09/11/2003 2:09 PM ET
Mays made fans 'Say Hey'
660 homers, 'The Catch,' and a place in Cooperstown
Mays' top 5 HRs
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
"Say Hey" song:
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It is fitting that the lasting, indelible image of Willie Howard Mays Jr. in that No. 24 jersey is not of a record-shattering home run, but of a dazzling, over-the-shoulder basket catch -- and whiparound throw to prevent a run from scoring -- in deep center field during a crucial World Series situation. Willie was the embodiment of the "five-tool" player sought by today's scouts, and he just happened to knock 660 balls out of the park along the way in a 22-year career that made us all Say Hey.
Frank Howard, Stan Musial, Maury Wills, Dean Chance, Orlando Cepeda and so many other contemporaries all say the same thing whenever they were asked about Mays: "He was the greatest all-around player." Mays was exceptional at every facet; that was his game. He could hit for power and average, he could run, and he could field and throw. If you could go back into the 20th century and pick one player around whom you would build a franchise, there are a lot of people who would start with him.
How remarkable it was in baseball's Golden Age to be in New York and have the choice of watching Willie, Mickey and The Duke in their respective center-field stations. Then it wasn't a question of whether Willie was better than The Babe, it was a question of which of those three you'd take first. And to a Giants fan, there was none better. Mays played in 2,992 games from 1951 to 1973, and, except for a final season and a half back home in New York with the Mets, he was a Giant through and through.
Johnny Podres faced Willie a number of times while pitching for the Dodgers, and in Bob Allen's book, "The 500 Home Run Club," he tells a story that speaks volumes about that ongoing challenge: "I'm pitching against the Giants in L.A., and I got them beat, 13-0, in the ninth and Mays is the last hitter. So I get him two balls and two strikes and I throw him a big, slow curve. And he sees the pitch coming...and he took it for strike three. I say to myself, 'I got another pitch for this guy.' The next time I faced in him Candlestick, I got two men on and two out. I got him three balls and two strikes, so I say, 'This is the time to throw him that big, slow curve again.' Well, it was a three-run homer. I thought I was setting him up, but he was setting me up!"
Bob Feller remembers Mays as "an actor," and indeed he played a special leading role. If Joe DiMaggio was unemotional, then Willie was emotional, delivering excitement and flair. He would wear his ballcap too tight or too large, so he could "run out of it" for some of those thrilling catches. Mays was a showman who entertained and won with enthusiasm, a childlike zeal, and fans loved him for that and always wanted to see more.
Mays came from Westfield, Ala., and at 17 he started with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League. The Giants bought his rights in 1950 for $15,000, and he came up as a somewhat frightened prospect who struggled badly for his first Major League hit. Consoled by manager and mentor Leo Durocher, Mays hit his first home run off the great Warren Spahn, who would later says, "I'll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I'd only struck him out."
In 1954, Mays made the second of four trips to the World Series and helped bring home his only winner, a surprising sweep of a Cleveland team that had won a record 111 regular-season games. It was a phenomenal first season back from the military, one he finished with a .345 average, 41 homers, 13 triples, 110 runs and 119 RBIs. But what we'll remember is "The Catch" in that Fall Classic. In the top of the eighth, with the score tied 2-2 and runners on first and second, Vic Wertz stepped to the plate. He sent a towering fly to the deepest part of the Polo Grounds. Mays spun around and ran full-bore toward the wall, his hat typically flying off, and caught the ball over his left shoulder on the track 440 feet from home. He pivoted and made a strong throw back to the infield to prevent Larry Doby from scoring and holding Al Rosen at first. It kept the score tied, and the Giants went on to win in the 10th. It punctuated a season in which he was named NL MVP and Major League Player of the Year.
There are thousands of Willie Mays stories, and everyone who saw him play has their favorite. One thing he shared with Babe Ruth, besides baseball greatness, was his ability to light up a room and to entertain kids. He would greet you gleefully with his greeting, "Say hey," and that became his nickname. Mays did not receive the same adulation after the Giants moved out west in 1958 as he had in New York, but he remained an all-around force and an All-Star fixture. It was his personal show, as he made the Midsummer Classic every year after he returned from the service in 1954, playing 24 games in 20 years (they played two All-Star games from 1959-62). Although he was a shadow of his old self, it was poetic justice that he finished his career in a World Series game.
When Mays retired, he held league records for playing in 150 or more games (13 consecutive seasons), putouts (7,095), even for hitting three triples in one game. In 1957, he had an astonishing combination of 35 homers and 20 triples. (To put that into perspective, consider that Sammy Sosa had 41 career triples entering the 2002 season, and five to go with his 64 homers in 2001.) Mays finished his career ranked third in homers, fifth in runs, sixth in games, eighth in at-bats, seventh in RBIs, ninth in hits and 10th in slugging percentage. He led the NL in homers and steals four times. He led the NL in fielding five times. These are the traits of the greatest all-around player in baseball history, and the memories just make you want to Say Hey.
Mark Newman is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.