Author: James S. Hirsch
Authorized by Willie Mays
Okay, so let's get one point out of the way right off the bat. Willie Mays is the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Some have been better hitters: Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds (Mays's godson) certainly. Perhaps some have been better baserunners. Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock have the best arguments there. Some may have been better center f... Nope, I can't even complete the sentence in good faith. That one's easy. There has never been a better center fielder. His 12 Gold Gloves are tied for most all-time for an outfielder with Roberto Clemente and the only reason Mays didn't win more is that the award wasn't introduced until 1957, six years into his career. Whether there's ever been a better fielder at any position is a more reasonable question. Maybe Brooks Robinson at third base. Maybe one should argue that the best fielding catcher ever is the best fielder ever because it's by far the most difficult position so maybe Ivan Rodriguez. But probably not.
The complete package? Willie Mays. Every time. The term 5-tool player (hit for average, hit for power, run, catch, throw) was essentially invented to describe him.
The numbers tell part of the story. The traditional stats...
- 3,005 games played (8th all-time)
- 10,924 at bats (14th)
- 3,293 hits (12th)
- 660 home runs (6th)
- .301 lifetime batting average
- 2,068 runs scored (7th)
- 1,909 RBI (runs batted in) (12th)
- 338 stolen bases
- .384 on-base percentage
- .557 slugging percentage
- 2,989 games played at center field (CF) (1st)
- 7,024 putouts at CF (1st)
- 188 assists at CF (7th)
Then there's Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the most universally accepted sabermetric measure of a player's overall value to a team. Willie Mays's career WAR is 156.1 which puts him at #5 on the all-time list behind Ruth and Bonds plus pitchers Walter Johnson and Cy Young. No matter how you slice it, that's elite company. But how you slice it matters. Ruth, Johnson and Young all played in the age of segregation and therefore it cannot be said they were always playing against the best available competition. That's not their fault but it deserves an asterisk. Meanwhile, Bonds's late-career statistics were almost certainly inflated due to steroid use. One also must consider the fact that Mays played nearly his entire career in home stadiums - the Polo Grounds and Candlestick Park - that were unfriendly to right-handed hitters with gap power. His career totals might have been a lot higher in a more hitter-friendly stadium.
But like I said, the numbers are only part of the story. Willie Mays was the most exciting player in baseball for 20 years. Even his elite contemporaries - Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial - were in awe of him. He hit the Majors in 1951 just as television brought top flight baseball into people's homes for the first time. At the plate, on the bases and especially in the field, he was practically guaranteed to do something memorable a couple times per game. He was just as big a draw on the road as he was at home. He was the face of baseball's western migration. He was the biggest star on what became baseball's most integrated team, the San Francisco Giants. He was the best. Period.
Hirsch's book covers all of that and more. Indeed, he makes the "best ever" argument better than I have. It's worth noting that it's an authorized biography so one could hardly expect an even-handed expose. That said, Mays, who just turned 90 this year, has stayed pretty well clear of serious scandal all along - not easy for such a public figure.
Baseball books always leave me wanting to learn more. In particular, I want to know more about the Negro Leagues. Mays was playing for the Birmingham Black Barons when the big league scouts first got wind of him in the late 1940s. I have read about pre-integration baseball before but learning about Willie Mays has renewed my curiosity. Names new to me that have reignited my interest include Ray Dandridge and Piper Davis.
If you're looking for a more colorful, even-handed read, I would suggest Leigh Montville's Ted Williams instead. But if you want to read a loving ode to an American hero who is thoroughly deserving of the adulation, you could hardly do better than Willie Mays.
A few treats for the road: