Willie Mays had one of the most illustrious careers in baseball history.
The "Say Hey Kid" truly did it all. He racked up accolades as few other players did. Mays crushed 660 home runs and swiped 338 bags while playing phenomenal center-field defense. Only Mays, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez have hit more than 500 home runs and stole more than 300 bases. His 156.1 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) trail just four players and has been surpassed only by Bonds (162.8) since Mays retired.
Mays had plenty of memorable moments to support his legendary career. His miraculous catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series at the Polo Grounds remains one of the iconic moments in the sport's history and is arguably his own signature moment. Next on that list of top moments might be the time when he homered four times in one game.
On this day 62 years ago, Mays homered not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times in a game against the then-Milwaukee Braves at Milwaukee County Stadium. At the time, Mays was just the seventh player to accomplish this feat. It would take nearly 15 years for it to happen again when Mike Schmidt pulled it off in 1976. Even now, the list of players to homer four times in a game only stands at 17 players, with J.D. Martinez being the last to achieve it in 2017.
Ironically enough, Mays nearly sat this game out. After dealing with a bout of food poisoning the night before, Mays told Giants manager Alvin Dark that he wouldn't be able to play that day. That is until teammate Joey Amalfitano offered up his new bat for Mays to try out during batting practice. In his own words, Mays proceeded to hit every single ball over the wall with the bat during batting practice. Mays quickly reconsidered his decision and Dark penciled him into the lineup.
The decision to play immediately paid dividends when Mays hit a solo home run to center field in his first plate appearance in the top of the first inning. Next time up, he blasted a two-run home run to put the Giants ahead by one run. After flying out to center field in his third plate appearance (a ball that allegedly almost left the yard too), Mays crushed a three-run home run his next time up. In his fifth and final plate appearance, Mays added a two-run home run, giving him a grand total of four in the game.
What's even harder to believe is Mays himself was not the only future Hall of Famer who hit multiple home runs in this game. On the other side, Hank Aaron hit two home runs of his own. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Mays and Aaron's six combined home runs are the most in a single game by two opposing players who would eventually become Hall of Famers. Just for good measure, Orlando Cepeda, Mays' teammate and another future Hall of Famer, also homered in this game.
Mays' four-home run game was just the beginning of the biggest power stretch of his career. From 1961-65, Mays crushed 226 home runs (an average of 45 per season), the most of any five-year stretch in his career. Those 226 home runs also led all MLB hitters during that time, ahead of the aforementioned Aaron (179) and Harmon Killebrew (213), another future Hall of Famer.
This power stretch also coincided with the best all-around peak seasons of Mays' career. After establishing himself as a beloved superstar for the New York Giants in the 1950s, the organization made its cross-country trek to San Francisco in the 1958 season. From the Giants' inaugural season in California in 1958 through '66, Mays was the clear-cut best player in the game.
Mays' numbers and ranks among position players (min. 1,000 games), 1958-66
- 355 home runs, 1st
- 88.5 WAR, 1st
- 74.3 Offensive WAR, 1st
- .590 SLG, 1st
- 165 OPS+, 2nd
- .312 BA, 3rd
- .388 OBP, 4th
- 13.8 Defensive WAR, 5th
- 160 stolen bases, 5th
This brings it back to Mays homering four times in a game that he nearly sat out due to illness. This is a good encapsulation of the player Mays was and the legendary career he played. It didn't matter where he was; whether he was making over-the-shoulder catches in the World Series at the Polo Grounds, bashing home runs through the infamous San Francisco conditions at Candlestick Park, or anywhere else in between, Mays was always the star of the show.
Mays' four-home run performance might not be the top moment in his career but it's certainly up there. It's also another reminder of just how good and memorable of a career The "Say Hey Kid" had.