Sunday, May 6, 2012

Happy Birthday, Say Hey!

Willie Mays making his famous World Series catch of Vic Wertz's drive,
Polo Grounds, New York, 29 September 1954

"Hard to believe, Harry."  So might the late Hall-of-Famer and inimitable Phillies broadcaster Whitey Ashburn have said were he (and his partner, Harry Kalas) still alive to know what takes place today.  Willie Mays, born on 6 May 1931, turns 81 years old today.  This irrepressible symbol of eternal youth while patrolling centerfield for more than 20 years for the New York and San Francisco Giants has now been retired from the game he defined for 39 years.

I can say without hesitation that Willie Mays is the greatest baseball player I have ever seen and probably will ever see.  To be sure, his older contemporaries Stan Musial and (especially) Ted Williams were better hitters.  Mickey Mantle had more raw power, walked more and, were it not for his leg injuries—the first of which, ironically, came when he was chasing a Mays fly ball in 1951—may have become the greatest player ever to play the game.  But, as his first manager, Leo Durocher, observed, no one ever combined the five major skill sets—hitting for average, hitting for power, baserunning, fielding, and throwing—the way Mays did.  Today I hear all sorts of decent players extolled as "five tool players."  Mays was the ultimate five tool player.  In an era when baseball's racial segregation had finally come to an end and rampant expansion had not yet diluted the talent pool, an era when baseball was unquestionably the "National Pasttime" it anachronistically still claims to be and, hence, still drew the best of America's athletes, Mays stood out.  Henry Aaron may have become the one to break Babe Ruth's home run record and set the career RBI record, but people over the age of 55 or so, those of us who watched and followed the game at the time, know who the greater player was (and this is emphatically not a knock on Aaron, who I believe remains better than any player since his time).

For his 13 prime seasons (1954-1966), Mays compiled a .315 average and a .601 slugging percentage. He averaged 117 runs, 40 homers, and 109 RBI per season during these years, in which he won the MVP award twice, in the first and penultimate of these seasons.  Never once did he strike out more than 85 times.  Amazingly, by today's standards, in his 1954 MVP season, while hitting .345 with 41 home runs, he struck out only 57 times.  But what sets Mays apart was his complete game.  His prowess in the field is legendary, and not exaggerated.  Only Rich Ashburn and, later, Garry Maddox, had his range, but neither had the cannon of an arm Mays had (the great Yankee Clipper himself claimed that Mays had the best arm he had ever seen).  When I hear younger people claim that Ken Griffey and Andruw Jones were just as good as Mays, if not better, I can only shake my head at their misguided presumption of generational superiority.

But it is as a baserunner that Mays ultimately sets himself apart from his closest peers.  Not only did he lead the league in stolen bases for four consecutive years (1956-1959), he led the league in stolen base percentage five times, the last of which came in 1970 (23 steals in 26 attempts) at the age of 40.  As a youngster I was amazed at his seemingly uncanny ability to score from first on a single.  Recent research has shown that he took the extra base (2 bases on a single, 3 bases on a double) an incredible 63% of the time—compare this with Rickey Henderson (55%), Mickey Mantle (54%), Maury Wills and Lou Brock (53%), Joe Morgan and Hank Aaron (51%), and (from a later time) Ichiro Suzuki (41%—no doubt today's bandbox stadiums account for this lower number).  Mays was fast, smart, and fearless on the base paths, unafraid of jarring home plate collisions, such as the one with Pat Corrales in July of 1965 which I still remember listening to on the radio in my bedroom in Ocean City, NJ.

Willie Mays was my childhood hero.  I am 55 now, and he remains the gold standard by which I will forever judge baseball players.  Yet he is now 81, not 33, like he was when I first started following the game in earnest in 1964.  One biblical verse that has always served as a salutary reminder to me is Isaiah 40:6: "All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field."  Nothing lasts forever while this earth languishes in its "bondage to decay" (Rom 8:21).  Nevertheless, on his 81st birthday, I can only wish that his flower continue to flourish.

Mays's 1966 Topps Baseball Card, which I bought in May of 1966 at Goodman's Five-and-Dime
on Eagle Road in Havertown, PA

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