Willie Mays is an icon whose legacy is ingrained in the fiber of baseball

There have been players who were the best players of their era, and there have been players who were great representatives of the game of baseball.

Willie Mays did both, and he did them at the highest level.

Mays, who died Tuesday at the age of 93, embodied everything that you want, not only in a superstar but also in a person. And the swagger, flair and grace he showed over four decades in baseball endeared him to the people of New York, San Francisco and the rest of the nation.

Mays was the best baseball player the world has ever seen. Maybe the best it will ever see. When you run down the list of accomplishments and accolades for The Say Hey Kid, it’s difficult to fathom that a player was able to do all the things he accomplished, even in a 23-year career:

  • 1951 NL Rookie of The Year

  • 1954 World Series champion

  • 3,293 hits

  • 660 home runs

  • 12 Gold Glove Awards

  • 2 NL MVP Awards

  • 24 All-Star Game selections

Offensively, Mays was a force at the plate. He was the second player in MLB history to join the 600-home run club, after Babe Ruth, and his 660 career homers still rank sixth all-time.

Defensively, Mays had no equal. He was unquestionably baseball’s greatest center fielder. Before Ken Griffey Jr., Andruw Jones and Torii Hunter, there was Mays, roaming the Polo Grounds and its massive center field like a gazelle, making the impossible look mundane. His 12 Gold Glove Awards by a center fielder remain the most all time at the position.

Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch more than 500 feet from home plate in the 1954 World Series, robbing Vic Wertz of a potential game-winning hit, is considered the greatest catch in the history of baseball. Seventy years later, it is still known simply as “The Catch.”

Red Sox great Ted Williams was as good as any player ever and is enshrined in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame. But Williams might have made the most accurate statement in the history of baseball: “They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays.”

No. 24’s total of 24 All-Star nods is surpassed only by the 25 of his longtime friend, Hank Aaron. The ability to sustain greatness for as long as Mays did is something that should never be taken for granted.

It’s far too easy to call Mays a legend. That’s not because the term is incorrect or disrespectful. But for arguably the greatest baseball player ever, it simply doesn’t do him justice.

We’d also be remiss if we failed to point out that Mays’ excellence came at a time when Black players faced extremely difficult challenges dealing with bigotry, racism and a society that didn’t embrace them as people. Mays, who made his debut four years after Jackie Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier, was not just one of the first Black superstars in baseball; he was one of the first Black superstars in U.S. professional sports. And his abilities and grace resonated with Black sports fans from coast to coast.

Mays was your favorite player’s favorite player, and that’s something that followed him for decades, both while he played and long after he stopped. When Mays played, he did so with a joy, energy and passion that resonated with generations of baseball fans and generations of baseball players. The reaction he’d get from a fan who watched him play for 23 years was the same reaction he’d receive from a player who grew up following him. The reverence and appreciation for everything Mays meant to the game of baseball never ceased.

Beginning when he was 15 and playing for the Birmingham Black Barons at Rickwood Field, Mays began a long, successful journey to becoming part of the pantheon of baseball’s immortals. In the process, he left the game and the world in much better shape than he found them.

And even after a Hall of Fame career, that’s what made Mays great. In a room of the best players in the world, both when he played and after, they all knew he was the best.

Willie Mays wasn’t a legend. He was and forever will be an icon.

Advertisement