Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays dead at 93

Willie Mays

Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Mays, the “Say Hey Kid” who thrilled baseball fans with his hitting and basket catches, died Tuesday, the San Francisco Giants announced. He was 93.

“My father has passed away peacefully and among loved ones,” Mays’ son, Michael Mays, said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “I want to thank you all from the bottom of my broken heart for the unwavering love you have shown him over the years. You have been his life’s blood.”

Mays, a graceful player who combined speed with power and baseball savvy, was the oldest living member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. During his career, he was a two-time National League Most Valuable Player and won a batting title. He hit 660 home runs, stroked 3,293 hits and drove in 1,909 runs. Mays earned 12 Gold Gloves and 24 All-Star Game berths.

“Today we have lost a true legend,” Giants chairman Greg Johnson said in a statement. “In the pantheon of baseball greats, Willie Mays’ combination of tremendous talent, keen intellect, showmanship, and boundless joy set him apart. A 24-time All-Star, the Say Hey Kid is the ultimate Forever Giant. He had a profound influence not only on the game of baseball, but on the fabric of America. He was an inspiration and a hero who will be forever remembered and deeply missed.”

Mays’ death came just before Thursday’s major league baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals at historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

Mays got his professional start in baseball with the Negro Leagues’ Birmingham Black Barons in 1948 and played at the ballpark, which was built in 1910, two years before Fenway Park opened in April 1912.

Mays spent parts of three high school years with the Black Barons and helped them reach the final Negro Leagues World Series in 1948, according to the Chronicle. After graduating from high school in 1950, Mays signed with the Giants for $4,000 and a $250-a-month salary, the newspaper reported.

Mays had been invited to attend Thursday’s game at Rickwood Field, but in a statement released Monday, had said he was remaining home in California to watch the contest.

Mays was a powerful hitter who collected 1,326 extra-base hits during his career, but his fielding drew gasps from baseball fans. His back-to-the-plate, over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz’s long drive in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series is simply known as “The Catch” and remains one of the great defensive plays of the Fall Classic. Mays, after making the catch, whirled and fired the ball back to the infield to preserve a tie game, won in the 10th inning by the Giants.

New York sportswriter Dan Daniel would write that all great catches “fade out of the book as the Mays classic moves to the top.”

Asked to compare the catch with others he had made, Mays shrugged.

“I don’t compare ‘em,” he said. “I catch ‘em.

Mays played 22 seasons in the major leagues, beginning in 1951 with the New York Giants. He followed the Giants west to San Francisco in 1958 and stayed with the team until 1972 when he was traded back to New York to play for the Mets. In his debut with the Mets, on May 14, 1972, Mays homered in his second at-bat against his former team -- his 647th career four-bagger.

Mays played in four World Series-- in 1951, 1954, 1962 and 1973.

“My definition of Willie Mays walking into a room is chandeliers shaking.” Leo Durocher, Mays’ first manager in the majors, wrote in his 1975 autobiography, “Nice Guys Finish Last.” “And what made him even more appealing was that he didn’t know it.”

There was always something magical about Willie Mays.

He was featured in two of baseball’s most iconic anthems: Terry Cashman’s “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey & The Duke)” in 1981, and John Fogarty’s “Centerfield” in 1985.

Mays made appearances on television shows, appearing three times on “The Donna Reed Show” and once on “Bewitched” and “Mr. Belvedere,” The Washington Post reported.

Author James S. Hirsch, who wrote a biography of Mays in 2010, said the player “represented the quintessential American dream.”

“He was the poor Depression-era Black kid from the segregated South who overcame insuperable odds to reach the pinnacle of society,” Hirsch wrote. “And he succeeded by hewing to the country’s most cherished values -- hard work, clean living, and perseverance.”

Mays may have beaten Hank Aaron to Babe Ruth’s home run record, but he lost nearly two years of military service in 1952 and 1953.

He did have the satisfaction of watching his godson, Barry Bonds, break Aaron’s all-time mark for home runs when the Giants slugger hit his 756th homer on Aug. 7, 2007. Bonds finished his career with 762 homers.

Willie Howard Mays Jr. was born May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama, and grew up in the mill towns outside Birmingham. His father, Willie “Cat” Mays, also played baseball. The younger Mays played baseball, basketball and football at Fairfield High School.

“He was always a great athlete,” childhood friend Otis Tate once said. “But he was better in basketball and football.”

Mays played a few months in 1950 with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues before his contract was bought by the Giants the day after he graduated from high school in 1950. Mays played one season at Class B Trenton and then was promoted to Triple-A Minneapolis in 1951. He was hitting .477 in 1951 with Minneapolis when he was called up to the major leagues, making his debut May 25, 1951, at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park.

Although Mays went 0-for-12 and 1-for-26 to start his career with the Giants, the one hit was a towering home run against future Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn.

“When I’m not hitting, I don’t hit nobody,” Mays once said. “But when I’m hitting, I hit anybody.”

“I think anyone who saw him will tell you that Willie Mays was the greatest player who ever lived,” teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Monte Irwin once said.

Mays was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama at the White House on Nov. 24, 2015.

Mays transcended baseball, and a generation of young players grew up running the bases with their caps flying off their heads.

Mays even got respect from football coaches.

When the University of Florida edged the University of Miami 17-14, on Sept. 4, 1982, the game-winning catch was made by James Jones. The fullback backpedaled toward the goal line, reached up and made a one-handed grab for a 17-yard touchdown catch.

“A Willie Mays deluxe,” Gators coach Charley Pell told reporters after the game.

Mays’ place in the civil rights movement was criticized during the 1960s, with some believing he did not do enough.

Jackie Robinson, who broke the modern color barrier in 1947, once called Mays a “do-nothing Negro,” the Post reported.

Mays did not “wish to stir things up,” Robinson wrote in his 1964 book, “Baseball Has Done It.” “But there’s no escape, not even for Willie … from being a Negro,” Robinson wrote.

In his 2020 book co-written with John Shea, “24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid,” Mays wrote that Robinson “did a lot of things for the race.”

“I did what I did. I didn’t always go out and talk in the public. Sometimes I’d do it behind the scenes,” Mays wrote. “I didn’t tell everyone what I did.”

Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, agreed with Mays.

“I understand where Jackie was coming from because he wanted Willie to be more like him and be on the front lines,” Kendrick told the Post. “But it’s not everybody’s calling to do that. Willie Mays made his own indelible impact on civil rights in a completely different way. What Willie did, and what the vast majority of those players did who transitioned from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues, was they demonstrated that there wasn’t a level of superiority (based on race).

“And it made people more cognizant that this (colorblind equality) shouldn’t be confined to the playing field but should be present in every walk of life.”

What baseball fans will remember about Mays was his electric style of play.

“Derek Jeter, as an example, is a great, classy player, with a franchise where history matters,” broadcaster Bob Costas told the Post. “But as great as he was, you can’t say he was as great a player as Mays.

“You have all the factors with Mays. The objective greatness. The charisma and magnetism and style. And then his personality. When you saw him interviewed, you just liked him. And he had great contemporaries to be measured against in Mantle and Aaron.”

Leave it to Durocher to have the final say on the Say Hey Kid.

“If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases, and performed a miracle in the field every day, I’d still look you right in the eye and tell you that Willie was better,” Durocher wrote in “Nice Guys Finish Last.” “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 the other magic ingredient that turns a superstar into a super superstar. Charisma. He lit up a room when he came in. He was a joy to be around.”

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