Last Saturday, almost eleven years after his last appearance as a ballplayer, the San Francisco Giants retired Number 25, which last was worn by Barry Bonds. It was a festive occasion for the most part even though it continued their recent marketing strategy of living in the past. It was a real thrill to see so many of the past greats: Willie McCovey, Jim Leyland, Gaylord Perry, Dusty Baker, and others. I don’t think Jeff Kent was there. Former team mates like Kirk Reuter and Royce Clayton were also good to see. There is still a bit of sheepish uneasiness among many baseball people surrounding the likes of Barry Bonds and others from the Embarrassing Era. Such is not the case, however, with the Godfather, Willie Mays.
Mr. Mays, like his outfield partner Bobby Bonds and his godson Barry, has not always been the most charming speaker. He was charming Saturday and funny and sincere. He wants Bonds in the Hall of Fame, and he wants the Giants to build a statue of Barry near their ballpark right away. I’d much rather watch ballplayers play ball than talk, but I’m glad that I tuned in in time to hear Mays talk. Willie Mays is 87 years old now but I was still taken aback when he was finished and a woman helped him make it back to his chair with tiny little baby steps. That’s because this is the same man that I watched on film after I got home from school on September 29, 1954. The film showed him racing into that vast center field area in the Polo Grounds in New York to deprive Vic Wertz of the Cleveland Indians of an extra base hit in what has ever since been remembered as one of the greatest World Series defensive plays ever made. Mays, typically, has always said he’d made better plays than that one. The Cleveland team had finished the American League season with a record of 111-43, a full eight games ahead of the New York Yankees, but after that play they lost the game in ten innings when Dusty Blanketty Blank Rhodes hit a pinch homer. The Giants beat them in four straight. It wasn’t all Mays, of course, but that was the kind of effect he had on baseball in his 22 seasons.
As a 20 year old in 1951, Mays played 121 games for the Giants after an early season call up from their Minneapolis farm club. After a slow start,he became Rookie of the Year and New York won the famous “miracle” pennant in a playoff over the Brooklyn Dodgers after being 13.5 games behind on August 12. It occurs to me that it has now been 45 years since Mays played his last game. Therefore, before the honor gets bestowed on Mike Trout or Bryce Harper or some other relative newcomer, let me just say that he is definitely the best I’ve ever seen. Until further notice, he’s the greatest.
Mays missed most of the 1952 season and all of 1953 while performing military service, something that neither Trout nor Harper will have the opportunity to enjoy. That absence took so much out of his game that, when he returned in 1954, he was the National League Most Valuable Player, winning the batting title at .345 with 41 home runs. While he was gone, the Giants finished second and then fifth, 14 games under .500.
So it looked as though the Giants would be in the World Series every year that Mays was with them. However, the Dodgers and the Braves had some good players too. Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier and the National League in particular was eventually flooded with good players that played a different, better type of game than previously featured. The Giants fell to third in 1955 and then sixth the next two seasons as attendance dropped dramatically. Mays was doing his part, cracking 51 homers in ’55 and becoming a prolific base stealer as well.
The dramatic change came in 1958 when they moved to San Francisco so that Walter O’Malley’s Dodgers could have a California partner. The Giants’ fortunes improved and they remained contenders for most of Willie Mays’ tenure and won another playoff over the Dodgers in 1962 but that was the only World Series for Mays as a San Francisco Giant. He got there again in his last season, playing for the New York Mets at the age of 42.
It’s really not possible to use numbers to demonstrate what Mays did for his teams despite whatever Bill James says. Let’s give it a go, however, while bearing in mind that his base running, his fly chasing, his throwing arm, and his mere presence made everyone on his team play better. He led the league in stolen bases four times, in triples three times, in OPS five times. His 660 home runs are 92 fewer than Barry Bonds.His 140 triples were 63 more than Barry Bonds. His 6,066 total bases were 90 more than Bonds. They both played 22 years.