There was something about that baseball card. For one thing, the 587 under the “HR” column, far and above the corresponding number on any other player’s card, absolutely wowed a five-year-old who thought that home runs were the primary measure of a player’s greatness. For another thing, there was that incredibly broad and engaging smile on the photograph. Finally, there was, as I remember it, some sort of “fun fact” about how this player was particularly known for going out of his way to be nice to children.
Somewhere around that time came the greatest catch I ever saw. No, it wasn’t “The Catch,” the famous Polo Grounds snag of the ball blasted by Cleveland’s Vic Wertz; that one came ten years before I was born. This catch was even better. My memory might embellish the reality a little, but it went something like this: A drive to right-center in Candlestick Park. Two incredibly fast outfielders at full sprint in pursuit. Bobby Bonds, from right field, arrived at the ball and the fence at the exact same time. So did my player, streaking over from center. He arrived at the same place at the same time. Two players, at full sprint, hit each other and the fence simultaneously. Both players fell in disheveled, oddly angled heaps. One of them may even have been temporarily knocked unconscious. Then came the dawning realization: Nobody seemed to know where the ball was.
Then, from the centerfielder, still in a heap on the ground, the gloved hand raised up, like that arm in the promo for the movie Deliverance. The glove opened. The world could see: The ball was snugly inside. The batter was out. Willie Mays’ glove once more had become the place, as an opposing team’s executive once said, “where triples go to die.”
I was hooked on Willie Mays for life. And the more I learned about him, the more I liked. I found out that the stories of his manifold kindnesses to kids were true. I saw him act as a peacemaker in the 1973 League Championship Series when Mets fans were throwing objects at Cincinnati’s Pete Rose. I read about how he had run to the aid of opponent Johnny Roseboro, rather than joining in the brawl, when his teammate Juan Marichal beat Roseboro on the head with a bat. I heard how he had taken time to take a troubled, athletic gang member named O.J. Simpson around San Francisco one day, by Simpson’s own testimony turning the youth’s life around. (Okay, okay, I didn’t know in 1973 that O.J. would revert to form two decades later.)
Everything about Mays seemed admirable. And, of course, his record as a ballplayer, even as he faded into mediocrity on the field by the time I was nine years old, remained absolutely nonpareil.
Today (as indicated by the headline), the Say Hey Kid turns 80 years young. I happen to be reading, thoroughly enjoying, and marveling at, Mays’ official biography by James S. Hirsch, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend. What I am finding is that it was all true: Just about all the heroic qualities that my younger, innocent self had ascribed to Mays turn out to be qualities Mays usually exhibited. He was an ever better player than can be imagined — and a good and kind and generous man.
His remarkable career statistics, especially the 660 home runs when all was said and done, actually understate his brilliance. He lost nearly two full seasons to military service; the year he returned, he hit 41 home runs. Give him just 30 in each of the two previous years and he would have passed Babe Ruth before Henry Aaron did. But wait: There’s more. He played almost his entire career in two of the worst home parks ever for home run hitters. New York’s Polo Grounds did have an incredibly short left-field foul line, conducive to homers, but Mays’ power was to the “alleys” — and the Polo Grounds’ right- and left-center alleys were cavernous. No park today has fences remotely as deep. Then there was San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, plagued by winds that particularly beat back drives to left field, which is exactly where the right-handed Mays pounded the ball. Author Hirsch reports that today’s sophisticated statisticians estimate that Candlestick alone cost Mays between 80 and 160 home runs during the course of his career (Mays himself estimates it was around 120). Put Mays in Milwaukee’s park or Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, and he might have approached 800 career homers, even without recouping his two military seasons.
And that was during some of the tougher years for hitters in Major League history. Throughout much of the 1960s, pitchers had a statistical advantage, especially in Mays’ National League. Those were the years when Sandy Koufax was tallying ERAs of 2.54, 1.88, 1.74, 2.04 and 1.73, while Bob Gibson (a few seasons later) was posting ERAs of 2.44, 2.98, 1.12 and 2.18.
Mays led his league in hitting once (and second three times), walks once, on-base percentage twice (including at age 40!), stolen bases four times, home runs four times, triples three times, runs twice, slugging five times (and second-place twice). Ten different times he led the league in the stats-nerds’ new favorite category: wins above replacement player. He won Gold Gloves for the first 12 consecutive seasons the award was given (and surely would have won in the three previous years if the award had existed). His 7,095 career putouts easily lead all outfielders in history. And, by all accounts, he made more visually spectacular plays, with his glove and with his arm and with his base-running, than can easily be fathomed. Scoring from first base on singles, repeatedly. Advancing from first to third on ground-outs, repeatedly. Scoring from second base on sacrifice flies. And always doing so with a showman’s flair.
“I’m not sure what the hell charisma is,” said slugger Ted Kluszewski, “but I get the feeling it’s Willie Mays.” Or, as the actress Tallulah Bankhead said in 1962, “There have been only two geniuses in the world: Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.”
It’s quite possible, however, that not even The Bard’s poetry could have done justice to the Say Hey Kid.