Willie Mays: Still 'a-Mays-zing' at 90
Willie Mays, the "Say Hey Kid," turned 90 on May 6. Although this is belated, it is a sincere "happy birthday" to the greatest living baseball player to play on the many greens in our nation's ballparks and stadiums.
To say Mays was a "five tool" player is to vastly understate his true, God-given talents and honed skills. It's no wonder that he was a fierce competitor on the field while entertaining baseball fans for decades. Thus, he could hit with an amazing lifetime batting average (.302), show incredible power (660 home runs), run with Olympic speed on the base paths (and in the cow pastures), throw (making a 195 Assists), and field (11 Gold Gloves). All this, plus 24 All-Star appearances and two MVPs.
What made Mays stand out above all the other "five tool" players was his uncanny sense of what he had to "improve on" or what the team needed most from him in any given year. Leo Durocher, Mays's first MLB manager with the Giants, stated, "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."
The one tragedy of living so long is that Mays lost so many of his Cooperstown teammates: Henry Aaron, Al Kaline, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, and Lou Brock. They're playing doubleheaders inside the Pearly Gates. At least that's how most baseball card–collecting kids who watched these players perform imagined Heaven would be for them.
Thankfully, Mays still graces our presence. And God willing, for at least another 90 years. Or more.
In addition to his record, Mays stands as a reminder to American fans how positively the athletes of yesterday contributed to race relations and how they served as a bridge to America's developing racial harmony and equality.
Mays grew up in the 1930s and 1940s in Alabama, one of the most segregated states, in which Democrats ruled with an iron Jim Crow fist. He never let the prejudice bother him, though, and, like fellow slugger Hank Aaron, he used baseball to reach and teach generations of Americans, both young and old, about racial bias and how harmful it is in our society. As the San Francisco Chronicle explained about Mays's new memoir, 24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid:
He went on to play 22 years in the majors and live an honorable life. He worked hard, stayed clean, and was true to himself amid a string of hardships. From hearing abuse at his first professional stop to getting rejected in his pursuit to buy a house in supposedly a liberal city to playing for a manager perceived as narrow-minded, he dealt with bigotry in his own way. He united people from different walks of life with his passion and persona and fought discrimination on his terms. He had a knack for making people forget about race. He tried to break down prejudicial barriers by demonstrating character and leadership. It was a conscious choice, and he stood by his convictions.
One doesn't last in the same occupation for 22 years without conviction, pride, self-esteem, confidence, and faith in oneself.
Instead of being bitter and guarded, Mays became a role model. He mentored rookies and led the veteran players in his club, showing them how to play the game with smarts and spirit. He displayed not only great physical talent, but a manager's acumen for the game.
Mays was scientific in approach, developing a game plan for each contest. He was a player light-years ahead of the metrics gurus who monopolize the game today with their computer printouts of stats.
Anchoring the defense in centerfield, Mays was the king on the chessboard, moving fellow teammates around the outfield grass and infield dirt to get a defensive edge and provide the pitching staff advantages to be used against the opposition. He studied, scouted, and dissected his opponents to help his club win. His knowledge of the game's nuances and his intuition made him the elite of the elite.
Mays's 1954 play in the World Series against hitter Vic Wertz of the Cleveland Indians was, is, and will always be called "The Catch," with little or no explanation needed. Just type in "The Catch" on YouTube.
It remains the greatest play in baseball annals.
Mays never let bigotry or prejudice fester inside him or encapsulate his career or his life. One could wax poetic about the greatness of what he did on the field, but it's off the field that he left an indelible mark.
At the end of the day; Mays is a gentleman, a class act; and an ambassador not just for baseball, but for America. His trademark words, "Say Hey," speak volumes about his enthusiasm for and approach to life.
He is, was, and always will be a charismatic man who transcends race, generations...and time.
Image: 1952 Bowman Gum Willie Mays. Public Domain.
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