Willie Mays, a baseball giant, dies at 93

June 19th, 2024

, the greatest Giant of all and one of the greatest baseball players ever, died Tuesday at the age of 93.

The thoughts of many around baseball were on Mays this week, with Thursday's MLB at Rickwood Field game in Birmingham, Ala., between the Giants and Cardinals set to be a celebration of Mays' career -- which began with the Birmingham Black Barons -- and of the Negro Leagues in general.

"All of Major League Baseball is in mourning today as we are gathered at the very ballpark where a career and a legacy like no other began," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. "Willie Mays took his all-around brilliance from the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League to the historic Giants franchise. From coast to coast in New York and San Francisco, Willie inspired generations of players and fans as the game grew and truly earned its place as our National Pastime."

"My father has passed away peacefully and among loved ones," Michael Mays said in a statement released by the Giants. "I want to thank you all from the bottom of my broken heart for the unwavering love you have shown him over the years. You have been his life’s blood."

Few ballplayers matched the multifaceted brilliance of Mays, who ranks sixth all time with 660 home runs and won 12 Gold Glove Awards for his defense in center field -- which he helped turn into the game's most glamorous position in the 1950s, when he, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider all played for New York clubs. Mays became the first player to exceed 300 homers and 300 stolen bases in 1969, reflecting his ideal blend of power and speed.

“Today we have lost a true legend,” Giants chairman Greg Johnson said in a statement. “In the pantheon of baseball greats, Willie Mays’ combination of tremendous talent, keen intellect, showmanship, and boundless joy set him apart. A 24-time All-Star, the Say Hey Kid is the ultimate Forever Giant. He had a profound influence not only on the game of baseball, but on the fabric of America. He was an inspiration and a hero who will be forever remembered and deeply missed.”

“I fell in love with baseball because of Willie, plain and simple,” Giants president and chief executive officer Larry Baer said. “My childhood was defined by going to Candlestick with my dad, watching Willie patrol centerfield with grace and the ultimate athleticism. Over the past 30 years, working with Willie, and seeing firsthand his zest for life and unbridled passion for giving to young players and kids, has been one of the joys of my life.”

At the time of his death, Mays was the oldest living Hall of Famer, inheriting that title on Jan. 7, 2021, when Tommy Lasorda passed away. Shortstop Luis Aparicio, 90, now holds that distinction.

As prodigious a hitter as Mays was -- he surpassed 50 home runs 10 years apart, in 1955 and 1965, hit four home runs in a game at Milwaukee on April 30, 1961, and batted .301 lifetime -- his signature moment might have been the over-the-shoulder catch he made in the 1954 World Series opener at New York's Polo Grounds, robbing Cleveland's Vic Wertz of a potential game-winning hit.

"He did so many remarkable things, it actually became routine," said former first baseman Willie McCovey, Mays' San Francisco teammate and fellow Hall of Famer. "We were so spoiled. He'd make plays that people would yell and talk about for months. We saw those plays every day, so it was no big deal. Hitting four home runs in one game probably was the least of the spectacular things he did."

Mays performed with a singular flair that made him one of the game's most popular stars. He used a basket catch to snare fly balls, holding his glove around waist level. He ran the bases with equal parts abandon and acumen, prompting the great Ty Cobb to declare that Mays restored the art of baserunning to the game. Displaying a refreshing enthusiasm early in his career, he frequently greeted people with a high-pitched "Hey," leading New York sportswriters to dub him "The Say Hey Kid." A generation of Little Leaguers and even professionals from coast to coast ached to wear No. 24, hopeful of emulating the great Mays.

"I'm not sure I know just what the hell charisma is, but I get the feeling it's Willie Mays," Cincinnati Reds first baseman Ted Kluszewski said.

Many wondered whether Mays, the first player to hit 20 or more home runs for 17 consecutive seasons (1954-70), could have broken Babe Ruth's all-time home run mark of 714 before Henry Aaron (755) or Barry Bonds (762) topped it. Mays played 886 of his 2,992 career games at San Francisco's Candlestick Park, where gusts frequently impeded long drives to left field.

"I only wish that we could have seen him play in a ballpark that was more conducive to his hitting," said Hall of Famer Joe Torre, a New York native who played against Mays. "He played in two very tough ballparks, both Candlestick and the Polo Grounds, that were very, very difficult because he was a gap [hitter] and both those ballparks were very difficult in the gaps."

But the right-handed-hitting Mays refused to use it as an excuse and simply adjusted. "I had two different types of swings. One was, I pulled the ball on the road, and in San Francisco I hit more to right-center," he said in a 1999 interview. "You can't hit a home run off a ballpark. You hit it off a pitcher. Of course I lost a lot of home runs [at Candlestick], but I couldn't worry about that ... Winning was more important than hitting a home run to me."

Mays still holds lifetime Major League records for putouts by an outfielder (7,095), homers by a center fielder (640) and homers in extra innings (22) -- most notably a 16th-inning drive that ended a classic scoreless standoff between Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal on July 2, 1963, in San Francisco.

Thriving in All-Star Games enhanced Mays' image as the consummate ballplayer. He holds or shares All-Star records for appearances (24), at-bats (75), runs (20), hits (23), triples (three), extra-base hits (eight) and total bases (40). His feats moved Ted Williams, another of the game's greats, to proclaim, "They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays." Mays received another All-Star tribute when he was honored before the 2007 Midsummer Classic at San Francisco's AT&T Park.

