“If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases and performed a miracle in the field every day, I’d still look you in the eye and say Willie was better.” – Leo Durocher
At age 16, Willie Mays joined the Birmingham Barons of the Negro American League. The New York Giants purchased his contract in 1950, and he was in center field at the Polo Grounds by the next season. Mays started off slowly, but got untracked and won the NL Rookie of the Year award, helping the Giants erase a 13-game deficit to tie the Dodgers at the end of the 1951 regular season.
He spent most of 1952 and all of 1953 in the Army, but in 1954, Mays showed his all-around ability, leading the league with a .345 batting average and 13 triples while blasting 41 homers and ringing up 110 RBI. The Giants again won the pennant and in the World Series, faced the Cleveland Indians – winners of an AL-record 111 games. With Game 1 tied 2-2 in the top of the eighth, runners on first and second, and no outs, Vic Wertz hit a towering drive that would have been a home run in most parks. Mays, playing shallow, took off and ran with his back to the ball, caught it over the shoulder an estimated 460 feet from the plate, turned, and fired. Larry Doby, who had to turn back and tag up at second base, was forced to stop at third. The Giants went on to win the game and sweep the Series. “The Catch” is considered by many to be one of the the greatest defensive plays in history.
Mays played 21 seasons with the Giants, and finished up with the Mets in 1972 and 1973. He hit over .300 10 times, en route to a career .302 mark, and finished with 3,283 hits.
He was a two-time NL MVP (1954 and 1965), a 24-time All-Star (he won the All-Star Game MVP in 1963 and 1968) and won 12 Gold Glove Awards in center field. He led the league in home runs four times, stolen bases four times, slugging percentage five times, total bases three times and triples three times.
Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1979.