When Willie Mays was a little boy in
Westfield, Alabama, a few might have imagined that the young boy playing sandlot ball
would become a world-famous star athlete. One who did imagine it was the boy's
father; both Mr. and Mrs. Mays were athletic. Mr. Mays played baseball on the
all-black teams of the segregated south, as his father before him. Mrs. Mays had
been a champion sprinter in her school. When Willie was growing up, his father
worked in a steel mill, and played on a semiprofessional team sponsored by the mill.
He began teaching Willie to catch a ball even before he could walk. By 14, Willie
joined his father on the mill team. His high school had no baseball team, so he
played basketball and football, but before he finished high school, it became clear that
baseball would be his career.
Willie Mays began his professional career
at age 16, playing with the Birmingham Black Barons in the segregated Negro Southern
League. While his father avidly supported Willie's ambition to be a professional
ball player, he also insisted his son finish high school. In his first year with the
Barons, Willie was restricted to playing home games so he wouldn't miss school. The
day he graduated from high school, he was signed by the New York Giants. First, the
Giants sent Mays to their Class B farm team in Trenton, New Jersey, but he quickly
advanced to their AAA farm club, the Minneapolis Millers.
He was only 20 in 1951, when he received
the phone call to join the Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York City. Mays got of
to a rocky start in the majors, going hitless in his first 12 times at bat. Other
managers might have panicked and sent the rookie back to the minors, but the Giant's Leo
Durocher had faith in his young centerfield, and Mays broke his hitless streak with a home
run blasted over the left field roof. It took another 13 at-bats for Mays to get his
second major league hit, but he soon got the knack of hitting major league pitching and
hit another 19 home runs before the season was out. His spectacular fielding was
already making headlines. In the first season, he made one of his most spectacular
Playing against Pittsburgh, he raced across
the field to stop a 475-foot drive with his bare hand. His performance drove the
team for the rest of the season. The Giants won the National League pennant that
year. This promising career was briefly interrupted when Millie Mays was drafted
into the Army. His team failed to win the pennant during the two seasons he was
absent, but he returned to the Giants in 1954, to lead them into the World Series against
the Cleveland Indians.
The Giants won the Series in four straight
games, the first of which turned on an extraordinary over-the -shoulder catch by
Mays. Although this is still one of the most talked about plays in baseball history,
the personal favorite of Mays himself is an incredible flying catch he made in the 1955,
All-Star game. Joe DiMaggio said Mays had the greatest throwing arm in
baseball. Mays 7,095 putouts are the all-time record for an outfielder, but Mays
excelled as a hitter as well. His career batting average was .302. For eight
years running, he drove in more than 100 runs a year, and his 660 home runs put him in
third place for the all-time home run record.
He won the Gold Glove Award 12 times.
He was voted Most Valuable Player in the National League in both 1954, and 1965.
Small wonder one sportswriter remarked that "Willie Mays should play in handcuffs to
even things up." When the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958,
Mays had to struggle to win over a new hometown crowd. In 1962, he led the Giants to
another pennant victory and in 1964, became team captain.
In 1966, the Giants signed him to a new
contract, making him, for a time, the highest-paid player in the history of the
game. While in San Francisco, he also made a reputation as a peacemaker, breaking up
a bat-swinging fight between two players, and calming a potentially explosive situation
that arose when the team manager made racially insensitive remarks to a
sportswriter. In 1972, Willie Mays returned to New York to play for the Mets.
During the baseball strike of that year,
many players feared that the veterans like Mays would not have the patience to see a long
strike through. Even though he risked missing his last season, Mays was stalwart,
and his solidarity with the younger players won him their renewed admiration. After
hanging up his glove in 1973, Willie Mays remained for a time with the Mets organization
before becoming a public relations executive with Bally's Resorts and
Colgate-Palmolive. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979. In
1986, Willie Mays returned to the San Francisco Giants organization, where he serves as
special assistant to the president of the club. In 1993, the Giants made this a
lifetime appointment. His position in the history of his sport will last even
longer. In baseball, Willie Mays is one of the immortals.