Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Great Willie Mays

SUNDAY, MAY 6, 2012

Maybe I was born to play baseball.  Maybe I truly was.   
Willie Mays
The Say Hey Kid turns 81 years old today.  Born William Howard Mays, Jr. on May 6, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama, near Birmingham, Willie Mays was the son of a steelworker.  His father, Willie Sr.(known as "Cat" Mays because of his quickness), played centre field in the local semi-pro Birmingham industrial league.  His mother, Annie Satterwhite, had been a high school track star. With such an athletic background, young Willie took to baseball with ease.  By the time he was 13, he was playing on a semi-professional team called the Gray Sox.

Willie's professional career began in 1947 when he played briefly for the Chattanooga Choo-Choos in Tennessee while school was out for the summer.  He returned to Alabama and joined the Birmingham Black Barons, the local Negro League franchise.

In 1947, while Willie Mays was playing centre field for the Black Barons, Jackie Robinson succeeded in breaking baseball's colour barrier.  After Robinson's success, major league scouts attended Negro League games in search of gifted African-American players.  One such scout for the New York Giants noticed Willie at a Black Barons game.  He provided an enthusiastic report on Mays to the Giants organization.  As a result, the New York Giants signed Willie as an amateur free agent in 1950.  He was offered a $4,000 bonus and $250 a month salary to play for their minor league team, the Trenton Giants of Trenton, New Jersey.

Willie played his very first major league game on May 25, 1951.  The 20-year-old was  batting a sizzling .477 for the Giants' AAA affiliate, the Minneapolis Millers, when he was called up to the Big Show.  Giants manager Leo Durocher asked him if he could hit .250 for the team and the up-and-coming centre fielder told Durocher that he was capable of doing so.  Was he ever right!

Willie Mays more than exceeded expectations during his first season in the majors.  His batting average was  .274.  He slugged 20 home runs and knocked in 68 RBIs.  In addition, Willie was chosen the National League's Rookie of the Year in 1951 and the Giants appeared in the 1951 World Series.

Here is how Durocher described his talented young player:

He could do the five things you have to do to be a superstar: hit, hit with power, run, throw and field.  And he had that other ingredient that turns a superstar into a super superstar.  He lit up the room when he came in.  He was a joy to be around.

In 1952, with the United States involved in the Korean War, Willie Mays was drafted by the U.S. Army He missed most of the 1952 season and the entire 1953 season due to military service. When he returned to the Giants in 1954, Mays was on fire!  He led the league with a robust .345 batting average, hammered 41 home runs and was chosen as the National League Most Valuable Player.  The biggest impression he made, however, was in the 1954 World Series in which the New York Giants faced the Cleveland Indians.

In Game One of that '54 Series at the Polo Grounds in New York, Willie Mays made one of the the most memorable plays in major league baseball history. His  incredible feat of athleticism, immortalized as "The Catch," was an off-the-shoulder running catch of a Vince Wertz fly ball.  With his back turned away from the infield, Mays nabbed Wertz's long drive near the outfield wall..  It was the eighth inning and the game was tied 2-2 with Cleveland runners on first and second base..  Willie's catch preserved the 2-2  tie and the contest went into extra innings.  The Giants scored three runs in the tenth inning to win the game 5-2.  New York then defeated Cleveland in the next three games, sweeping the Series four games straight.

To watch a video of Willie's famous catch (September 29, 1954), click on the link below.

During the 1955, 1956 and 1957 seasons in New York, Willie Mays continued to perform well.  In 1956, he slammed 36 homers and stole 40 bases.  In 1957, he was awarded the first of his 12 consecutive Gold Gloves.  After the '57 season, the New York Giants moved west to San Francisco.and Mays began a new chapter of his career in California.  He spent over 14 years in the City by The Bay and became a fixture there.

Willie finished his first season in San Francisco with a career-high .357 batting average and he was named team captain before the start of the 1960 season.  With Mays leading the charge, the Giants captured the National League pennant in 1962.  They were defeated 4 games to 3 in the World Series, however, by the New York Yankees

The 1965 season was a memorable one for Willie Mays.  He won his second MVP award and hit a career-high 52 home runs.  On September 13, 1965, Willie hit his 500th major league home run.  Four years later, he reached another milestone in his career when he smashed his 600th homer off San Diego Padres pitcher Mike Corkins in September of 1969.

