Born in 1931, both of Willie Mays’s parents played sports: his father in baseball for the local iron plant and his mother was a basketball and track star in high school. In his early days, he played football as well as baseball, as a quarterback, fullback and punter. But he gravitated towards baseball, his pro career beginning in 1948 with the Chattanooga Choo-Choos, a Negro minor league team. Quickly promoted, he joined the Birmingham Black Barons later that year, and helped them reach the Negro World Series while still attending high school. He was already drawing major league interest, from teams including the Braves and Dodgers, but it was the Giants who bought Mays from the Barons for $10,000 in June 1950.
Less than a year later, he made his major-league debut, and made an immediate impact, batting .274 with 20 home-runs, on his way to the National League Rookie of the Year award. The Giants won the league, and he also helped them on defense, Willie occupied the enormous space of center field in the Polo Grounds in New York, where the team then played - at its deepest part, the outfield wall was over 480 feet from home-plate. He was drafted into the Army at the end of his first season, and though he played a few games the following year, missed almost all of the 1952 and 1953 seasons due to his military service. But on returning to baseball in 1954, Mays didn’t miss a beat, homering on Opening Day.
That was the first of 41 he would hit that season, becoming the first player in major-league history with 30 home-runs before the All-Star break. He also batted .345, the highest figure in the majors that year, and his OPS of 1.078 was the highest in the National League. He was worth 10.5 bWAR that year, and was rewarded with his first Most Valuable Player award, receiving 16 of the 24 available first-place votes. Mays was a key factor in the New York Giants winning 27 games more than they had without him the previous season, improving from fifth in the NL to winning the pennant by five games over the Brooklyn Dodgers. That set up a World Series against the Cleveland Indiants, where Mays would provide an iconic moment.
For there was a play in that contest simply known as “The Catch.” Whenever a sportsman does something which needs so little description, you know it’s special. This came at a pivotal moment of Game 1 in the World Series, with the score tied 2-2 in the eighth inning and two runners on base. Cleveland’s Vic Wertz hit a deep drive to center field, which Mays somehow managed to snare over his shoulder, about 420 feet from home-plate. LOOGY pitcher Don Liddle supposedly remarked after being relieved, “Well, I got MY man...” A true game-changing play, the Giants went on to win the game in extra innings, and ended up sweeping the Indians in four games
It would be Mays’ only World Series ring - and, indeed, the Giants’ last success for 56 years. Though none of that should be laid at the feet of Mays, who posted MVP caliber numbers, both before and after the team moved from New York to San Francisco for the 1958 season. He won a Gold Glove the last year in the Big Apple, the first time the awards had been given out, and would go on to take the award again, in each of the next eleven seasons. Mays was also selected to the All-Star Game in 20 consecutive years. For the span of an entire decade, between 1957 and 1966, Willie also never finished lower than sixth in MVP balloting. He also had a remarkable thirteen straight seasons where he was worth at least 7.6 bWAR.
His career reached a peak over the years from 1962 through 1965, where he posted four campaigns of 10+ bWAR. Over that time, Mays his .308 while averaging 46 home-runs a year, for an OPS+ of 174. In 1962, he helped the Giants back to the World Series, though they lost in seven games to the Yankees, Mays being held to a .597 OPS. He should probably have won the MVP award that year, but lost narrowly to the Dodgers’ Maury Wills. Mays also had a higher bWAR than the actual winners in both 1963 (Sandy Koufax) and 1964 (Ken Boyer). The latter was especially egregious, Mays’s 11 bWAR season not getting a single first-place vote, despite being two clear wins ahead of anyone else. Hey, but Boyer led the league in RBI!
There would be no such miscarriage in 1965, when Mays’s career-best season by bWAR (11.2) was rewarded with his second MVP award. He cracked 52 home-runs, while hitting .317 with an OPS of 1.043 (OPS+ of 1.043, and this time turned the tables on Koufax. No player had gone as long as 11 years between MVP awards, and the decade since his last 50-HR season was also a record. Mays was 34, and Father Time was beginning to catch up, though the decline was not a rapid one. 1965 was the last of his eight seasons above nine bWAR, and the following season, when Mays came third - again, with more bWAR than the winner Roberto Clemente - was his final appearance in the top ten of MVP voting.
He kept playing at a very respectable level, and his 6.3 bWAR in 1971 is the all-time record for a position player in his forties. Oddly, despite over twenty years as a member of the Giants, first in New York, and then San Francisco, Mays did not finish his career with them. He was traded to the Mets in May 1972. Though by this point, he was a shadow of his former self, he still had an OPS+ of 112 for New York over his final 135 appearances. He played his last game in the 1973 World Series at the age of 42 years, 183 days - among position players, only Pete Rose has been older since then - though the Mets lost to the A’s in seven games.
He was, unsurprisingly, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, getting 94.7% of the available votes. His total bWAR of 156.2 is third among all position players, behind only his godson Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth. After retiring, he remained involved in the game, and signed a lifetime contract with the Giants in 1993. Their park’s address is 24 Willie Mays Plaza. Now in his nineties, Mays is perhaps the greatest living baseball player, one whose talents are unlikely to be forgotten by anyone who witnessed them.