Remembering Willie Mays: A Tribute to Baseball’s Most Complete Player

Willie Mays

My father taught me everything I needed to know about Willie Mays, the most complete ballplayer ever.

When people ask about Mays, my answer is unconventional. The San Francisco Giants traded Mays to the New York Mets in 1972 for almost nothing, yet a 41-year-old Mays was the best hitter on that solid Mets team. More conventionally, Mays is statistically the best player of the 20th century in the Hall of Fame.

But to truly grasp Mays’ greatness, you had to watch him play.

I thought of my father when I heard of Mays’ passing last night on “The Source.” He immediately came to mind. My father watched Mays as a rookie for the New York Giants in 1951 and considered him the best player he ever saw from that first year.

Mays electrified the 1951 Giants, helping them overcome a 13.5-game deficit in mid-August to win the NL pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers, thanks to the Shot Heard ‘Round the World. He won Rookie of the Year that season.

Mays’ legend grew in 1954 after serving in the military. Nicknamed the “Say Hey Kid,” Mays dominated the National League, leading in batting average, slugging percentage, triples, and on-base plus slugging (OBPS).

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However, Mays’ 1954 MVP season is often remembered for a defensive play in Game 1 of the World Series. With the game tied 2-2 in the eighth inning, Cleveland’s Vic Wertz hit a long fly ball. Mays made an over-the-shoulder catch over 400 feet from home plate and fired the ball back to prevent runs, ensuring the Giants’ victory and their eventual series sweep. This catch, captured on film, offers a rare glimpse of Mays’ defensive prowess.

Statistically, Mays was the best defensive player in the National League that year and remains a top-five defensive outfielder of all time. His defense, combined with his ranking as the sixth all-time home run leader, underscores his all-around excellence.

Mays excelled in every aspect: defense, power, average, and speed, leading the league in stolen bases four times. As my friend Neil Paine noted, Mays was the most complete ballplayer in history.

Mays was a link to multiple baseball eras, from the expansion to the West Coast in 1958 to the golden era of the 1950s in New York. His career began in the Negro Leagues in 1948, and recent record integrations added to his legendary stats.

Mays’ greatness continued to resonate. He lived near us in the Bronx, and my father treasured an autograph from him, a testament to his lasting impact.

I honor Mays by wearing a New York Giants cap and answering “the New York Giants” when asked about my team. Now, I’ll find that autograph to honor the greatest player I’ve ever known.

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