How great was Mays? Ask his peers

May 6th, 2021

turns 90 today, but The Say Hey Kid will always be forever young. The excitement he displayed on the baseball diamond in the 1950s and '60s was second to none.

For MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds, it isn’t hard to figure out why Mays shined with the Giants.

“If you think about it, the players that came out of the Negro Leagues [like Mays did], they weren’t just good. They were exceptional,” Reynolds said. “The cream of the crop of athletes, Willie was the greatest. I think we overlook his athleticism and abilities.”

Angels outfielder Mike Trout has been, for quite a few years now, the best player in all of baseball, and he's almost assuredly on his way to the Hall of Fame. But Mays had Trout’s power and hitting skills, while also being among the best center fielders in baseball history, and a fantastic baserunner, too. So if you love watching Trout play, it’s worth learning about Mays, who brought more to the game than just his skills on the diamond. People who saw Mays play will say he had that flair, that gait and bounce in his step. Supreme confidence.

Even Mays knew how good he was.

"I think I was the best baseball player I ever saw," Mays told Newsweek in 1979.

Leo Durocher, Mays’ former manager in the early 1950s, predicted a bright future when Mays was just 21. Durocher accurately labeled him a five-tool player, and years later, he went so far as to say Mays was the greatest player he ever saw. Whenever Mays made a mistake, it took Durocher by surprise.

“Mays had it all,” Durocher told This Day in Baseball many years ago. “You only had to look at Mays, and he knew if he made a mistake, you didn’t raise your voice at Mays. You just look at him, smile and say, ‘Come on, Willie. You are the greatest player in the country. How could you make a mistake like that?’ His chest would puff out. He is the best player I ever laid eyes on.”

Mays routinely frustrated opponents with his fancy basket catches in center field, and his speed made the Road Runner look slow. His cap would fall off, and opponents could expect dirt in their faces when he slid into a base. Yes, he slid that hard. Mays had power like no other: 11 years of 30 or more home runs and 10 years of 100 RBIs or more in a season.

And don’t dare run on Mays’ arm. Cleveland knew this firsthand: It couldn’t score on a deep fly ball hit by Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. But while people often talk about Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch on that legendary play, Mays has often said it was the throw that prevented Larry Doby from tagging up and scoring from second base that he was most proud of.

“Mays was just that energetic guy that was always doing something to make his team win,” said former Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson, who played against Mays in the 1962 World Series.

How great was Mays? He ranks fifth in Major League history behind Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Cy Young and his godson, Barry Bonds, in career Wins Above Replacement (156.1).

“Willie Mays is the best player that ever lived,” said Orlando Cepeda, who played with Mays from 1958-1966. “He is the best outfielder, the best baserunner. Nobody is like Willie Mays.”

Mays the opponent

Facing Mays wasn’t easy, even if a pitcher had the advantage of a scouting report in front of him. Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins had such an advantage with the Cubs. His scouting report came from Durocher, his manager in Chicago, but it didn’t matter what Durocher said. Mays was 18-for-60 (.300) with four home runs and eight RBIs against Jenkins.

“Leo always told me Willie challenged you almost every pitch you threw,” Jenkins recalled. “If that ball was in the strike zone, he was swinging. … Willie Mays was similar to Roberto Clemente. They just challenged you every time a pitch that came to the plate. He was swinging.”

Al Downing, best known for his years with the Yankees and Dodgers, saw dealing with Willie Mays differently. Mays was his childhood hero. Downing was 9 years old in 1950 when he first saw Mays play for Class B Trenton, a Giants affiliate based in New Jersey.

Downing, known for allowing Hank Aaron’s record-setting 715th home run in 1974, didn’t face Mays until the early 1970s, when Downing was with the Dodgers. The pitcher claimed there wasn’t a lot of information available when it came to dealing with Mays, who was 4-for-11 with two home runs against the left-hander.

“What we looked at was the numbers that you put up,” Downing said. “Nobody knew about scouting reports. We didn’t have the statisticians and stuff.”

Mays’ numbers are among the best ever, but they don’t tell the whole story. He could make adjustments at the plate at a moment’s notice. Take his home ballpark, San Francisco's Candlestick Park. It was not conducive to hitting home runs over the left-field fence, thanks to the brutal, swirling wind.

“Many times, he would hit balls that would look like it would go over the fence in left field and the wind would bring the ball back [in play],” Cepeda said.

