Willie Mays “The Say Hey Kid”
Any discussion of the best players in Major League Baseball history is incomplete without Willie Mays. The player known as the “Say Hey Kid” is statistically one of the best power hitters ever, but he also shone on the base paths and as one of the game’s greatest center fielders.
Born in Westfield, Alabama on May 6, 1931, Mays started his professional career in the Negro Leagues in 1948, while still in high school. In 1950, he was signed by the National League’s New York Giants and was in the majors the next May after hitting an astounding .477 in AAA ball. Despite not playing a full season and enduring a rough start at the plate, Mays went on to become the NL Rookie of the Year after hitting .274 with 20 home runs and 68 RBI in 121 games and helped the Giants reach the World Series. U.S. Army service meant he missed most of 1952 and all of 1953, delaying his next steps to stardom.
Cementing His Legend
Upon his return in 1954, Mays scaled those next steps, hitting .345 with 41 homers and 110 RBI. He won the major league batting title, was named an All-Star for the first time, and picked up his first NL MVP award in leading the Giants to another World Series berth. He made one of the most famous defensive plays in baseball history late in Game 1 of the series, hauling down a potential tie-breaking hit by Cleveland’s Vic Wertz with an over-the-shoulder catch on the run. The play known simply as “The Catch” proved pivotal as the Giants won the game and would take the World Series title in a 4-0 sweep.
That would be his only World Series triumph in four chances, but over the next two decades, Mays would stamp his place as an all-time great. He would play with the New York/San Francisco Giants until May 1972 before being traded to the New York Mets, with whom he finished his storied career in 1973. Over his 22 seasons in the majors, Mays hit .302 with 3,283 hits, 660 homers, 1,903 RBI, 2,062 runs scored, and 338 stolen bases. He was a two-time NL MVP (1954 and 1965) and a 24-time All-Star, and he won 12 consecutive Gold Gloves from 1957-68 for his outfield prowess.
An All-Time, All-Around Great
Those achievements only scratch the surface of his excellence. Many greats have come and gone, yet Mays continues to decorate the record books like few do. To date, he and Hank Aaron are the only members of MLB’s 500-homer club with a career batting average of at least .300 and at least 3,000 hits. He is one of eight players who have at least 300 homers and 300 steals. His godson, Barry Bonds, is also on that list, along with Barry’s father Bobby. Mays is the only player on that list with a .300 average.
Mays is also one of nine players in MLB history with multiple 50-homer seasons, one of seven in the 20-20-20 (at least 20 doubles, 20 triples, and 20 homers in a season) club, and one of four in the 20-20-20-20 (20+ doubles, triples, homers and stolen bases in a season) club. In addition, he was the first member of the 30-40 club, notching 36 homers and 40 steals in 1956. He also accomplished the rare feat of hitting four homers in one game, doing so on April 30, 1961.
Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1979, though his vote percentage of 94.68% would appear to be low given his stellar career. However, only three members at the time had received a higher percentage: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner, all of whom were elected in the first Hall of Fame election in 1936.
A Multi-Sport Sensation
While Mays made his impact on the baseball, his sporting talents were not limited to the diamond. In high school, he was a quarterback, fullback, and punter for the football team and was also a star on the basketball team.