On May 6, Willie Mays celebrated his 81st birthday. During those 1950s years the baseball world couldn’t resolve the debate about who was New York’s best center fielder, Mickey, Willie or the Duke. As sports writer Red Smith said:
“Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. You could get a fat lip in any saloon by starting an argument as to which was best. One point was beyond argument, though. Willie was by all odds the most exciting.”
At the time, I lived in Los Angeles and didn’t qualify to have an opinion. In those days, major league baseball hadn’t yet arrived in California so my limited knowledge was based on stories I read in the great old Sports Magazine or in late newspaper box scores. I did, however, see May’s 1954 legendary World Series catch on a tiny black and white television screen. In the Series first game, Cleveland Indians’ Vic Wertz launched a tremendous shot to deep center field, Mays, looking over his shoulder, caught the ball and fired it back into the infield. (See it here.)
When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, Mays began the second phase of his outstanding career. After Mays retired, the Giants erected a statue of him outside AT & T Park, the address of which is 24 Willie Mays Plaza.
Not until 1972 did I watch Mays in person. Mays had agreed to return to New York as a Mets at owner Joan Payson’s behest. Payson had grown up rooting for the New York Giants; Mays was her favorite player. The 41-year-old Mays was washed up but he agreed to go to New York lured by the prospect that Mets had at least an outside chance of winning the World Series, an achievement that had eluded him since 1954
For parts of two seasons, Mays played like the roster liability he was. His hitting was negligible, his fielding erratic and his speed gone. Nevertheless, on September 25, 1973 at Shea Stadium the Mets held “Willie Mays Night.” Traffic, worse than for any visiting Pope, president or foreign head of state, was backed up from Queens to Manhattan. The Mets flew in Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial to be part of the celebration during which he was given three cars, plane tickets, a snowmobile and a mink coat for his wife.
Mays’ birthday celebration was more subdued. In the bottom of the second inning, Giants’ fans stood to sing “Happy Birthday” to Mays. And from the KNBR radio booth, announcers Jon Miller and Dave Fleming presented Mays with a cake.
For the next few innings, Miller and Fleming exchanged Mays’ vignettes. Time and again the announcers returned to Milwaukee where on April 30, 1961 Mays put on one of baseball’s greatest performances. That Sunday afternoon, Mays hit four home runs, two off Lew Burdette and one each off Don McMahon and Seth Morehead, and drove in eight runners. One of Mays’ titanic homers went so far into the stands that as play-by-play man Russ Hodges made the call, he noted that Henry Aaron—playing out of position in center field—never made a move for the ball as it soared above his head.
When the game ended, a 14-4 Giants rout, Mays was in the on deck circle. By that time, County Stadium fans hoped to see Mays get a shot at his fifth homer. When Jim Davenport grounded out, he got a lusty round of booing from the disappointed crowd.
Today, in addition to his responsibilities as an assistant to the Giants’ president, Mays also serves on the advisory board of the Baseball Assistance Team, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to helping former major League, minor League, and Negro league players through financial and medical difficulties.
Six decades after the who-is-better Mays, Mantle or Snider argument began, most historians give Mays the edge.
An interesting footnote: the Giants’ winning pitcher was Billy Loes who tossed a complete game. Most have forgotten (I know I did) that Loes closed out his career with the Giants where he pitched respectably during 1961 and 1962 ( 63 games; 9-7, 4.50 ERA).