Willie Howard Mays is major league baseball’s greatest living player.
Born in Westfield, Alabama on May 6, 1931 to a semi-pro ball playing father and mother who was a former high school basketball and track star, he played football and basketball at Fairfield Industrial High School. The school did not have a baseball team so Mays joined the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League when he was 16 years old, helping them to the Negro League World Series in his second season with the team. After graduation, Mays signed with the New York Giants for $ 6,000 and was assigned to their minor league team in Trenton. In 1951, he began the season with the AAA Minneapolis Millers and was hitting .477 in the first 35 games there when the Giants called him up to the big leagues on May 24. Mays was 20 years old. He began his MLB career poorly, collecting just one hit in his first 24 at bats before going on to hit 20 home runs in 121 games and win the 1951 Rookie of the Year Award. That season ended with Mays in the on-deck circle when Bobby Thomson hit the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” against the Brooklyn Dodgers to win a playoff series after the teams had tied at the end of the year. He played in just 34 games in the 1952 season and none in 1953 after being drafted into the U.S. Army, costing him over 260 games to military service in his 22 year career. He hit 41 homers in his second full season and 51 in his third and, had he not lost those games to military duty, may have broken Babe Ruth’s all-time career home run record before Hank Aaron did.
“The Say Hey Kid” was the best ‘five tool’ player ever to play the game; he hit for average, hit for power, could run, field and throw. His 7,095 outfield put outs are a major league record. He hit 660 career home runs despite playing much of his career in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, one of the worst home run hitting stadiums in baseball history. He once hit four home runs in a single game and hit 22 career extra-inning homers, more than any player in history. Willie Mays holds the record for hitting home runs in the most different innings, having hit at least one in every inning from one to sixteen. The Gold Glove Award was introduced in 1957 to the best defensive position player in baseball; Mays won it that year and for the next eleven straight seasons. In 1954 he won the NL MVP and Hickok Belt [best pro athlete in America] and made “The Catch” in Game One of the World Series to propel the Giants to a sweep of the Cleveland Indians and the world championship. He was named to 24 All-Star teams, was named MVP of two of them and won the NL MVP Award twice.
The Giants retired his #24 in 1972. Their home field, AT&T Park, is located at 24 Willie Mays Plaza and includes a bronze statue of The Say Hey Kid in front, surrounded by 24 palm trees. Mr. Mays retired in 1973 and was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1979. In 1999, the Sporting News ranked him as the #2 player of all time, behind Babe Ruth and that same year was elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
On this date in 1966, Willie Mays hit the 537th home run of his career to put him second on the all-time list, behind Ruth. On this date in 1973, he hit the 660th and final home run of his career, a solo shot off of Cincinnati left-hander Don Gullett.