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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Willie Mays, electrifying player of power and grace, dies at 93



Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, 1965 (X.com)

By Richard Goldstein


Willie Mays, the spirited center fielder whose brilliance at the plate, in the field and on the basepaths for the Giants led many to call him the greatest all-around player in baseball history, died Tuesday. He was 93.


At his death, which was announced by the San Francisco Giants on social media, he had been the oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He died in Palo Alto, California, in an assisted living facility, said Larry Baer, the president and CEO of the Giants.


In 22 National League seasons, with the Giants in New York and San Francisco and a brief return to New York with the Mets, preceded by a 1948 stint in the Negro leagues, Mays compiled extraordinary statistics. He hit 660 career home runs and had 3,293 hits and a .301 career batting average.


But Mays did more than personify the complete ballplayer. An exuberant style of play and an effervescent personality made him one of the game’s — and America’s — most charismatic figures, a name that even people far afield from the baseball world recognized instantly as a national treasure.


In 1954, R&B group the Treniers recorded “Say Hey (the Willie Mays Song).”


“When I broke in, I didn’t know many people by name,” Mays once explained, “so I would just say, ‘Say, hey,’ and the writers picked that up.”


New York embraced this son of Alabama, putting him on a pedestal with two others who ruled the city’s center fields in an era when its teams dominated baseball. The New York Yankees had Mickey Mantle, the Brooklyn Dodgers had Duke Snider, and the Giants had No. 24.


Mays captured the ardor of baseball fans at a time when Black players were still emerging in the major leagues and segregation remained untrammeled in his native South. He was revered in Black neighborhoods, especially in Harlem, where he played stickball with youngsters outside his apartment — not far from the Polo Grounds, where the Giants played.


President Barack Obama took Mays with him on his flight to the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis, telling him that if it hadn’t been for the changes in attitude that African American figures like Mays and Jackie Robinson fostered, “I’m not sure that I would get elected to the White House.”


Mays and Yogi Berra, who was cited posthumously, were among 17 Americans whom Obama honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, at a White House ceremony in November 2015.


Mays played center field with daring and grace, his basket catches made at the hip, his throws embodying power and precision. His over-the-shoulder snare of a drive to deepest center field in the Polo Grounds during the 1954 World Series against the Cleveland Indians — followed by a sensational throw to second base — is remembered simply as “The Catch.”


Mays became a hero out West as well after the Giants and the Dodgers decamped for California in 1958. Though he received a tepid reception from San Francisco fans at first, he flourished playing for the team despite the high winds and cold nights at Candlestick Park.


Mays’ electrifying play made statistics seem lifeless. Nonetheless, his achievements in the record books were extraordinary.


— He drove in more than 100 runs in 10 different seasons and scored more than 100 runs in 12 consecutive years.

— His 7,112 putouts as an outfielder rank No. 1 in major league history (he had 657 more playing first base), and he won 12 Gold Glove awards beginning in 1957, the year the honors were first bestowed.

— His 660 home runs are sixth all-time, behind Barry Bonds’ 762, Hank Aaron’s 755, Babe Ruth’s 714, Alex Rodríguez’s 696 and Albert Pujols’ 703.

— His 2,068 runs scored put him seventh on the career list, and his 1,909 runs batted are 12th.

— His 3,293 hits are No. 13.

— He stole 338 bases at a time when the running game was not especially favored.

— He played in 150 or more games in 13 consecutive seasons.


In 2020, Major League Baseball announced that the seven Negro leagues that operated between 1920 and 1948 would gain major league status. In accord with that, Mays’ statistical totals with the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League have been added to his major league totals.


Mays was the NL rookie of the year in 1951 and was named MVP in 1954 and 1965. He played on four pennant-winning teams (the Giants in 1951, ’54 and ’62 and the Mets in 1973), but only one World Series champion, the 1954 Giants, who swept the Indians. He was selected for 24 All-Star Games and was the MVP of the game in 1963 and 1968.


An Associated Press poll of athletes, writers and historians in 1999 voted Mays baseball’s second-greatest figure, behind Babe Ruth.


“Willie could do everything from the day he joined the Giants,” Leo Durocher, his manager during most of his years at the Polo Grounds, said when Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility. “He never had to be taught a thing. The only other player who could do it all was Joe DiMaggio.”


But even DiMaggio bowed to Mays.


“Willie Mays is the closest to being perfect I’ve ever seen,” he said.


Willie Howard Mays Jr. was born May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama, near Birmingham. His parents were unmarried teenagers. His father, Willie Sr., a steelworker and later a Pullman porter, was known as Cat, for his graceful play in semipro baseball. Mays’ mother, Annie Satterwhite, left the family when he was a baby and settled in Birmingham. She married there and had 10 children, but Mays kept in touch with her into his major league playing days.


Mays, who lived in Atherton, California, before moving to Palo Alto, is survived by his son, Michael, from his first marriage, to Margherite Chapman, which ended in divorce. His second wife, Mae Louise (Allen) Mays, with whom he had no children, died in 2013.

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