Willie Mays (1931- )

Willie Mays, 1961
Photo by William C. Greene, Fair use image

Willie Howard Mays Jr. was born May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama to Ann and William Howard Mays.  Both of his parents had been athletes.  Ann Mays was a high school track star while William Howard Mays had played semi-professional baseball in Birmingham’s Industrial League before becoming a steel mill worker and Pullman Porter.  Willie Mays Jr., loved baseball and by the time he was 14 he was playing on his father’s semi-pro club, the Fairfield Gray Sox.  At 16 Mays began his professional career with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Southern League.  Although he had become a professional, his father insisted he only play on weekends while school was in session.

The New York Giants noted Mays’s athletic ability and offered him a contract while he was still in high school.  He began playing with the Giants in 1951 at the age of 20.  During his first year in Major League Baseball Mays won Rookie of the Year honors. Mays excelled at every aspect of baseball; he hit for both power and accuracy, had great speed, a strong throwing arm, and perfect defense in the outfield. He is the only outfielder ever with more than 7,000 putouts. When asked if he ever misjudged a fly ball, Mays replied that he “missed two fly balls. Ten years apart.”

Willie Mays and Roy Campanella
Willie Mays and Roy Campanella

Mays not only excelled at every aspect of the game, but did so with trademark joy and happiness, often drawing comparisons to a child playing with friends. Early in his career it was common to see Mays playing stickball in the streets of Harlem with the neighborhood kids before going to play for the Giants. He would make bets with the pitchers on his team that he could “barehand” catch any fastball they threw at him. His smile and showmanship made Mays one of the most renowned baseball players of the 20th Century.

From 1951 to 1973, Willie Mays had 3,283 hits and 660 home runs. He was named National League Most Valuable Player in 1954 and 1965, and won twelve consecutive Gold Glove awards beginning with its inception in 1957. Mays played in a record 24 All-Star games, led the league in hitting once, slugging five times, steals and home runs four times each, and was the first player ever to reach 300 home runs and steal 300 bases. Mays played in four World Series spanning three decades.  He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.

After his 1973 retirement from major league baseball, Mays became a greeter at Bally’s Park Place Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City at an annual salary of $100,000.  His new casino employment however led Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to ban Mays from any position in Major League Baseball.  Newly installed Commissioner Peter Ueberroth lifted the ban on Mays and former New York Yankee Mickey Mantle in 1985.