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Willie Mays: A Legendary Baseball Icon That We Can Never Forget

The Early Years

Willie Mays was born in Westfield, Alabama, some ten miles west of Birmingham, in 1931, and he later admitted that he sometimes went to school barefoot. But 73 years later, in 2004, he received a Doctorate of Humane Letters from Yale University. He went on in 2007 to receive another doctorate from Dartmouth, and then in 2009 he gave the commencement address at San Francisco State University, and was awarded yet another doctorate in Humane Letters.

The man’s field of expertise, however, was not academics. The three degrees were all honorary. In fact, he never even came close to attending college at all.

In Fairfield Industrial High School, he trained to work in a laundry. But his real interest was on the playing fields. He quarterbacked the Fairfield football team, and averaged 20 points a game for the basketball team.

Baseball Takes The Cake For Willie Mays

Baseball was his main sport, however. His father, William Howard (named after William Howard Taft, who was president at the time he was born) worked in the steel mills, and played semi-pro baseball in and around Birmingham. Fairfield High did not have a baseball team, so while still in high school, he played second base and center field alongside his dad in the industrial league, and then he went on to play for the Birmingham Black Barons of the American Negro League.

Several major league baseball teams sent scouts to watch him play. The Boston Braves wanted to sign him up, right away, but the Birmingham manager wouldn’t let him go; and the Braves wouldn’t wait, so the deal fell though.

The San Francisco Giants Came Calling

The Brooklyn Dodgers also came calling. (Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers four years earlier in 1947). But it was the New York Giants that finally signed him, for $4,000, and sent him to play Class B ball in Trenton, NJ. He went hitless for his first four games, but ended the season with 108 hits and a .353 batting average. In 1951 he went up to the Triple A team in Minneapolis. Then, 35 games later, he was called up to the Giants. It was May 24, 1951. He was only 20 years old.

He started his major league career with no hits in his first 12 at bats. But next time at the plate he pounded a home run off the Braves future Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, who was interviewed after the game. Spahn cited the distance between home plate and the pitcher’s mound of 60 feet, 6 inches, and then told reporters, “Gentlemen, for the first 60 feet, that was a hell of a pitch.”

He came up hitless for another 13 at bats. But after that he went on a tear. He was named  Rookie of the Year, and helped the Giants win the 1951 National League pennant. Actually, the regular season ended with the Giants tied with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was in the on-deck circle on Oct. 3, 1951 — when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard ‘Round the World against the Dodgers to win the three-game playoff. The Giants went on to the World Series, but lost 4-2 to the Yankees.

The Korean War

He was drafted in 1952, during the Koran War, and spent about a year and a half playing baseball for the U. S. Army, before returning to the Giants for the 1954 season. The Giants played the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, 67 years ago, and during the first game he made a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch in center field, which prevented two Indians players from scoring, preserved the tie game, and allowed the Giants to go on and win the game — and the series.

Willie Mays
The Catch: Mays hauls in Vic Wertz’s drive near the wall in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series.

Willie Mays And The Baseball Hall Of Fame

William Howard Mays — named after his father, who was named after President William Howard Taft — was generally considered one of the best players in the history of baseball, winning 12 Gold Glove Awards to go along with his 1956 batting championship, his two Most Valuable Player awards, his 24 All-Star appearances.  

In 1958, Mays moved with the Giants to San Francisco, where he continued his all-star career. Then in 1972 he went back to New York to play for the fledgling Mets. He played for almost two years, then went on to serve as a hitting and fielding instructor until 1979 — the year he was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame, in his first year of eligibility.

Mays was also known to play stickball in his off hours, with kids in the streets of New York, and then he played sandlot ball with kids in San Francisco. He later worked for the Baseball Advisory Board, a nonprofit organization that helps former baseball players with financial or medical problems.

Today, the number that Willie Mays wore, Number 24, is retired from the San Francisco Giants. The stadium is located at 24 Willie Mays Plaza; and there is a larger-than-life-size statue of the “Say Hey” kid out in front of the stadium. Mays was actually nicknamed Buck when he was younger, but the name Say Hey Kid stuck — from when he first hit the big leagues and could not remember the names of all his teammates, so when he saw a fellow player, he would call out, “Hey, man. Say hey, man.”

Mays was married twice — once divorced, once widowed — and has one child. Today, at age 83, he is still affiliated with the Giants, and is still considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time. A recent Los Angeles Times poll named him the best center fielder in history, beating out Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb for the position.

And if you think you can argue with that, take a look at “The Catch” from Sept. 29, 1954. 

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About The Author
Tom Lashnits
Tom Lashnits
Tom Lashnits spent 40 years in New York book and magazine publishing before retiring to Bucks County, PA, in 2017. He now volunteers in the school system, produces the baby boomer blog Sightings Over Sixty . . . and is just starting to chase after grandchildren.
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