Willie Mays I replied without hesitation. It wasn’t even close.
Saw Williams and Musial, Mantle and Aaron, Ripken and Gwynn, and Bonds too.
Willie Mays, the Say Hey Kid, was the best.
As a kid in 1962, I saw Mays hit a grand slam at Candlestick Park against the Cubs. Later on, I saw him against the Mets at Shea Stadium.
And in 1972, I saw Mays, then with the Mets, and Henry Aaron at Shea. They both went hitless and wound up the evening still tied at 648 home runs apiece, trailing another pretty famous ballplayer name of Babe Ruth at that point in time.
Willie Mays would go on to hit 660 home runs, behind only his godson Barry Bonds, Aaron and Ruth. A four-time National League home run champion, Willie once hit four home runs in a single game, against the Braves in 1961. Not even Ruth, Aaron or Bonds ever did that.
He was Rookie of the Year in 1951 with the New York Giants, MVP in 1954 and 1965. He led the NL in stolen bases four times, and in triples three times. He won the batting title in 1954 with a .345 average, and finished .302 lifetime with 3,283 hits.
“I would love,” comedian and Giants fan Rob Schneider told Sports Illustrated recently, “to be the Willie Mays of anything.”
And he was equally as brilliant as a fielder. Mays won 12 straight Gold Gloves, and is perhaps best known for the most famous catch in baseball history, against Vic Wertz and the Cleveland Indians in deepest center field in the Polo Grounds, a catch that turned the 1954 World Series.
‘Where Triples Go to Die’
“Willie Mays and his glove,” Dodgers executive Fresco Thompson once said. “Where triples go to die.”
Two years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Willie Mays on a flight from San Francisco to JFK. We didn’t talk during the flight, but when we got on the ground in New York I caught up with Willie and we walked together to baggage claim.
I told him about the conversation with my son. He smiled, and asked me which team I rooted for. I told him I was a Yankee fan.
“Well, why aren’t you a Mickey Mantle guy?” Willie asked.
“I loved Mickey, but I always thought you were the best,” I replied. “You were a better center fielder, and you hit more home runs. And you were faster than Mickey,”
“Not always,” said Willie. “”When Mickey came up, he was faster than any of us.”
Willie, Mickey and Joltin’ Joe
The discussion then turned to the 1951 World Series between the Giants and Yankees, and Willie asked me if I remembered the play where Mantle got hurt.
“I was still in the cradle when they played that World Series,” I said.
But I do remember reading about the play, how Joe DiMaggio called off Mickey for the ball at Yankee Stadium, and how Mantle stopped short, got his foot caught in a drainage cover and tore up his knee.
“Do you know who hit the ball?” said Willie. He quickly added. “I did.”
Think of the convergence of great center-fielders on that one play — Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle (who was playing rightfield that day) and Willie Mays.
That one play epitomized three Hall of Fame careers. Mantle, the legendary but oft-injured slugger. DiMaggio, the one-time greatest living ballplayer. Mays, the current greatest living ballplayer.