Positions: Outfielder
Teams: Birmingham Black Barons, 1947-1950; New York Giants, 1951-1952, 1954-1957; San Francisco Giants, 1958-1972; New York Mets, 1972-1973

Rookie Blues
When Willie Mays was called up to the Giants in May 1951, he had notched an incredible .799 slugging average while batting .477 for the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. All that Giants manager Leo Durocher asked of Mays was that he bat .250 and play the brand of center field he had in the minors. Mays jumped at the chance.

Mays had only one hit, a homer, in his first 26 major-league at bats. He sought out Durocher and, with tears streaming down his cheeks, said “Send me back, I told you I couldn’t hit this pitching.” To Durocher’s everlasting credit he admonished Mays to pull his pants up in order to decrease his strike zone, predicting he’d get two hits the next day. He also told the young star that he would be the Giants center fielder no matter how long his slump persisted.

By season’s end, Mays had socked 20 home runs while batting .274 as he captured The Sporting News National League Rookie of the Year honors.

Few players have combined grace, popularity, and accomplishment like Willie Mays. He was a beautiful fielder, a tremendous power hitter, an outstanding thrower, a canny baserunner, a huge drawing card, and a durable champion.

Born in 1931 in Westfield, Alabama, Willie Howard Mays was so advanced that by age 14 he was competing with the men on his father’s steel mill team. He played semipro ball at age 16 and was on the Birmingham Black Barons by 1947. He was one of the last players, and likely the best, to come from the Negro Leagues to the big leagues.

In 1950, the Giants signed him and sent him to the Inter-State League, where he batted .353. In 1951, he was batting .477 in the American Association when the Giants promoted him. The New York front office published an apology in the Minneapolis paper, understanding the impression Willie had made on Millers fans.

Leo Durocher demanded that Mays be promoted after the Giants started at 6-20. Although Willie started out 0-for-22, he had a galvanizing effect on the Giants. They came from 131/2 games back to force a playoff with the Dodgers, beating them on Bobby Thomson’s home run in the culmination of “The Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff.”

Mays hit 20 homers, perfected center field play, and won the Rookie of the Year Award. He also won the hearts of teammates and fans alike for his enthusiasm, good humor, squeaky voice, and incredible play. Leo said, “What can I say about Willie Mays after I say he’s the greatest player any of us has ever seen?”

Mays was in the Army for most of 1952 and all of 1953. With those years, Willie almost certainly would have broken Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record. In 1954, Mays returned to win the MVP Award, lead the league with a .345 average and a .667 slugging percentage, and hit 41 homers. His catch of a Vic Wertz drive in the Giants’ Series victory has become one of baseball’s most admired moments.

Willie led the NL in homers with 51 in 1955. He hit over 35 homers in 10 seasons, hit 40 homers six times (twice topping 50), and won five slugging crowns. In addition to his power, average, arm, and defense, add speed -- he won four stolen base and three triples titles. His biggest victory came over the skeptical San Francisco fans. When the Giants moved out to the West Coast in 1958, Bay Area fans remembered Joe DiMaggio and the old San Francisco Seals. Willie melted all resistance with his spectacular play.

Willie Mays
Willie Mays eludes Cardinals catcher Bill Sarni's tag to score for the Giants.

In 1962, Mays and the Giants again found themselves in a tie with the talented Dodgers. Willie led a powerhouse team to another playoff victory, scoring four runs in the ninth to earn the right to face the Yankees in the World Series. It was one of Willie’s best seasons, as he hit 49 homers and drove in 141 runs. In 1965, he won his second MVP Award by batting .317 with 52 homers and 112 RBI. Mays finished among the top six in MVP voting an amazing 12 times.

Mays won a dozen Gold Gloves in a row for his outfield play, from 1957 to 1968. Mickey Mantle, the man Mays was compared to most often, said “You have to work hard to be able to make things look as easy as Willie makes them look.” Willie retired with records for games, putouts, and chances for center fielders.

Willie Mays, the “Say Hey Kid,” showed true greatness in his longevity. At age 40 he led the league in walks, hit 18 homers, and was 23-for-26 as a basestealer. Though he hit as high as .290 only once in his final eight seasons, his lifetime average remained above .300. He spent his final two seasons back in New York, with the Mets. He was a near-unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame in 1979.

Here are Willie Mays' negro league totals*:

BA

G

AB

H

2B

3B

HR

SB

.263

130

460

121

10

2

5

3

*Note: Mays's negro league career statistics are incomplete.

And his major league totals:

BA

G

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

SB

.302

2,992

10,881

2,062

3,283

523

140

660

1,903

338

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