“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.”
–Leo Durocher, Mays’s first manager, Nice Guys Finish Last
Willie Howard Mays was born to Willie Howard Mays Sr. William Howard Mays the elder was named after William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States and Supreme Court Justice. William Howard Taft is generally acknowledged to be the first President who had a true love for the game of baseball. Taft is credited as the first President to throw out a ceremonial first pitch, and is also credited with unintentionally inventing the 7th inning stretch, when, during a Washington Senators game in the very early 1900’s, between the top and bottom of the seventh he stretched out his bulbous 300lbs frame out of his box seat, and most of the Washington fans, figuring the Commander-in-Chief was standing to depart the ballfield, stood up to salute him.
So what does the greatest all-around ballplayer have in common with a three-hundred pound walrus of a President? Absolutely nothing. I just think its a cool story.
Anyway, I figure most reading these posts have figured that Mays and the guy at number one would be the top two. Let me say this, though: figuring out number one was a lot more difficult than one would think. I will extrapolate on that thought when discussing number one on this list. Let me just say this though: Pound for pound, skill for skill, tool for tool, there has never been a finer player than Willie Mays.
I always tell my father I envy him. He always says “Why is that, son? Is it I am a doctor, I am a success? Is It that I married a beautiful woman like your mother?”
And my answer is always the same: “No, you fucking fruit loop. You lived in the greatest era of baseball ever witnessed by man.” (Although my mom was a helluva catch. R.I.P. Mom)
You see, my father was born in 1947, so his earliest memories of baseball were during the heyday of New York baseball, and the advent of television. Willie, Mickey and the Duke. Those names just roll off the tongue, perfect baseball names for the most perfect of baseball eras. My family, on my Dad’s side at least, are all devout Yankee fans. Its an Italian/Sicilian thing, don’t ask. Trying to talk to my grandfather about Willie Mays is impossible; he will always dismiss him and bring up Mantle or DiMaggio. My father, on the other hand? He loves Mantle, saw “The Duke of Flatbush”, but he knows. He experienced it. He extols the virtues of Willie Mays.
Mays was, arguably, the first five tool player in the history of the game, using the characteristics that the tools personify today. (My grandfather would be quick to wit that DiMaggio was the first. Sicilian pride there. DiMag was great, and acknowledged as a great baserunner, but was never a base STEALER). One of the last transfers from the Negro Leagues, Mays was a comet. He could hit for average, power. He was a flash on the basepaths. He covered ground in centerfield that most land corps would be jealous of. And his arm. My God, his arm. Willie is generally considered to have one of, if not the greatest, outfield arm in history. The man had a golden gun. Willie was the complete package, and his Godson, Barry Bonds, while a great hitter and, in his prime, all around player, was not a fraction of what Willie was.
Willie’s greatest moment, the one, at least, captured by celluloid, was his catch in Game One of the 1954 World Series. The play has been diminished in the last 60 years in favor of plays in the postseason by the likes of Kirby Puckett and Endy Chavez(that may just be me. His catch in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS is the best play I have ever witnessed live). Most people these days dismiss it as a great catch, FOR THAT TIME, one that is nearly routine today. Allow me to retort:
Here is the deal with Mays’ famous catch. Think about the logistics of most Big League Parks now days. Minute Maid Park in Houston offers us the deepest at 436ft. Miami’s new stadium weighs in at 434. In the American League, its Detroit at 420 feet. Fenway also provides a daunting 420 feet, but it is not truly at center field, it is closer to left center. The Polo Grounds, where Mays played the majority of his first six seasons, and where The Catch was made, was 492 feet to dead center, jutting out from about 275 down the left and right field lines. Vic Wertz, the Cleveland Indian who hit the ball to Mays, hit it about 475-480 feet in the air. That ball clears most current Major League walls by about 70 feet. Mays, who played shallow, had to race at least 125-165 feet just to catch the ball. At the time, there were Indian runners on second and third. Mays not only covers an asinine amount of ground to make a catch never seen before, but has the IMMEDIATE wherewithal to spin around and fire it in to second base. The runner at second moved to third easily, but the runner at first was trapped right there. THAT is the brilliance of the play. Not only did Mays cover ground that MAYBE one centerfielder now days, a Jacoby Ellsbury type, could make, he made a throw so ridiculous that Roberto Clemente, Dave Parker, Vlad Guerrero, Jose Guillen, Jesse Barfield, Bo Jackson, Ichiro…well…they all blushed at that throw. Mays DID NOT EVEN HAVE TIME TO SET HIS FEET! He just wheeled and threw. THAT, more than anything, is the beauty of that play.
Sorry for the tangent there, but I felt it necessary. I have not began to talk about Mays’ offensive skills. Much like Hank Aaron, he wasn’t a guy who repeatedly led the league in anything. He was just remarkably consistent. He hit fifty-one home runs in 1955. He hit fifty-two in 1965. Ten years passed between fifty home run seasons, which still is, and probably always be, a record. Mays missed a season and a half for military detail, which makes one figure he would have reached the 700 home run plateau. It is not unreasonable, as the years Mays missed would have been his second and third. His first year in MLB he hit 20 homers; when he came back after the war, he hit 41. So is sixty out of the question? I don’t think so. He would have passed Ruth, but in no way would he match or eclipse Aaron.
Willie Mays is the greatest all-around performer in the history of baseball. That is this scribes opinion. But lets just forget his days with the Mets. Please.