Mays' 1979 Hall of Fame enshrinement was a mere formality. He received 409 of 432 votes cast -- 94.7 percent, one of the highest ever to that point. In a news conference held shortly after his election to Cooperstown, Mays was asked to name the greatest player he ever saw. Posed with this question on other occasions, Mays often responded by citing Joe DiMaggio. This time, without insouciance or braggadocio, he replied, "I thought I was."

The story of Willie Howard Mays began in Westfield, Ala., on May 6, 1931, when he was born to Ann and Willie Howard Mays Sr., who was nicknamed "Kitty Kat." According to one story, perhaps fanciful, the doctor who delivered Mays exclaimed, "My God, look at those hands!"

A precocious athlete, Mays played baseball with his father on an industrial-league team in Birmingham. By age 15, he already was playing for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. Barons manager Piper Davis served as a tutor for Mays and is widely credited for helping him develop his skills.

After a few years, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees scouted Mays, but they were reluctant to sign Black players and passed on him, even though Jackie Robinson already had broken baseball's color line. However, the New York Giants had no reservations in June 1950 when scouts Eddie Montague and Billy Harris signed Mays for a bonus of $4,000, $6,000 or $15,000, according to various reports.

Mays reported immediately to Trenton, N.J., as the Class B Interstate League's first Black player and hit .353 in 81 games. He rose to Triple-A Minneapolis in 1951 and was batting .477 after 35 games when the Giants summoned him to the Major Leagues for his debut on May 25.

Mays went 0-for-12 in his first three games before homering off Boston Braves ace Spahn for his first big-league hit. But that was just a brief interruption as Mays plunged to 1-for-26. Finding Mays distraught in the Giants' clubhouse, manager Leo Durocher restored the rookie's confidence by insisting that he wouldn't return to the Minors and would remain the starting center fielder. Mays proceeded to hit .274 with 20 home runs, won the National League Rookie of the Year Award and helped the Giants stage an improbable late-season surge to secure the pennant.

Mays continued to adore Durocher throughout his life. "Leo was one of those who taught me early on that it was more important how I carried myself off the field than on the field," Mays said in "The Original San Francisco Giants," a 1998 book. "On the field it's baseball. Off the field it's, 'Do you want kids to look up to you?'"

Mays played only 34 games in 1952 and missed the 1953 season while serving in the Army, but returned in 1954 to hit a league-high .345 with 41 homers and 110 RBIs. He won his first of two Most Valuable Player awards and led the Giants to a World Series title -- the last one they captured in New York.

Mays moved to San Francisco with the Giants in 1958 and hit a career-best .347, .003 behind NL leader Richie Ashburn of Philadelphia. Off the field, he encountered struggles as a bigoted realtor refused to sell him a house. Mayor George Christopher, who was instrumental in luring the Giants to San Francisco, offered his home to Mays, who ultimately found an acceptable residence.

Initially regarding Mays as a New York leftover, San Francisco fans more warmly embraced first baseman Orlando Cepeda, who earned the NL Rookie of the Year Award in the Giants' inaugural season by the bay. But Mays gradually converted skeptics with his sustained proficiency. The ovation he received on May 4, 1966, at Candlestick Park upon hitting his 512th home run, which made him the National League's all-time leader, affirmed his status as a fan favorite.

"I'll always be part of San Francisco, and San Francisco will always be part of me," Mays said.

When The Sporting News named Mays its Player of the Decade for the 1960s, nobody argued. But after averaging .315 with 40 homers, 109 RBIs and 117 runs a year from 1954-66, Mays hit .278 from 1967-69, with 19 homers, 69 RBIs and 77 runs per season over that span. He surged in 1970, batting .291 with 28 homers and collecting his 3,000th career hit on July 18 off Montreal's Mike Wegener. And, while turning 40 in 1971, he drew a league-high 112 walks, stole 23 bases in 26 tries and contributed to the Giants' NL West title.

A stunning event occurred on May 11, 1972: The Giants traded Mays to the New York Mets for right-hander Charlie Williams and $50,000. The transaction had little to do with baseball and everything to do with Giants owner Horace Stoneham's high regard for Mays. Starting to feel financially challenged -- the Giants nearly moved to Toronto after the 1975 season -- Stoneham could no longer afford Mays' $162,000 salary and wanted to guarantee his superstar financial security after his playing career. The Mets could accomplish both, besides giving Mays the opportunity to end his career where it began.

Three days after the trade, Mays hit a dramatic homer in a 5-4 win over the Giants at Shea Stadium, and homered off them again on July 21 in his first game back at Candlestick. Otherwise, Mays rarely distinguished himself in a Mets uniform. In his final days as a player, he rapped a tiebreaking 12th-inning single in Game 2 of the 1973 World Series as the Mets defeated Oakland, 10-7, but he also shocked onlookers that afternoon by staggering in the outfield while pursuing a couple of fly balls.

In 1979, Mays and Mantle joined the Park Place casino in Atlantic City, N.J., as greeters. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended both from involvement in organized baseball, but Peter Ueberroth, Kuhn's successor, reinstated them in 1985. Sports Illustrated heralded the occasion by splashing a photo of Mays, Mantle and Ueberroth on its cover.

Mays rejoined the Giants as a special assistant to the president in 1986 and remained with the organization -- frequently counseling Bonds, his godson, through the rest of his career -- until his death.