He slugged 660 career home runs, played in 24 All-Star Games, won 12 consecutive Gold Gloves and two MVP Awards, yet statistics hardly begin to paint the picture of the legendary Willie Mays.
Scouts, managers, teammates — pretty much anyone who witnessed him play — were blown away not only by his ability but also his charisma.
Said four-time All-Star first baseman Ted Kluszewski, who debuted with the Reds in 1947: "I’m not sure what the hell charisma is, but I get the feeling it’s Willie Mays."
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Now age 85, the Alabama native played full-throttle, 100 percent of the time, which often sent his hat flying off his head.
While ranking players is a subjective and often fruitless task, it’s indisputable that Mays is among the top crust of the greatest baseball players of all time. He hit the long ball, was a terror on the base paths and his range in center field was as splendid as his arm, which is to say, pretty ridiculous.
May 25 marks the 65th anniversary of the center fielder’s first game in Major League Baseball. To celebrate the “Say Hey Kid’s” debut, let’s look at three memorable pieces of his rookie season with the New York Giants.
The Giants called up Mays from their Double-A squad, the Minneapolis Millers, a few weeks after he turned 20 years old. At the time, Mays was batting a mind-boggling .477 through 149 at-bats.
Mays of the Minneapolis Millers minor league team in 1951.
In his debut with the Giants (May 25, 1951), Mays batted third and played center before a crowd of 21,082 against the Phillies at Shibe Park. He went hitless in five at-bats with one strikeout. He didn’t get a hit in five plate appearances against the Phillies the next day, but he did draw two walks. Then in four more at-bats the next game, he went hitless again. The Giants won all three contests but it was a sub-optimal start for Mays and it left him in a puddle:
When New York returned home to the Polo Grounds in his fourth game, Mays broke through with a home run in the bottom of the first inning with a blast off another future Hall of Famer, Boston Braves righty Warren Spahn.
Said Mays of the ensuing slump that sandwiched his first hit/homer: “And then I went another ten at bat without getting a hit, and then I blossomed up right quick.”
It was 13 at-bats to be exact for a rough 1-for-26 start through seven games. But only one month and a flurry of hits later he was batting over .320 by late June.
One of the early knocks on Mays was that he couldn’t hit a curveball. Thanks to some neighborhood kids in New York, he found a cure for that.
When Mays was still just a pup, he lived near the Polo Grounds in Harlem and used to spend time playing stickball with kids. Mays explained:
Not a bad gig for those kids — play stickball with their hero in the morning, get some ice cream on his dime, then pay a buck (or sneak in) to see him on the field later in the day before a crowd of thousands.
Before making one of the most recognizable and famous plays in MLB history in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, Mays made perhaps an even better grab on August 15, 1951, against the Pirates.
Here’s how longtime Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell, who spent four seasons broadcasting Giants games from 1950-53, described Mays’ outfield prowess and that play:
And of course thanks to “the” catch, his name is now synonymous with making an over-the-shoulder running grab. Just don’t forget about the incredible throw that followed.