I love baseball. It is the most beautiful game in the world to me. One of my favorite things about the game is the history and how that leads to great debate.
I can sit down with friends and talk for hours about any number of baseball topics, but the one topic we always seem to come back to is, "Who is the greatest player of all time?" In fact, one of the questions in every user profile asks you to decide between Babe Ruth and Willie Mays.
With all due respect to Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and a few others, the argument always seems to come down between Ruth and Mays.
Babe Ruth has become an icon almost bigger that the sport itself. He revolutionized the game and saved it after the Chicago Black Sox scandal of 1919. Ruth, along with a new set of rules, took the control of the game off of the pitcher's mound and moved it directly into the batter's box.
As great as Ruth was, he simply wasn't as good as William Howard Mays, the greatest baseball player of all time.
Proponents of Ruth will say Ruth is by far the best player. He not only hit 714 career home runs, but he also won 94 games as a pitcher and very likely could have made the Hall of Fame as a pitcher.
I won't deny Ruth's greatness as a player. He towered over the competition like no player before or since. He was the most dominant player and far superior to anybody that played against him. However, don't confuse dominance for being the greatest player ever.
It is unfair to label Ruth as the greatest ever when he didn't play against the best competition. Ruth played in an era when baseball, like everything else in America, was segregated. There's no way of knowing exactly, but no one can convince me that Ruth would have the same numbers had he hit against the likes of Rube Foster, Hilton Smith, and Satchel Paige.
Ruth also never had to play on artificial turf like Mays and all his contemporaries had to. The turf causes unneeded wear and tear on a player's body.
Ruth never had to travel cross-country to play a game that same night or had to play day games after night games. Ruth only played in day games.
Relief pitching wasn't a part of baseball in Ruth's era like it was for Mays either. It wasn't as specialized as it is today, but pitchers usually finished games they started in the 1920s and 1930s.
All of these factors made the game much more difficult to play in Mays' era, but yet he excelled like no one before or since.
Five-tool players have been sought after as long as the game has been around. Those five tools are: hitting for power, hitting for average, having great speed and skill as a base runner, being a great defender, and having a strong arm in the field.
Willie Mays was the quintessential five-tool player. There was nothing on a baseball diamond that Mays couldn't do.
He hit .302 for his career with 660 career home runs. He stole 338 bases in his career. After Jose Canseco made history by becoming the first player to ever hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season, Mays said, "Had I known that was such a big deal I would have done it every year."
As great as Mays was at-bat, he may be more remembered for the plays he made in center field. Everyone knows about "The Catch" he made against Vic Wertz and the Cleveland Indians in the 1954 World Series. For Mays however, that was just another in a career filled with catches that no other person in baseball could make.
It was common for radio announcers calling Giant games to say after Mays hit a ball that, "the only man who could have caught that ball just hit it." That speaks to Mays' ability as both a hitter and fielder and how far ahead he was of his peers.
"The All-Star game was invented for Willie Mays," was a common phrase that Hall of Famer Ted Williams used to say to describe Mays. Mays played in 20 All-Star games and won the game's MVP award in 1963 and 1968.
There may not even be a discussion for the greatest player of all time had Mays not missed a season-and-a-half in 1952 and 1953 after being drafted into the Army. Although Mays never saw any action in combat, the time he missed may very well have cost him the privilege of being the player that broke Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.
He became a hero to a nation of fans, but Mays never forgot those that came before him. He would often tell people that every time he looked at his pocketbook he saw Jackie Robinson.
Mays was in the first batch of young Negro players that benefited from Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color line in the game. Along with Aaron, Frank Robinson, and Ernie Banks, Mays showed that Robinson's sacrifice was a victory for the game and the country.
Although he will never let on to the public, there is much sadness in Mays' life. He may have benefited from Jackie Robinson's plight, but Mays still had to deal with many of the same prejudices that Robinson did.
Mays played with former Negro League players before making it to the Majors, so he has always carried with him their struggle to make his dream a reality. Hall of Famer Ray Dandridge played with Mays for the Minneapolis Millers in 1951.
Dandridge was at the tail-end of his career and just missed out on playing in the Majors. Mays has never forgotten Dandridge, and he has always held onto the sadness that players like Dandridge felt for never getting the shot they deserved.
Mays also played in a time that the players didn't have the most powerful union in the world. If Alex Rodriguez makes $30 million per year for his play, is it very far off to say that Willie Mays would be worth $50 million per year had he played in this era?
Willie Mays is now 78, and suffers from glaucoma. He is a cherished member of the San Francisco Giants family and hailed as the greatest living ballplayer. Though he is still hailed by millions as a hero, sometimes it's hard to be everyone's hero and that thought should not be forgotten.
Despite the burden he carries, Willie Mays is a special person. He used his charm and athletic ability to touch the lives of an untold amount of people. In turn, those people will always view Willie Mays as the very best baseball player in the history of the game.