“If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases and performed a miracle in the field every day, I’d still look you in the eye and say Willie was better.” ~ Leo Durocher (Willie’s first manager)
The oldest living Hall of Fame baseball player turns 90 years old today. His name is Willie Howard Mays, Jr. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that Willie Mays is 90. He was a huge part of my childhood and I guess I still see him running down a ball in center field or rounding third at a high gallop while scoring from first on a single to the outfield or throwing someone out at the plate with his amazing arm. Wow, it just does not seem possible he is a nonagenarian.
He was born on May 6, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama. His father, Cat Mays and his mother Annie Satterwhite, both were athletic. His dad a baseball player for the town’s black team from the iron plant and his mom an exceptional basketball player and track star while in high school. Willie himself played basketball, football and baseball in high school. Willie also played in the for the Birmingham Black Barons beginning in 1948 until he was signed by the New York Giants in 1950 after graduating from high school.
Willie was nicknamed, “The Say Hey Kid” as he addressed players or people, “Say Hey” when he could not remember their names. He was a 5-foot 10-inch, 170-pound centerfield that batted and threw right-handed. His MLB debut occurred on May 25, 1951 for the New York Giants and his last appearance on September 9, 1973 for the New York Mets. Willie played for the New York / San Francisco Giants from 1951-1952, served in the US Army and returned to play from 1954-1972, then traded and played for the New York Mets in 1972-1973. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on his first ballot in 1979 with 94.7% of the vote; he was the only player elected that year.
During his career he amassed 3,283 hits, 660 home runs, 1,903 runs batted in, had 338 stolen bases with a career batting average of .302. Was named to the All-Star team 24 time, was Rookie of the Year in 1951, a two-time MVP (1954 and 1965), World Series Champion in 1954, a 12-time Gold Glove winner (1957-1968), NL Batting Champion in 1954, lead the NL in Home Runs 4 time (1955, 1962, 1964 and 1965), was the NL stolen base leader four years straight (1956-1959) and hit four home runs in a single game on April 30, 1961. Willie holds the career outfield putout record with 7,095 and had most extra-inning home runs with 22. He served as a coach for the Mets after his retirement until 1979 and later was a Special Assistant to the President and General Manager for the San Francisco Giants.
Willie was further honored after his retirement when he was named to the Major League All-Century Team in 1999 as well as the Major League All-Time Team. He was ranked second behind Babe Ruth on The Sporting News “List of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players”. In 2015, he was presented “The Presidential Medal of Freedom” by Barack Obama.
He was a five-tool player (Throwing, Fielding, Hitting for Average, Hitting for Power and Speed) long before the term was used or common. At various times in his career, he batted anywhere from lead-off to the fifth slot. I saw him play on tv numerous times and there was always a sense of excitement when he was at bat, or when a ball was hit to centerfield. You just knew something special would occur. I whole-heartedly admit I did not see him in his prime, but I still saw a player that made things happen. I was in high school when he played in his last game / World Series at the age of 42. He was old and had slowed, he alternated starts with Don Hahn in center field, but there was still something magical about his presence even with the Oakland Athletics taking the series.
Willie is and will always be remembered as one of the greats of the game. I will always see his hat flying off in the outfield (he wore it one size too big to add to his speed illusion, but the man could flat-out run) and making his trademark “basket catch” (glove down near his waist) of the fly ball in my memories. But mostly I will always see a man that smiled and loved playing the game, who competed and entertained, who helped make my childhood special.
Thanks Willie and HAPPY 90th BIRTHDAY! May you be blessed with health and many more years.
~ Coach Mike