Why will there never be another MLB player like Willie Mays?

Why will there never be another MLB player like Willie Mays?

One of the greatest players of all time, Frank Robinson, was once asked if Willie Mays was the best player ever. Robinson had an annoyed look on his face and rolled his eyes, feeling insulted that he was asked that question. After a pause, he replied: “Of course he is. He's as good as you want him to be. You can't overstate how great he was.”

Willie Mays is the greatest center fielder of all time, the greatest Giant of all time and, 73 years after his debut, still the greatest combination of power, speed and defense in the history of baseball.

“When he came to us in 1951, I had never seen a player like him,” former Giants manager Leo Durocher said.

Major League Baseball had never seen anyone like him, and hasn't seen one since. Mays was Ken Griffey Jr., just better, and he was 40 years ahead of Griffey. Mays won the National League Most Valuable Player title in 1954 and 1965 and finished second two other times. He finished in the top six 12 times. He made the All-Star team 20 consecutive years. He is, by most standards, the second-best all-around player in history after Babe Ruth. For those who desegregated the sport by breaking the color barrier in 1947, there has never been a better player than Mays.

“I was very impressed with him,” Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench said. “The first time I met him [at the 1968 All-Star Game]The day before the game, he whispered in my ear, ‘You should start playing in the All-Star Game.’ When he left, I couldn’t even speak for a while. It was like, ‘Oh my God, Willie Mays just spoke to me.’ Willie was that great.”

“With Willie, it was like Tiger Woods came to your town; you always expected him to win,” Giants Hall of Fame broadcaster Lon Simmons said in 2008. “The fans expected a miracle from Willie every day. And he gave them a miracle every other day.”

“His athletic ability set him apart from others,” Robinson said. “The athletic ability of black players changed the game of baseball after 1947. And there was no better athlete than Willie Mays.”

Mays was born into this environment. His mother was a great athlete. His father was also a great center fielder. Their son, Willie Howard Mays Jr., advanced enough growing up in Westfield, Alabama, that he played against 18-year-olds when he was 10. When he was 15, Mays played for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. In 1950, at age 18, he signed with the New York Giants for $15,000 (he bought a car but couldn't drive it, so it became a car his community drove). He spent two years in the minor leagues, then joined the Giants in May 1951 at age 20. Durocher put him in the No. 3 spot in the order and after a 1-25 start, he won the Rookie of the Year Award and helped the Giants overcome a 13½-game deficit against the Dodgers to win the pennant. He was oblivious to pressure. He had a natural talent like no one had ever seen before.

“This game has always come easy to me,” Mays said.

It showed. Mays was the most spectacular player ever, a stunning combination of speed and tremendous strength in a 5-foot-11-inch, 185-pound package. He played with a distinctive style, a crowd-pleaser through and through. He was the “Say Hey Kid.” There was no one like him.

Mays hit 660 home runs, the fifth most all-time; he led the league in home runs four times, had 40-homer seasons six times and led the league in slugging five times, while he spent a good portion of his career playing in a pitcher's ballpark and in a pitcher's era.

“Hitting into a candlestick was like hitting into a vacuum: You hit the ball, and the ball goes back in,” Robinson said. “If he'd played in a fair park for hitters, he could have hit a lot more homers.”

If Mays played today, he might have hit even more home runs, because today's era features lower mounds, smaller ballparks, smaller strike zones and nearly everything designed to help the batter. In 1968, one NL batter hit 100. In 2000, 21 NL batters did so.

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan once said, “Willie Mays would have hit 80 in a season today.”

But what set Mays apart was his speed. He stole 338 bases; he led the league in stealing bases for four consecutive seasons, while averaging 33 homers per season. When he stole 40 bases in 1956, it was the most by any NL player since 1929.

“He could have stolen a lot more bases if he wanted to,” Robinson said. “But back then, you only stole bases to help your team win games. He could have stolen 50 bases a year if he wanted to.”

“He was the best baserunner I've ever seen,” Simmons said.

He was also a great defender—perhaps the greatest defensive center fielder of all time. He won 12 Gold Gloves, more than any center fielder, and they didn't start awarding Gold Gloves until 1957, his fifth full season. In 1968, he won a Gold Glove at age 37; at the time, he was the oldest man to win it as a center fielder. In the 1954 World Series, Mays' back-to-the-plate catch in deep center against Vic Wertz of the Indians is considered the most famous defensive play of all time. Mays could throw as good as any center fielder; in one game he would have had assists on all four bases, but Giants second baseman Tito Fuentes dropped the ball on a tag play. In 1965, Mays became the first player to win a Gold Glove in a 50-homer season

He was the most complete player in baseball history, the first true five-tool player. He didn't just hit for power; he batted .302 in his career, won a batting title and is one of five players with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. He and teammate Willie McCovey were a devastating duo for the Giants during most of the 1960s.

“In my last two years with the Giants, I would hit a double, but I would stay on first so they would have to pitch to McCovey,” Mays said. “Pitchers would sometimes throw the ball to the backstop, but I would stay on first base to make sure McCovey got a chance to hit. I had to shuffle some things around in our lineup.”

Mays was so good that few maneuvered around him — and even played him in the All-Star Game.

“When I was playing in the All-Star Game, [Dodgers manager] Walter Alston used to tell me, ‘Well, you know all these guys better than I do, you can figure out the lineup,'” Mays said. “So that’s what I did. I used to hit leadoff to start something. I used to put [Roberto] Clemente was put on second because he could hit behind the runner, and I would be on third base. I would hit Hank [Aaron] Third, he hit a fly ball, and before you knew it, our team was ahead.”

Mays's Giants were always ahead in 1954, when he won the world championship in his first full season (he missed most of the 1952 and all of the 1953 season due to military service). In 1962, Mays hit 49 homers, including a homer in the eighth inning of the final day of the season that beat the Astros 2-1 and pulled the Giants into a regular-season tie with the Dodgers. They played a three-game playoff; the Giants beat Sandy Koufax 8-0 in the first game behind Mays' two homers. The Giants won two of three to advance to the first World Series in San Francisco, but they lost to the Yankees in seven games. Mays' hit in the ninth scored two runs with two outs, but McCovey's lineout to Bobby Richardson ended the series.

It was truly amazing to watch Willie Mays at his best. Sadly, some will remember him for collapsing on the warning track at age 42 in the 1973 World Series. But replace that image with these: the game's best player, sprinting across the outfield, his cap flying as he raced to catch a ball in right-center; that small, strong body hitting the ball in places few could imagine; his feet spinning on a steal of second, finishing with a classic hook slide. Remember him as one of the two best players of all time, as a man who changed the game, as a man whose talent has been unmatched in the last 75 years.

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