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Opinion: Willie Mays was the best to ever play the game


Opinion by Frederic J. Frommer

(CNN) — Trying to name the best baseball player of all time is a fraught exercise, requiring comparing stars across different eras, some of which excluded huge chunks of the population.

But for my money, Hall of Famer Willie Mays, who died Tuesday at the age of 93, is the clear choice, for his superhuman combination of speed and power, his incredible defense, his hitting prowess — and his grace on the baseball diamond.

Of course, a case can be made for New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth, and many people have made it. In its list of the top 100 players of all time, for example, ESPN ranks Ruth No. 1 and Mays No. 2. As David Schoenfield wrote in the Ruth ranking, “The baseball we watch today is Babe Ruth’s game. Many players make an impact, a few become folk heroes, but nobody changed a sport like Ruth did when he joined the Yankees and transformed baseball into a game of power. No player dominated his era like Ruth.”

All true, but here’s why Mays gets my vote. His 660 homers weren’t that far behind Ruth’s 714, but Mays combined that with outstanding speed and defense, two qualities that were not hallmarks of Ruth’s game. In addition, Ruth played in an all-white era (1914-1935), decades before baseball integrated in 1947. Mays’ accomplishments through his 23 seasons, by contrast, were against a larger pool of players, including other African Americans, and many more Latino players than in Ruth’s time.

Also, there’s a good chance that Mays might have caught Ruth had he not played most of his career in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, where swirling winds often acted like an extra outfielder to knock down fly balls.

“Playing in Candlestick cost me 10, 12 homers a year,” Mays told The New York Times in a 1979 story, when he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. “I’ve always thought it cost me the opportunity to break Babe Ruth’s record.”

The story described Mays as “perhaps the most natural ballplayer of all, one who not only thrived on the joy of baseball but who also projected that joy to all those who cherish the game.” He had a theatrical and creative style that made him, yes, a joy to watch.

Mays always played the game with enthusiasm, even though his career with the New York Giants got off to a rough start. After a single season in the Negro Leagues, where he played for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948 at the age of 17, he signed with the Giants in 1950.

During his rookie season, 1951, his manager Leo Durocher had so much faith in him that he slotted the 20-year-old into the third spot in the lineup. Mays started 1-for-25, but quickly turned things around, winning the Rookie of the Year Award with a .274 batting average and 20 homers. That season, the Giants erased the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 13 1⁄2 game lead to win the National League pennant.

“Willie could do everything from the day he joined the Giants,” Durocher said when Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame. “He never had to be taught a thing.”

Mays’s breakout season came in 1954, when he won the first of two Most Valuable Awards, leading the league in average (.345), slugging percentage (.667) and triples (13), along with 41 homers. But it was his defense that he’s most remembered for that year, when the Giants faced off against the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.

In the opening game, Cleveland had runners on first and second of a tie game in the top of the eighth inning, when Vic Wertz hit a ball 425 feet deep to center field. In most stadiums, that would be enough to clear the fence for a home run, but the Giants’ ballpark, the Polo Grounds, had a cavernous center field.

With his back to home plate, Mays sprinted like a wide receiver trying to catch a bomb from his quarterback, then made an over-the-shoulder catch — before quickly whirling around and throwing the ball back to the infield. It’s considered one of the most iconic catches of all time, so much so it was dubbed “The Catch.” The Giants won the game, 5-2, in 10 innings, and went on to sweep the Indians in four games.

Mays was always fast, but he would soon add another element to his game. In 1956, he stole 40 bases, the first of four consecutive seasons in which he led the league. He would eventually become the first player to steal 300 bases and hit 300 homers — the ultimate demonstration of a rare combination of slugging and speed. He’s what folks in the baseball industry call a true five-tool talent: mastering hitting, hitting for power, running, throwing and fielding.

Mays finished with 339 steals, and his total of 660 homers was sixth in history, behind Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Ruth, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez.

In 1957, Mays won the first of a dozen consecutive Gold Glove awards. He would have had several more, but the award wasn’t created until 1957. After that season, he broke the hearts of New Yorkers when the Giants relocated to San Francisco, along with the Dodgers, who left Brooklyn for Los Angeles.

Mays appeared in a record 24 All-Star Games, and was so respected that Dodgers manager Walter Alston, who would often manage the National League team as the skipper of the defending pennant winners, would ask Mays to fill out the lineup, as ESPN senior writer Tim Kurkjian wrote this week.

“Willie Mays is the greatest center fielder ever, the greatest Giant ever and still is, 73 years after his debut, the greatest combination of power, speed and defense in the history of baseball,” Kurkjian said.

As a child, Mays idolized another player who was known as the best overall player of his era, fellow center fielder Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees. But DiMaggio would eventually fawn over Mays.

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

If Mays had one blemish, it was staying on too long. In his final season, back in New York City with the Mets in 1973, he hit just .211 at the age of 42. But mostly forgotten is how before that, he played at an elite level even at an advanced (baseball) age, leading the National League with a .425 on-base percent in 1971, when he was 40.

Mays retired following the 1973 season, and it’s a measure of his hold on American society that he’s still revered a half-century later. For many who played in the 1950s and 1960s, he was simply the best.

Among those who came to that conclusion: Mays himself.

“I think I was the best ballplayer I’ve ever seen,” he said in 1979, when he was elected to the Hall of Fame. “I feel nobody in the world could do what I could do on a baseball field. I hope I’m not saying anything wrong, but you have to think you’re the best.”

No argument here.

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