As baseball fans celebrate Willie Mays’ 80th birthday, we are reminded that in baseball, more than any other sport, greatness must stand the test of time. The game has such a rich and documented history, it’s not good enough to be great for seven years a la the NFL.
Mays spent a quarter of his 80 years (literally 20) as an all-star center fielder. I’m 28 and I’ve NEVER made an all-star game, even as a fan.
To me, what stands out more than the 660 home runs, 3,283 hits and 12 straight Gold Gloves is the fact that Mays played his last game nearly 40 years ago and people half that age are familiar with his exploits.
Kids know “The Catch” when they see it. They know who the Michael Jordan of baseball was and is. The fact that Mays has attained that status without much cultivation or corporate sponsorship (although a “Catch” Jumpman logo would be awesome) makes him perfectly suited for the role. Mays is the greatest living ballplayer but the Greatest Living Ballplayer of All Time.
The designation of Greatest Living Ballplayer only comes around every few generations. As is the case with any monarchy, you can't be dethroned until you die. Like baseball, the title is the perfect combination of performance and luck (both Ruth and Gehrig may have died prematurely).
While baseball has always been about statistics and milestones, the GLB title has always gone beyond just numbers and over the years, spanned personalities.
Ty Cobb was the first to attain the title in the 20th Century, both while playing and in retirement. Many point out that Cobb attained the title due to Babe Ruth’s untimely death, they forget it was the cantankerous Georgia native that garnered 98.2 percent of the inaugural Hall of Fame vote—ahead of Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.
Imagine Barry Bonds (who, by all accounts, is not a vehement racist, never pistol whipped anyone, allegedly bet on baseball or beat a crippled fan) getting 98.2 percent of the Cooperstown vote. Despite his massive shortcomings as a human being, the writers respected Cobb for what he did between the lines.
Cobb was the embodiment of a villain. Mays is the antithesis of that characterization. Find me somebody that doesn’t like Willie Mays and I'll show you a bipartisan budgetary committee that can agree on one thing—that person is an idiot.
After Cobb, baseball aficionados did a 180 and anointed the style and grace of Joe DiMaggio. As effortless as he made things look on the field, the Yankee Clipper guarded his image and legacy. As a result, the public never knew him outside the role of pitchman.
DiMaggio was an exclusive Manhattan nightclub, Mays is a Harlem stickball game, open to all. Although DiMaggio had fierce competition from his contemporaries, particularly Ted Williams, none had a chance to dispatch him. There is no denying the draw; 56-game hit streak, nine World Series titles and a marriage to one of the most iconic women of the 20th century.
Outside of their five-tool gifts, there couldn’t be two more different players; the reckless abandon of Willie Mays and the natural polish of Joe D. I’ll take the guy who played a kid’s game like a kid as opposed to the cold, calculated professional. You get the feeling Mays was great because he loved baseball. DiMaggio was great because he was terrified of embarrassing himself.
After DiMaggio’s death in 1999, there were many viable suitors for the vacant GLB crown. The aforementioned Williams, who let down his guard and endeared himself to millions at that year’s All-Star Game, was a worthy successor. Williams was content with being the greatest living hitter, which he attained when Cobb or Ruth passed.
Stan Musial is adored the same way Mays was, it's just that all of his fan club resides in St. Louis. The plain and simple truth is that Mays was better in every facet of the game with the exception of hitting for average. That said, not one person in this conversation is as universally loved as Mays with the exception of Musial.
Let’s not forget about the Home Run King at the time, and maybe the most underrated (sounds crazy, but think about it) athlete ever, Hank Aaron. We are talking about one of the most beloved sports figures in history and the most prolific hitter of all time. And Mays trumps him too.
When DiMaggio died there seemed to be a general consensus that the torch had been seamlessly passed to Mays. While Aaron trumps Mays statistically, The Say Hey Kid’s all-around brilliance overshadows Aaron (a pretty decent five-tool guy in his own right). Williams was a better hitter, but even The Splinter would have told you, boasted rather, as to who the better all-around player was.
Even Mays’ prodigiously talented godson has the numbers, but outside of San Francisco, the adulation is few and far between. Granted, Mays’ era wasn’t the fish bowl that Bonds’ was and continues to be, but that only adds to the luster.
But Bonds made it look easy, effortless, dialed. He was almost too good. Mays made it look like every fiber in his body was intent on taking the extra base, willing a home run through the winds at Candlestick or running down an impossible line drive. Those are the snapshots we have of him. Those little glimpses of greatness.
I can honestly say that my three biggest sports time machine requests are in no particular order: 1. seeing Ted Williams hit a baseball. 2. Watching Jordan play live for the early 90s Bulls, (I mean the Wizards version was great and all but…). 3. Watching Mays play in his prime. Hell, I’d be content with just watching him play center field.
Mays is absolutely unique compared to all of his contemporaries and that’s the best part about it. There is only one Ted Williams, or Ty Cobb or Hank Aaron. Numbers may stack up similarly but if you throw out objectivity and think about how players make you feel, that’s the formula for greatness, which no amount of OPS, WAR or VORP will ever be able to replace.
In 80 years it has been a Tale of Two Mays'. Not just New York and San Francisco but in life. In contrast to his cap-shedding style of play, Mays has made the transition to baseball royalty look…easy. For us and for him. Because he deserves it.
Who still wears a baseball cap at 80? Veterans of foreign wars and Willie Mays, people that deserve it. You get the feeling that he wears the hat in the hopes that he will get one last chance to chase down a fly ball or go from first to home on a single.
We love him because he loves the game the same way we do. Happy birthday to the Greatest Living Ballplayer of All Time.