What did Mays do? He succeeded by hitting home runs to the opposite field. Mays ended up with 203 home runs at the ballpark. That’s 33 behind the all-time leader, Willie McCovey, a left-handed slugger.

Mays was not afraid to say how good he was on the field. In Game 7 of the 1962 World Series between the Giants and Yankees, New York was leading, 1-0, in the bottom of the ninth inning. With Matty Alou on first base with two outs, Mays hit a double down the right-field line. Alou advanced to third base and was held by third-base coach Whitey Lockman.

McCovey was the next hitter, and he lined out to Richardson to end the Series and give the Yankees their second straight title.

Years later, Richardson ran into Mays at an awards dinner. Mays told Richardson the results would have been different if he had been the runner on first and not the hitter at the plate.

“Mays said, ‘[If somebody else] hit the ball to right field, I would have scored and we would have won World Series.’ He probably would have,” Richardson recalled. “That describes Mays very much.”

Not the same player, but ….

By the time he joined the Mets in a trade for right-hander Charlie Williams and $50,000 on May 11, 1972, Mays was past his prime. Hampered by a left knee injury, he averaged 66 games in his two years with the Mets.

Gone were the power numbers and the high batting average. But he still managed to find a way to help the team win. In Game 2 of the 1973 World Series against the Athletics, with the score tied at 6 in the top of the 12th inning, Mays singled up the middle off closer Rollie Fingers, plating Bud Harrelson. It’s turned out to be Mays’ last hit in the big leagues. The Mets would win the game, 10-7, before losing to Oakland in seven games.

“On his good days, you could see why he was the greatest ever,” said Cleon Jones, who played with Mays when both were with the Mets in 1972 and ’73. “You could see flashes of his brilliance. Even when his knee was swollen, he went out there and tried to do a job. He was better with a bad knee than all of us with good knees.

“He didn’t share this with everybody. I was there. I saw it. After the games, he went back to the hotel and never left his room and rested. He was having problems just sleeping because the knee was so bad. But Willie Mays with one leg, he was still someone to be reckoned with.”

Mays’ impact off the field

Mays’ skills on the field made him popular off the field, too, especially with kids. Millions of kids wanted to be like Willie Mays. Everyone knows about the stickball games he played in the Harlem streets. His impact on kids were enormous. One kid whom Mays met was 19-year-old Dusty Baker, now the manager of the Astros.

Baker met Mays through former Major Leaguer and childhood friend Bobby Bonds in 1968. Baker, at the time, was nervous, but he wasn’t afraid to tell Mays that he admired his glove -- a kangaroo glove created by McGregor -- he had on his left hand. Mays gave Baker the glove. Baker was stunned.

“From then on, I was part of the in-crowd because of Bobby Bonds,” Baker said. “I was so lucky and fortunate. Willie has always been so gracious to me and all the young people. He is a free-hearted man.

“When I started working for the Giants [as a coach and manager] -- boy, how lucky was I to be in the company of Willie Mays every day. When I left the Giants, he would come in and meet all my players. I worked for the Reds and Cubs. He would come in and sign autographs. He would sit around and talk baseball. The guys loved it, and I loved for him to talk and stay as long as he wanted to. Willie is a great person and a great man.”

Mets analyst and former Major Leaguer Keith Hernandez grew up in San Francisco and always took advantage of watching the Giants on TV, which wasn’t often in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“He was a great player. The best player I ever saw,” Hernandez said. “I played in the Minor Leagues with Hal Lanier, [one of Mays’ teammates in San Francisco], and Hal said he was one of the smartest players he ever played with. [Mays] was really a leader in the clubhouse. He tried to get Hal to be one of the leaders in the infield. Mays knew how to position players. He knew how to play everybody. To me, that says it all.”

Mays still has that aura at 90. When current Giants manager Gabe Kapler met Mays for the first time last year, it was an overwhelming experience for the skipper. All Kapler did was listen to the stories Mays had to share. Kapler was also impressed with Mays’ firm handshake.

“You are talking to one of the few greatest players of all time, a San Francisco legend,” Kapler said. “He has meant so much to this franchise and -- by extension -- he means a lot to everybody in this clubhouse right now, myself included. Having the opportunity to interact with him is special. I think we’ll be celebrating his birthday with him.”