Mays.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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1 month ago

Masterful stuff here. As much as anyone, the story of Willie Mays is the story of 20th Century American baseball – touching everything from pre-war segregation, New York in the 50’s, wartime service, relocation & new franchises, expansion of the game, PEDs…and on top of that, Mays is the kind of player where advanced statistics and the “eye test” both seem to agree and compliment one another in perfect harmony. Tremendous loss for all of baseball.