When most people hear the name Willie Mays, they probably know him as “The Say Hey Kid,” the God Father of controversial slugger Barry Bonds, and the player who made that amazing catch in center field during the 1954 World Series. But those are just simply monikers by which he is known. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll see that Mays is one of the best and most important players to ever play the game, and with a career that lasted more than 20 years, it’s not a stretch to call Mays the original Iron Man.
The first thing that often gets lost in Mays’ illustrious career is the fact that he played in the Negro Leagues several years before he made his major league debut in 1951. Mays first played in the Negro Leagues for the Chattanooga Choo-Choos in 1947, three years before he even graduated from high school. In 1948, he helped the Birmingham Black Barons reach the Negro League World Series, standing out on the field not because he was an accomplished hitter but because he was a graceful runner on the base paths and an amazing defensive player in the outfield.
He would routinely do things you never saw anyone else do. He’d score from first base on a single. He’d take two bases on a pop-up. He’d throw somebody out at the plate on one bounce. And the bigger the game, the better he played
Peter Magowan, former Giants President
Of course, when he got to the big leagues, Mays quickly became one of the best all-around players in baseball. He won National League Rookie of the Year in 1951 and would go on to win 12 Gold Gloves and two National League MVPs. Mays was also an all-star every year from 1954 to his final big league season in 1973. He was also an integral part of the New York Giants winning the 1954 World Series, including his famous basket catch in center field.
Most people also don’t realize that the early part of Mays’ career was interrupted by military service, like so many of his contemporaries. He was limited to just 32 games in 1952, which would have otherwise been his first full season in the big leagues. Mays then missed the entire 1953 season yet was able to return in 1954 and win league MVP for the first time.
They invented the all-star game for Willie Mays.
Mays resisted having to go to the Army, insisting to this day that had he not lost that time he would have surpassed Babe Ruth as the all-time home run leader, not Hank Aaron. Had that been the case, Bonds would have been surpassing his own God Father when he eventually broke the all-time home run record.
When all was said and done, Mays played an astounding 22 seasons in the big leagues, not including his missed year in the Army or his time in the Negro Leagues. In the majors, he hit .302, accumulating 3,283 hits, 660 home runs, and 338 stolen bases.
To this day, Mays remains a relevant part of the sporting landscape in the United States. He has received an Honorary Doctorate from multiple Ivy League schools and in 2015 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It’s because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for president.
Not only did Mays play professional baseball for over a quarter-century but he remains one of baseball’s greatest icons more than 40 years after he retired. That is a true iron man.