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The Greatest Baseball Player Ever
PHILADELPHIA – I’m going on record right now to say that Willie Mays is unequivocally the greatest baseball player of all-time. That’s right — forget all the talk about his Godson, Barry Bonds, being the best player ever.
I’ll take Mays over Bonds and every other major leaguer to ever play the game – including legends like, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Albert Pujols, Joe DiMaggio and even — gasp — Babe Ruth.
Want me to say it again? Okay, I will.
There has never been — and may never be — another player who can duplicate all of the incredible feats the multi-faceted “Say Hey Kid” accomplished during his 22-year Hall of Fame career.
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Mays was a genuine “five tool” player who — while not as universally revered as some other great major leaguers of yesteryear — stands head and shoulders above every other player in major league history when it comes to measuring greatness in each of baseball’s five major categories — hitting for average, hitting for power, running, throwing and fielding.
Mays was at, or near the top, of every one of those categories at some point in his storied career.
When Mays arrived in the major leagues after hitting .353 in Double A ball and .477 after 35 games of Triple A in 1951, he was called up to the major leagues in May.
When Mays, a phenom of legendary proportions, arrived in the majors, he immediately entered a slump that had him doubting his ability to make it at the major league level.
Failing to get a hit in his first 13 at-bats, Mays asked legendary manager Leo Durocher to send him back to the Millers, his Triple A team, based in Minnesota.
Durocher, who would become one of Mays’ staunchest defenders throughout his entire career, refused, telling Mays he was the Giants starting centerfielder as long as Durocher was manager.
The next day, fittingly enough, Mays got his first major league hit, a home run off the great Warren Spahn of the Boston Braves, to begin what would be an almost endless hit parade that would one day land him in the Hall of Fame.
After Mays’ initial doubts in his rookie season, he steadily improved, although his .274 batting average, 68 RBI and 20 homers (in 121 games) would be among the least productive seasons of his career.
No matter, Mays would go on to win the 1951 Rookie of the Year Award as the Giants won the pennant that season on Bobby Thomson’s infamous three-run homer that, to this day, remains one of the most prolific home runs in Major League Baseball history.
The thing I liked most about Mays — although he was definitely before my time — are the legendary stories I’ve heard about his child-like passion for the game of baseball.
Not only did he play the game with a skill level that is still unmatched, but for the majority of his career, he made the game seem fun — unlike some of today’s players who act as thought they are being tortured and forced to accept their annual millionaire salaries.
When Mays was still a relatively young player, he once said, “I can never understand how some players are always talking about baseball being hard work. To me, it’s always been a pleasure, even when I feel sort of draggy after a doubleheader.”
Before I go any further, I have to ask one question. How many professional baseball players not named David Ortiz display that kind of visible, child-like love for the game these days? Not many, that’s for sure.
Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Hall of Fame catcher, Roy Campanella once issued this eerily accurate statement about Mays and the game of baseball. “You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too,” Campanella said, referring to Mays.
Mays won two MVPs an incredible 11 years apart and hit 660 home runs (third most in major league history when he retired) despite playing in only 34 games in the 1952 season — and missing all of the 1953 season because of being drafted into military service.
In 1954, Mays returned and immediately earned the MVP by leading the majors with a .345 average, hitting 41 homers, knocking in 110 runs and scoring 119 (the first of 12 consecutive seasons with at least 100 runs).
Mays is also a member of the elite 3,000-hit club (3,283, No. 10 all-time) and has a lifetime average of .302. He also scored 2,062 runs and drove in an amazing 1,903 RBI.
He was also the first player to hit 300 homers and steal 300 bases (338 total). Astonishingly, Mays also led the National League in steals four consecutive seasons.
When the Gold Glove came into existence in 1957, Mays earned one 12 consecutive years and remains the only outfielder with more than 7,000 career putouts (7,095).
One of the things I love most about Mays is the simplicity he used in approaching a game that, at its very core, is as simplistic as it gets. “When they throw the ball, I hit it,” Mays said. “When they hit the ball, I catch it.”
On this date in 1979, Mays was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility and is now remembered with more reverence than at anytime before.
Sure, everyone knows about Mays’ famous catch off of Vic Wertz’s line drive, but, because of the era, which he played in, and the mindset of that generation, I’m not certain if he’ll ever be properly recognized or fully appreciated for his immense contributions to the game.
Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker once said of Mays, “What people don’t understand is what he went through. You’ll just never know. He played in a time when the world wasn’t as open-minded as it is now.”
“And to this day, he’s never gotten what a Ruth or a Cobb or Lou Gehrig have. You ever seen a Willie Mays movie? Me, either. So he’s had reason to be bitter. Whole bunch of us had reason.”
Bitter or not, in 21 seasons, Mays played 150 or more games, and more than 100 an additional five times — and firmly established himself as the greatest all-around baseball player of all-time.
One thing I do want to mention before closing this column out is the fact that Mays would probably have at least another 75 home runs had he not missed almost two entire seasons because of being drafted taking his now, 660 to 735, and surpassing Babe Ruth before Henry Aaron.
If Mays’ greatness wasn’t apparent before, it certainly should be now.
I know it is for me.