Willie Mays Turns 80.
Willie Mays was born on May 6, 1931. That makes today his 80th birthday. That’s quite a milestone, so I thought that I’d write a little bit about his career since most of us are probably too young to have actually seen him play.
Some say he was the greatest baseball player of ALL TIME. That is quite an accusation, but it can be backed up. When most people think of the greatest player of all time they probably think of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, or even Barry Bonds if you go strictly on the numbers and not the steroids. P.S. we are not counting pitchers in this article as they do totally different things than position players do, so it’s a different argument altogether. The truth is, Willie’s numbers are just as good, or better, than these players. Willie just might not have the recognition because he didn’t play for the Yankees or in today’s media market.
When Mays began his career in 1951 he didn’t have a hit in his first 12 at bats. In his 13th at bat, he hit a homer off of Warren Spahn. Spahn is a hall of famer and one of the greatest pitchers ever. He had 13 seasons where he won at least 20 games, won a Cy Young award, and finished second for the Cy Young 3 other times. This just shows that Mays could hit off of anyone right from the start. He would go on to win the NL Rookie of the Year award in ’51.
From 1954 to 1973 Willie was an All-Star 24 times . This includes 2 All-Star selections in each of the years ’59, ’60, ’61, and ’62 because they had 2 games a year for some odd reason. So, 24 All-Star game selections and he only played 22 major league seasons. That’s impressive! It’s actually a record that he has tied with Stan Musual. Pretty good company.
Willie won the NL MVP award twice in his career. In 1954 and 1965. That’s an 11 year gap! Some sports writers say that he should have won it 6 other times in that span as well but was robbed in the voting. That would be 8 MVP’s in 11 years.
Mays could also play the field. Starting in 1957, he won 13 gold gloves playing Center Field. The Gold Glove award didn’t begin until the 1957 season, so he would have won even more before that. That’s quite an accomplishment in one of the most demanding positions to play. There is a baseball stat that figures out how many runs a fielder saves during his career. Willie is ranked 8th all time in that stat. That’s not 8th out of center fielders, it’s 8th out of ANY position player. That comes from his fielding, covering a ton of ground playing center field in those larger old ballparks, and his tremendous throwing arm. Reporters claim that Willie rarely ever used the cut-off man.
He also had speed. Early in his career he could swipe from 20 to 40 bases in a given season. That’s not bad for a power hitter who is also constantly running around in the outfield. In 1971 Baseball-Reference rated Mays as the top baserunner in the National League. He was 40 years old that year!
Willie also has some other crazy stats in his career. He has hit 4 home runs in a single game. That’s being locked in! He finished his career with 22 Extra-inning homers. On July 2, 1963, Mays played in a game when future Hall of Fame members Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal each threw 15 scoreless innings. In the bottom of the 16th inning, Mays hit a home run off Spahn for a 1–0 Giants victory. That’s clutch! He also happens to be the only player in MLB history to hit a homer in every inning from 1st to the 16th. The guy could do it all. He has a career batting average of .302 and hit 660 home runs. That is currently 4th all time in homers behind Bonds*, Aaron, and Ruth.
Mays is in the 30-30 Club (30 homers and 30 stolen bases in the same season), and he is also one of only 4 major leaguers to be in the 20-20-20-20 Club (1957). That is 20 homers, doubles, triples, and stolen bases in the same season! Only Frank Schulte (1911), Jimmy Rollins (2007), and Curtis Granderson (2007), and Mays have ever done that.
Here is perhaps the craziest stat of all: Even with all of those tremendous achievements throughout his career, I have yet to mention that HE MISSED ABOUT 2 FULL SEASONS early on because he was drafted into the Army! Mays was drafted early in the 1952 season and missed most of that year and the entire ’53 season. All-in-all he missed about 266 games due to military service. He was probably in his prime playing condition when you consider he won the Rookie of the Year award in ’51 and won the NL MVP award his first year back in ’54. He hit 20 homers in ’51 and 41 homers in 1954. If you average that out and give him 30 in each of the years he missed that would give him another 60 in his career. Yes, that means he would have hit 720 home runs, maybe even more. Even after missing those 2 important seasons, he still ranks in the Top 10 in most batting categories all-time. That is an incredible feat.
On top of all of that, Willie has perhaps the most famous catch in baseball history. It was in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, the only WS that Mays ever won. This catch was made at the Polo Grounds in New York where center field was almost 500 feet from home plate. In comparison, center field in the new Yankees Stadium is 408 feet. No other player would have the speed to get to that ball and then the athleticism to make the catch over their head. Then in one swift motion he turns and heaves that ball back to the infield. Just a tremendous athlete.
Say what you want about Ruth, Aaron, Williams, Mantle, DiMaggio, and Bonds. The ‘Say Hey Kid’, just might be the best baseball player of all time.
Career Stats – All-Time Rank
Avg. – .302
Hits – 3,283 (11th)
Home Runs – 660 (4th)
Runs – 2,062 (7th)
RBI – 1,903 (9th)
SB – 338 (116th)
BB – 1,464 (20th)