Kurkjian: Willie Mays was the most complete player in baseball history — and an absolute joy to watch

MLB

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

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

“When he came to us in 1951,” former Giants manager Leo Durocher said, “I’d never seen anyone quite like him.”

Major League Baseball had never seen anyone like him, and hasn’t since. Mays was Ken Griffey Jr., only better, and he preceded Griffey by 40 years. Mays won the National League Most Valuable Player 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 years in a row. He is, by most measures, the second-best all-round player in history behind the incomprehensibly great Babe Ruth. To those who separate the game by the breaking of the color barrier in 1947, there has never been a better player than Mays.

“I was in awe of 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 be starting the All-Star Game.’ When he left, I couldn’t even speak for a short time. It was like, ‘Oh my God, Willie Mays just talked to me.’ That’s how great Willie was.”

“With Willie, it was like Tiger Woods coming to your town, you just 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 just gave them a miracle every other day.”

“His athleticism set him apart,” Robinson said. “The athleticism of the Black player changed the game of baseball after 1947. And there was no better athlete than Willie Mays.”

Mays was born into that. His mother was a great athlete. His father was, too, a great center fielder. His son, Willie Howard Mays Jr., was so advanced growing up in Westfield, Alabama, that he played against 18-year-olds when he was 10. Mays played for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues when he was 15. 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 that his community drove). He spent two years in the minor leagues, then joined the Giants in May 1951 just after turning 20 years old. Durocher put him in the No. 3 spot in the order and, after a 1-for-25 start, he went on to win 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 the pressure. He was as natural a talent as anyone had ever seen.

“The game always came easy to me,” Mays said.

It showed. Mays was as graceful a player as there has ever been, a majestic combination of speed and tremendous strength built into a 5-foot-11, 185-pound package. He played with a certain flair, a crowd-pleaser in every way. He was the “Say Hey Kid.” There was no one like him.

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

“Hitting at Candlestick was like hitting in a vacuum: You hit the ball, and the ball was sucked back in,” Robinson said. “If he’d just played in a fair park for hitters, he’d have hit a lot more homers.”

Mays also might have hit even more home runs if he had played in today’s era, with its lower mound, its smaller ballparks, its smaller strike zone and almost everything designed to help the hitter. In 1968, one NL hitter drove in 100 runs. In 2000, 21 NL hitters did it.

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

But what separated Mays was his speed. He stole 338 bases; he led the league in stolen bases four seasons in a row 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 had wanted,” Robinson said. “But back then, you only stole a base to help your team win a game. He could have stolen 50 every year if he’d wanted to.”

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

He was also a terrific defender — probably the greatest defensive center fielder of all time. He won 12 Gold Gloves, most of 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 to win one as a center fielder. In the 1954 World Series, Mays’ back-to-the-plate catch in deep center against the Indians’ Vic Wertz is considered the most famous defensive play of all time. Mays could throw as well as any center fielder; he would have had an assist at all four bases in one game, 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. His signature basket catch was a phenomenon that has never been duplicated. No one glided after a fly ball like Willie Mays.

He was the most complete player in baseball history, the first real 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 destructive twosome for the Giants for most of the 1960s.

“My last two years with the Giants, I would hit a double, but I’d stop at first so they’d have to pitch to McCovey,” Mays said. “Pitchers would sometimes throw the ball to the backstop, but I would stay at first base to make sure McCovey had a chance to hit. I had to maneuver some things for our lineup.”

Mays was so good, some maneuvering was done around him — and by him, even at the All-Star Game.

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

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

Willie Mays in his prime was simply breathtaking to watch. Sadly, some people will remember him for falling down on the warning track as a 42-year-old in the 1973 World Series. But replace that picture with these images: The game’s best athlete, streaking across the outfield, his cap flying off as he runs down a ball in right-center; that short, strong body uncoiling and hitting a ball to places only few can imagine; those legs churning on a steal of second, ending with a classic hook slide. Remember him as one of the two best players of all time, a man who changed the game, a man with talent that is unrivaled the past 75 years.

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