Mays won two MVP awards and tied Stan Musial's record with 24 appearances in the All-Star Game. Mays ended his career with 660 home runs, third at the time of his retirement, and currently fourth all-time. He was a center fielder and won a record-tying 12 Gold Gloves starting the year the award was introduced six seasons into his career.
Willie Mays' unquestionable career statistics and longevity in the pre-PED era, the more recent acknowledgement of Mays as perhaps the finest five-tool player ever, and the overwhelming consensus of many surveys and other expert analyses carefully examining Mays' relative performance, have led to a growing opinion that Mays was possibly the greatest all-around baseball player of all-time. In 1999, Mays placed second on The Sporting News's "List of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players", making him the highest-ranking living player. Later that year, he was also elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Mays is one of five National League players to have had eight consecutive 100-RBI seasons, along with Mel Ott, Sammy Sosa, Chipper Jones and Albert Pujols. Mays hit over 50 home runs in 1955 and 1965, representing the longest time span between 50-plus home run seasons for any player in Major League Baseball history.
Ted Williams said, "They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays."
Early lifeMays was born in Westfield, Alabama, just outside of Bessemer, Alabama. His father, who was named after president William Howard Taft, was a talented baseball player with the Negro team for the local iron plant. His mother, Annie Satterwhite, was a gifted basketball and track star in high school. His parents never married each other. As a baby, Mays was cared for by his mother's younger sisters Sarah and Ernestine. Sarah became the primary female role model in Mays' life. His father exposed him to baseball at an early age, and by the age of five he was playing catch with his father. At age 10, Mays was allowed to sit on the bench of his father's League games.
Mays played multiple sports at Fairfield Industrial High School, averaging a then-record 17 points a game in basketball and more than 40 yards a punt in football, while also playing quarterback. Mays graduated from Fairfield in 1950.
Early professional career
Negro leaguesMays' professional baseball career began in 1947, while he was still in high school and played briefly with the Chattanooga Choo-Choos in Tennessee during the summer. A short time later, Mays left the Choo-Choo and returned to his home state to join the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League. Mays helped them win their pennant and advance to the 1948 Negro League World Series, where they lost the series 4-1 to the Homestead Grays. Mays hit .226 for the season, but it was said his excellent fielding and baserunning made him a useful player. By playing professionally with the Black Barons, Mays jeopardized his opportunities to play high school sports in Alabama. This created some problems for him with high school administrators at Fairfield, who wanted him to help the teams and ticket sales.
Over the next several years, a number of Major League baseball franchises sent scouts to watch him play. The first was the Boston Braves. The scout who discovered him, Bud Maughn, had been following him for over a year and referred him to the Braves, who then packaged a deal which called for $7,500 down and $7,500 in 30 days. They also planned to give Mays $6,000. The obstacle in the deal was that Tom Hayes, owner of the Birmingham Black Barons, wanted to keep Mays for the balance of the season. Had the team been able to act more quickly, the Braves franchise might have had both Mays and Hank Aaron in their outfield from 1954 to 1973. The Brooklyn Dodgers also scouted him and wanted Ray Blades to negotiate a deal, but were too late. The New York Giants had already signed Mays for $4,000 and assigned him to their Class-B affiliate in Trenton, New Jersey.
Minor leaguesAfter Mays had a batting average of .353 in Trenton, N.J., he began the 1951 season with the class AAA Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. During his short time span in Minneapolis, Mays played with two other future Hall of Famers: Hoyt Wilhelm and Ray Dandridge. Batting .477 in 35 games and playing excellent defense, Mays was called up to the Giants on May 24, 1951. Mays was at a movie theater in Sioux City, Iowa when he found out he was being called up. A message flashed up on the screen that said: "WILLIE MAYS CALL YOUR HOTEL." He appeared in his first major league game the next day in Philadelphia. Mays moved to Harlem, New York, where his mentor was a New York State Boxing Commission official and former Harlem Rens basketball legend Frank "Strangler" Forbes.
New York Giants (1951–57)Mays began his major league career with no hits in his first 12 at bats. On his 13th at bat, he hit a homer over the left field fence of the Polo Grounds off future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. Spahn later joked, "I'll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I'd only struck him out." Mays' average improved steadily throughout the rest of the season. Although his .274 average, 68 RBI and 20 homers (in 121 games) were among the lowest of his career, he still won the 1951 Rookie of the Year Award. During the Giants' comeback in August and September 1951 to overtake the Dodgers in the 1951 pennant race, Mays' fielding, and strong arm were often instrumental to several important Giants victories. Mays ended the regular season in the on-deck circle when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard 'Round the World against the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the three-game playoff 2-1 after the teams had tied at the end of the regular season.
The Giants went on to meet the New York Yankees in the 1951 World Series. Mays was part of the first all-African-American outfield in major league history, along with Hank Thompson and Hall of Famer Monte Irvin in game one of the 1951 World Series. Mays hit poorly, while the Giants lost the series 4-2. The six-game set was the only time that Mays and the aging Joe DiMaggio would play on the same field.
Mays was a popular figure in Harlem. Magazine photographers were fond of chronicling his participation in local stickball games with kids. It was said that in the urban game of hitting a rubber ball with an adapted broomstick handle, Mays could hit a shot that measured "six sewers" (the distance of six consecutive New York City manhole covers, nearly 300 feet).
The United States Army drafted Mays in 1952 during the Korean War (1950-1953) and he subsequently missed most of the that season and all of the 1953 season. Mays spent much of his time in the Army playing baseball at Fort Eustis, Virginia. Mays missed about 266 games due to military service.
Mays returned to the Giants in 1954, hitting for a league-leading .345 batting average and slugging 41 home runs. Mays won the National League Most Valuable Player Award and the Hickok Belt as top professional athlete of the year. In addition, the Giants won the National League pennant and the 1954 World Series, sweeping the Cleveland Indians in four games. The 1954 series is perhaps best remembered for "The Catch", an over-the-shoulder running grab by Mays in deep center field of the Polo Grounds of a long drive off the bat of Vic Wertz during the eighth inning of game 1. Considered the iconic image of Mays' playing career and one of baseball's most memorable fielding plays, the catch prevented two Indian runners from scoring, preserving a tie game. The Giants won the game in the 10th inning on a three-run home run by Dusty Rhodes, with Mays scoring the winning run. The Giants went on to win the 1954 World Series, the team's last championship while based in New York. The next time was 56 years later when the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010.