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Black History Month: Willie Mays

Jerry Crasnick   02-26-2019

Willie Mays’ impact on the game can best be summarized in the array of superlatives that people used to describe him.

There was Mays the hitter, who slugged 660 home runs, scored 2,062 runs and amassed 3,283 hits on the way to making 24 career All-Star teams.

“As a batter, his only weakness is a wild pitch,’’ said long-time MLB manager Bill Rigney.

There was Mays the center fielder, a 12-time Gold Glove Award winner whose range, speed and uncanny instincts frustrated opposing hitters on a regular basis. His over-the-head catch and spinning throw off Cleveland’s Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series remains one of the signature moments in MLB history.

"I can't very well tell my batters don't hit it to him. Wherever they hit it, he's there anyway,’’ said Gil Hodges.

And there was Mays the “Say Hey Kid’’ -- the quintessential monument to charisma. Actress Tallulah Bankhead reportedly said “the only two geniuses in the world’’ were Willie Mays and William Shakespeare.  In a 1960 Ebony magazine profile, Bankhead described Mays as “a perfectly charming man . . . the greatest all-around ballplayer in the world . . . a master showman with a spectacular touch.’’

Willie Mays was born on May 6, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama, near Birmingham. Legend has it that he began walking at six months and quickly gravitated to chasing a baseball around the house. Mays grew up amid humble means and publicly recalled how there were times when he had to walk to school without any shoes.

Baseball proved to be his salvation and his route to greatness. Mays played for the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro Leagues as a high schooler and signed his first professional contract with the New York Giants shortly after his 19th birthday. He received a signing bonus of $4,000 and reported to Trenton in the Class B Interstate League.

After a brief stop with the Minneapolis Millers in the American Association, Mays made his major-league debut against the Philadelphia Phillies at Shibe Park on May 25, 1951. After missing the 1953 season because of military service, he never looked back.

Mays spent his entire career with the New York and San Francisco Giants before being traded to the Mets in May of 1972 for pitcher Charlie Williams. He said his goodbyes to a crowd of 43,805 with a retirement speech at Shea Stadium on Sept. 25, 1973.

In Mays’ first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1979, the Baseball Writers of America elected him to Cooperstown with 94.7 percent of the vote. Many observers wondered how 23 of the 432 voters that year saw fit to say no to his candidacy.

“This country is made up of a great many things,’’ Mays said in his induction speech. “You can grow up to be what you want. I chose baseball, and I loved every minute of it.’’