During his time with the San Francisco Giants, Willie became close friends with teammate Bobby Bonds.  He became the godfather of Bobby's son, Barry Bond, who was disgraced in a well-publicized steroids scandal.   Bobby died on August 23, 2003 at the age of 57 of complications from lung cancer and a brain tumor.

In May of 1972, 41-year-old Willie Mays was traded to the New York Mets for pitcher Charlie Williams and $50,000.  Mays played a season and a half  (133 games) for the Mets and finished his career in the Big Apple.  He retired after the 1973 campaign and the Mets hounoured him with a Willie Mays Night on September 25th, 1973- but it was not over yet!  The New York Mets, under manager Yogi Berra,  made it to the World Series that year.  Their American League opponents were the Oakland Athletics.

The 1973 October Classic was Willie's fourth as a major league player.  The others were 1951 and 1954 (with the New York Giants) and 1962 (with the San Francisco Giants).  The 42-year-old slugger recorded the final hit of his career in Game 2 of the '73 World Series but the Oakand A's went on to prevail over the Met in seven games.  Willie Mays made his final major league appearance in that Series.

As any baseball fan knows, baseball is a game of statistics and Willie Mays had some very impressive ones.  Willie ended his career with 660 home runs and a lifetime batting average of .302.  In 22 major league seasons, he collected 1,903 RBIs and 3,283 hits.  He hit more than 50 home runs in both the 1955 and 1965 seasons.

Mays was criticized for continuing to play when he was over the age of 40 and clearly past his prime.  In defending his decision to keep on playing, he said, "You know, a lot of people said when I was 40, I should quit, but I don't think so.  You should play as long as you can and as long as you enjoy the game.  In '73, I wasn't enjoying the game, so I quit in May.  I retired, and they wouldn't let me retire.  So I finished up in the World Series.  But I say to players: Play as long as you can, because you only have one chance."

Willie Mays is one of the greatest baseball players of all time.  He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility, with 95% of the votes cast.   During his career, he amassed 12 Gold Gloves, participated in four World Series and played in 24 All-Star games.  Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams once said, "They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays."

Happy Birthday, Willie Mays!  You were born to play baseball.  You truly were.


* Willie Mays has been married twice.  He wed Margherite Chapman on February 14, 1956 and they adopted a son, Michael, born in 1959.  The couple divorced in the early 1960s and Willie married Mae Louise Allen on November 27, 1971.

* No one knows exactly how Willie acquired his nickname, the "Say Hey Kid."  "Say Hey" was apparently a phrase he used to attract the attention of someone whose name he did not know.  According to one story, sports journalist Jimmy Cannon came up with the nickname because when Mays first arrived in the big leagues, he was not familiar with everyone's name.  Willie was quoted as saying, "You see a guy, you say, 'Hey man.  Say hey, man.  Ted was the 'Splinter.'  Joe was 'Joltin' Joe.'  Stan was 'The Man.'  I guess I hit a few home runs, and they said there goes the "Say Hey Kid.'"  According to another story, Barney Kremenko of the New York Journal heard Willie call out, "'Say Who, 'Say What,' 'Say Where,' 'Say Hey.'" and dubbed him "The Say Hey Kid" in 1951.

* Willie Mays bats right and throws right.  Baseball lists his height at 5 '10'".

*  It's interesting to note that Willie Mays failed to hit a home run in any of the four World Series in which he played.  He won only one World Series ring (the 1954 Series against Cleveland).

*  Willie was in the on-deck circle when Bobby Thomson hit "the shot heard 'round the world" on October 3, 1951.  With Thomson's home run, the Giants defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the National League pennant.  The Giants went on to the World Series but were defeated 4 games to 2 by the New York Yankees.  In Game One of the '51, Willie Mays was part of the first all-black outfield in major league baseball history.  That outfield was comprised of Willie, Hall of Famer Monte Irvin and Hank Thomspson.

* The San Francisco Giants retired Mays' number 24.  The address of their stadium, AT&T Park, is 24 Willie Mays Plaza.  A huge statue of the centre fielder stands in front of the main entrance of the ballpark.

* On February 10, 2010, Willie Mays appeared on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart.

- Joanne

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