Mickey Mantle Plaque
The debate is now in its seventh decade.
During their careers, Willie Mays was better than Mickey Mantle, but despite the fact that Mays played his last game in 1973 and Mantle played his last game in 1968, an increasing number of individuals today think maybe, just maybe, Mantle really was the better player.
In 1947, Branch Rickey, the great Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, hired Allan Roth as the Dodgers statistician. It was a baseball first.
A few years later, Roth and Rickey created a new statistic they called "On-Base Average." The "experts" ridiculed it, claiming it merely inflated batting average by equating walks with hits.
One popular baseball writer facetiously asked, "How many walks does it take to get in a runner from third?"
On-base average has helped swing the Mays-Mantle debate toward Mickey. Mays liked to swing the bat, as illustrated by his famous response when asked what made him such a dangerous hitter.
"They throw it and I hit it."
Mantle was more selective. Even during the last four years of his career, when he was well past his peak, opposing teams walked him.
Mantle had a career on-base average of .421; Mays' career on-base average was .384.
The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract has greatly influenced how Mantle is viewed today as a hitter.
"Mickey Mantle was, at his peak in 1956-57 and again in 1961-62 clearly a greater player than Willie Mays -- and it is not a close or difficult decision."
That statement would have been ridiculed in the 1950s and 1960s.
John Thorn, who is responsible for the classic Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball and who was the senior creative consultant for the Ken Burns documentary Baseball, doesn't agree completely with Bill James. He considers Mantle superior to Mays as a hitter but ranks Mays a better all-around player because he was a superior outfielder.
In his excellent book, Double Dating With Mickey Mantle, Mickey's friend and confidant Tom Molito relates how the two of them were sitting in Mickey's hotel room talking about Mickey's career. Mantle told Tom that one his greatest regrets was that he lost his .300 career batting average.
It's too bad that Mickey never heard Thorn's opinion: "He's measuring himself with the yardstick he grew up with in the 1930s."
Today, whether it's right or wrong, batting average is considered a highly overrated measurement.
Bob Costas, who knows a little about baseball but whose views must be tempered by the fact that he carries a Mickey Mantle baseball card in his wallet, points out that with the passage of time, the number of fans who saw Mantle play is decreasing.
Costas considers Mays the best all-around player he has ever seen but thinks that in his prime Mantle was the better player. Mantle had the greatest combination of power and speed the game has ever seen.
The two statistics that Costas uses to support Mantle are on-base average (.421 to .384) and OPS, which is the combination of on-base average and slugging percentage (.977 to .941).
Mickey's OPS+ was 172 compared to Willie's 155.
In a statement some might interpret as bordering on arrogant, Costas believes that the more knowledgeable one is about baseball and baseball history, the higher one rates Mantle.
Few home run hitters have been great bunters, but Mantle was the exception. Phil Rizzuto, among others, taught him how to drag a bunt past the pitcher when he was batting left-handed and how to push a bunt to the third-base side when batting right-handed.
Mantle's ability to bunt for a hit was a valuable weapon that forced opposing defenses to pull the third baseman and/or the second baseman in a few steps to defend against it. This helped him drive ground balls through the infield for base hits.
Finally, at a fantasy camp, in a moment of candor, Mickey told his friend Tom that he considered Willie to have been a better defensive player, but he, Mickey, was faster, had more power and was a better hitter.
Tom merely smiled.