Fellow 500 Home Run Club member Ted Williams once said "They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays.” And there is no doubt that Mays deserved each and every nomination to baseball’s grandest stage. No one played in more Major League All-Star games than Willie Mays, who appeared in 24 consecutive Mid-Summer Classics from 1954 to 1973.
The first MLB player to ever hit 30 or more home runs before the All-Star break (with 31 prior to the 1954 inter-league contest), “Say Hey” Willie Mays was made for primetime. In obvious agreement, Major League Baseball saluted Willie prior to the 1997 All-Star contest with an all-out celebration of his lifetime achievements and contributions to America’s Game. Enroute to winning two MVP awards, he cranked out 660 career home runs (fourth most behind Bonds, Aaron and Ruth) and eight consecutive 100-RBI seasons, which ties him with Mel Ott, Sammy Sosa and Albert Pujols for the most in a career.
The ultimate “go to guy”, Mays finished his career with a record 22 extra-inning home runs, and is the only player in MLB history to hit a home run in every inning from the 1st through the 16th frame of a regulation game. Along the way, he also set records for at-bats, hits, runs, extra-base hits, triples and stolen bases.
One of Willie’s proudest and most memorable moments came in 1954, when his New York Giants bested Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers for the World Series crown.
The highest-ranking living player on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, he is also a member of the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
Mays' first Major League manager, Leo Durocher, said of the Say Hey Kid: "He could do the five things you have to do to be a superstar: hit, hit with power, run, throw, and field. And he had that other ingredient that turns a superstar into a super superstar. He lit up the room when he came in. He was a joy to be around."
Upon his Hall of Fame induction, Mays was asked to name the best player that he had seen during his career. Mays replied, "I don't mean to be bashful, but I was.”
“What made Willie different was his desire,” says fellow 500 Home Run Club® member and honored Hall of Famer Ernie Banks. “He played the game as if he was the only one out there. His eyes would light up. His energy would kick in, and he’d be ready to go. He played so hard, it inspired me to get out there every game.”
Simple statistics do not do him justice. There was a .302 career batting average and 660 home runs, 1,903 runs batted in and 3,283 hits, substantial numbers that were skewed because he missed two seasons serving in the Army, and he played much of his career in windy Candlestick Park.
“He played in some unusual parks,” Banks said. “The Polo Grounds had strange dimensions for a power hitter. Candlestick was so windy. Willie adjusted to wherever he was playing. He hit the ball everywhere. He adjusted to the park and the team he was playing. He’s an amazing person. I once asked him what he thought about when he was at bat. He said: ‘I don’t think. I just see the ball and I hit it.’ ”
A 12-time Gold Glove winner, Mays was as much of a force on defense as he was with a bat. “There was nothing he couldn’t do,” said Dick Groat, the longtime Pittsburgh and St. Louis shortstop, who beat Mays for the batting title in 1960. “He played as well as anybody who ever played the game. He had no shortcomings. You knew in the clutch, he was always going to hit the ball hard. In the field, he was instinctive. He got a great jump on every ball. I was surprised when he didn’t make the play.”
“Willie played with a flair,” his teammate Monte Irvin said in the Hall of Fame yearbook. “I played with him almost six years, and some of the catches he made were just unbelievable. He had a great arm and he made those basket catches.” According to Irvin, although Mays is best remembered for “The Catch” made during the 1954 World Series in the cavernous centerfield at the Polo Grounds, when he turned and ran down the ball with his back to the plate…“That was about his third-best catch.”
“The best catch I ever saw him make came against the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, where he ran down a line drive by Bobby Morgan, dived through the air, speared the ball and was knocked unconscious when he landed,” Irvin recalls. “He backhanded the ball with the bases loaded, fell down and knocked himself out,” Irvin said. “But he still held on to the ball. Incredible.”
Mays never shied away from the glare of the All-Star spotlight. In 1968 in Houston during a season when pitchers dominated hitters, Mays built the only run of the game when he led off the first inning with a single, took second on an error, went to third on a wild pitch and scored on a double-play grounder. At 37, he earned his second All-Star Game Most Valuable Player award. Five seasons earlier, Mays drove in two runs and scored two others and was the M.V.P. in the National League’s 5-3 victory.