Year Inducted: 1979 (BBWAA, ballot #1, 409/432)
Greatness often leaves in the form of a whimper, rather than with a flourish. In the 1973 World Series, the Mets and A’s were set to duel. In right field for the Mets was a player that was clearly on his last legs, but wanted to go out a champion. Unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be, as Willie Mays would only have an OPS of .571 in the series and, perhaps most unthinkable, saw a ball roll through his legs in the outfield. That should not have been how the great career of the Say Hey Kid ended, but life sometimes isn’t fair.
Thankfully, Mays isn’t remembered for that play as much as he is for being an incredible player. In 22 seasons, Mays blazed through the National League and surpassed Ty Cobb as the best center fielder in the game’s history. Playing for the Giants and Mets, Mays slashed .302/.384/.557 with a wRC+ of 154. The Say Hey Kid was the 10th player in history to collect 3000 hits in his career (just two months after Hank Aaron got his 3000th hit), he finished with 3283 hits in his career, including 660 homers, 523 doubles and 140 triples. Mays was one of the most consistent players ever, driving in 90 or more RBI 12 times in his career and totaling over 1900. Mays was one of the most gifted athletes of all-time, starring on the basepaths along with his bat. He scored 2062 runs, stole 338 bases and was worth nearly 33 runs above average as a baserunner.
As great as he was with the bat, he is probably most remembered for what he did in the field. Mays made over 7000 putouts in the outfield, and was probably the most exciting fielder to ever watch. Mays’ speed gave him incredible range in the outfield, and aided him in being worth 170 runs defensively in his career. Mays’ signature moment, of course, was his famous catch in the 1954 World Series and is probably the most iconic play in baseball history. With the game tied at 2 in the 8th inning, the Indians’ Vic Wertz hit a long fly ball to deep center field, which with the venue being the Polo Grounds, means it was hit probably 400 or more feet. Mays immediately sprints after it and calmly catches it like he knew where it was going to be. To top it all off, Mays immediately spins around and fires a strike back to the infield and preventing any run from scoring on the play. The catch saved the game and propelled the Giants to a series sweep.
Mays had it all. He hit well, ran well, hit for power and is the gold standard for outfield excellence. In addition, he had the personality needed to truly transcend into a legendary player. Mays was much like Ken Griffey Jr, both had the killer smile and would light up a room by just being there. Still, it seems like Willie was sometimes underrated in his career because he was just consistently great. From 1954-1966, Mays never hit fewer than 29 homers in a season, never hit below .288, never drove in fewer than 84 and was worth at least 6.9 fWAR. And yet, he won only two MVP’s, including the largest MVP injustice in history, losing out to Maury Wills in a year that Mays hit 49 homers for a pennant-winning Giants team while Wills set the single-season steals record.
Mays’ career ended on a sour note, as mentioned above. Still, when he retired in 1973, he had a higher fWAR than anyone save Babe Ruth. It isn’t hyperbole to suggest that Mays is the most well-rounded player of all-time, and certainly one of the greatest athletes of all-time to play the game. Given all that, how was he not only not unanimous, but how did a nearly two dozen people not give Willie a vote? Mays was one of the best of all-time and a great part of baseball history.
Stay tuned for the next updates.
It’s between the Splendid Splinter and Hammerin’ Hank for the 2/3 spots on the ranking. Who gets the bronze and who gets the silver?