The career of The Say Hey Kid is one of the most storied in all of baseball. As part of our 90th birthday gifts collection, we revisit some decades-old Willie Mays newspaper articles and reflect upon the life and times of a sporting pioneer who celebrates his own 90th birthday on May 6.
Willie Howard Mays, Jr. was born May 6, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama. Sporting prowess was present in his DNA, with his father a local baseball player and his mother a basketball and track star. A young Willie excelled in high school at basketball, where he led Jefferson County in scoring, and football, remarkably playing as a quarterback, fullback and punter. But, thanks to the influence of his father, who regularly represented industrial teams while working in steel mills and iron plants, baseball was the path Mays decided to follow.
In 1948, aged 17, Willie Mays joined the Birmingham Black Barons, a professional team in the Negro American League. Due to the baseball color line, racial segregation prevented players of African descent from playing Major League baseball until 1947. Following the breaking of the racial barrier with the Major League appearances of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, 1948 saw the final Negro World Series, which Mays’ Barons made.
The Major League
Because Mays graduated a year late, he was unable to join a Major League team until 1950. Amidst interest from the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves, Mays signed with the New York Giants, eventually being called up on May 24, 1951.
Mays was named Rookie of the Year as the Giants reached the World Series, losing in six games to a Yankees team led by Mays’ childhood hero Joe DiMaggio. In Game 1, Mays, Hank Thompson and Monte Irvin made up the first African-American outfield in the history of the Major League.
Hitting the Headlines
Incredibly, immediately after his rookie season in 1951, Mays was drafted to fight in the Korean War, and remained in the army until the spring of 1954. After the Giants won the NL pennant in Brooklyn, the LA Times reported how the “sensational center fielder” had “ignited the ball club” with his return.
All things considered, 1954 was perhaps the greatest year in the Willie Mays timeline. The Giants, then still based in Manhattan, reached the World Series, with Mays becoming the National League batting champion and the season MVP. In the World Series, the Giants would face off against the American League champions, the Cleveland Indians. The Indians were heavily favoured on account of their 111 wins, an AL record that would subsequently stand for 44 years.
Nevertheless, New York swept the series to capture their first championship since 1933. A Game 1 play by Mays, with the score tied at 2-2 in the eighth inning, has since become regarded as one of the greatest in pro baseball history, and is now affectionately cemented in baseball folklore as “The Catch”.
Another of Mays’ finest games came on 30 April 1961. Against the Milwaukee Braves, Mays made headlines after hitting four home runs in a single game, a joint record which still stands today. Mays became the ninth Major League player to accomplish the feat; only nine more have managed it in the sixty years since.
LA Times, April 30 1961
On 18 July 1970, in a game against the Montreal Expos, Mays, now 39 years old, dominated the sports pages again by becoming only the tenth player in history to record 3,000 hits. As reported in the LA Times, Mays’ postgame response went far beyond modesty, as he stated:
“I didn’t feel any special pressure about reaching 3,000… I’m trying to help this club win ball games.” Mays would then add, “I don’t feel anything special now, but maybe in a couple of days I will”.
Conversely, the man at the wrong end of the historic hit, Expos pitcher Mike Wegener, refrained from playing down the momentousness of the occasion: “I wasn’t worried about him getting the hit… I was thinking that my place in life was to come up through the minors and give Mays his 3,000th hit.”
LA Times, July 18 1970
Willie Mays Baseball Cards
Willie Mays baseball cards, quite predictably, are among the most valuable in history. Numerous iterations are worth in the thousands, but three cards featuring the Say Hey Kid stand out in particular.
The 1953 Topps card (#244) is notable due to the fact that Mays didn’t actually play for the Giants that season because of his army drafting. Bowman cards didn’t even release a Mays card in 1953. Sales of this card have to date exceeded six figures.
A year earlier, Topps released their first ever Willie Mays card (#261). In 2016, a mint condition 1952 Topps Willie Mays sold at auction for $478,000, one of the highest amounts ever paid for a baseball card. Incidentally, the current record price is for a card from the same set ($5.2 million for a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle).
While Topps’ first Mays card was in 1952, Bowman released a Willie Mays card in 1951 (#305), which is consequently recognized as his only official rookie card. No mint condition version of this card has been sold officially since 2009, with as few as ten thought to still be in existence. Estimates of their value vary, but stretch as high as $800,000.
Willie Mays’ Legacy
Willie Mays played 21 of his 22 seasons with the Giants, remaining with the franchise after it relocated to San Francisco in 1958. The Giants recognized his incredible contributions by retiring his famous number 24 midway through his final season. In 1979 he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Adding to his decorated 1954 season, Mays won his second MVP award in 1965, at the age of 34. During his career, he made 24 All-Star appearances, second only to Hank Aaron. Mays was the recipient of twelve Gold Glove awards, still a joint record, and in 2007 was elected to the All-Time team. He was also voted onto the All-Time Major League team in 1997, beating out Ty Cobb for the center field position.
In 2015, Willie Mays was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Many of his former team mates and opponents, including the man with whom he shares his Gold Glove record, Roberto Clemente, have dubbed Mays the greatest to ever play the game.