All achievers

Willie Mays

Baseball Hall of Fame

It was such a beautiful game that I just wanted to play it forever.

Willie Mays's high school graduation picture. His father insisted he finish high school, even though he had already begun to play baseball professionally.
The high school graduation photo of Willie Mays. His father insisted he finish school, even though he had begun to play professionally.

When Willie Mays was growing up in Alabama, few might have imagined that the young boy playing sandlot ball would become a world-famous star athlete. One who did imagine it was the boy’s father. Both Mr. and Mrs. Mays were athletic. Mr. Mays played baseball on the all-black teams of the segregated South, as had his father before him. Mrs. Mays had been a champion sprinter in her school. When Willie was growing up, his father worked in a steel mill, and played on a semi-professional team sponsored by the mill. He began teaching Willie to catch a ball even before he could walk. By 14, Willie joined his father on the mill team. His high school had no baseball team, so he played basketball and football, but before he finished high school, it became clear that baseball would be his career.

Willie Mays began his professional career at age 16, playing with the Birmingham Black Barons in the segregated Negro Southern League. While his father avidly supported Willie’s ambition to be a professional ball player, he also insisted his son finish high school. In his first year with the Barons, Willie was restricted to playing home games so he wouldn’t miss school. The day he graduated from high school, he was signed by the New York Giants. First, the Giants sent Mays to their Class B farm team in Trenton, New Jersey, but he quickly advanced to their AAA farm club, the Minneapolis Millers. He was only 20 in 1951, when he received the phone call to join the Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York City.

Willie Mays, in the clubhouse of the Minneapolis Millers, on his way to the New York Giants,1951. (© Minnesota Historical Society/CORBIS)
1951: Willie Mays, in the clubhouse of the Minneapolis Millers, on his way to the New York Giants. (CORBIS)

Mays got off to a rocky start in the majors, going hitless in his first 12 times at bat. Other managers might have panicked and sent the rookie back to the minors, but the Giants’ Leo Durocher had faith in his young center fielder, and Mays broke his hitless streak with a home run blasted over the left field roof.

Back from the Army in 1954, Willy Mays and Manager Leo Durocher whoop it up after Mays pinch-hit a three run homer in an inter squad game. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
March 3, 1954: Back from the United States Army, Willie Mays and the legendary New York Giants Manager, Leo Durocher, whoop it up after Mays pinch-hit a three-run homer in an inter-squad game in Phoenix, Arizona. (Corbis)

It took another 13 at-bats for Mays to get his second major league hit, but he soon got the knack of hitting major league pitching, and hit another 19 home runs before the season was out. His spectacular fielding was already making headlines. In this first season, he made one of his most spectacular catches. Playing against Pittsburgh, he raced across the field to stop a 475-foot drive with his bare hand. His performance drove the team for the rest of the season. The Giants won the National League pennant that year.

September 29, 29154: Willie Mays makes his famous catch off the bat of Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series at the Polo Grounds. New York Giants went on to sweep the Cleveland Indians in four games. This is one of the baseball's great catches. (NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
September 29, 1954: Willie Mays makes his famous catch off the bat of Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series at the Polo Grounds. New York Giants went on to sweep the Cleveland Indians in four games. This is one of the greatest catches in the history of baseball and one of the most memorable moments in the annals of sports. (Getty)

This promising career was briefly interrupted when Willie Mays was drafted into the Army. His team failed to win the pennant during the two seasons he was absent, but he returned to the Giants in 1954 to lead them into the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. The Giants won the Series in four straight games, the first of which turned on an extraordinary over-the-shoulder catch by Mays. Although this is still one of the most talked-about plays in baseball history, the personal favorite of Mays himself is an incredible flying catch he made in the 1955 All-Star game.

Willie Mays, Giants manager Leo Durocher, and his wife, film star Laraine Day, take a center field photo op during the 1955 spring training season. (Photo by Hy Peskin)
Willie Mays, Giants manager Leo Durocher, and his wife, film star Laraine Day, take a center field photo op during the 1955 spring training season. The cover was an unintentional groundbreaking photograph; it sparked controversy because it showed a white woman placing her hand on a black man’s shoulder. Outraged readers asked to cancel their Sports Illustrated subscriptions. (Photo by Hy Peskin/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

Joe DiMaggio said Mays had the greatest throwing arm in baseball. Mays’s 7,095 putouts are the all-time record for an outfielder, but Mays excelled as a hitter as well. His career batting average was .302. For eight years running, he drove in more than 100 runs a year, and his 660 home runs put him in third place for the all-time home run record. He won the Gold Glove Award 12 times. He was voted Most Valuable Player in the National League in both 1954 and 1965. Small wonder one sportswriter remarked that “Willie Mays should play in handcuffs to even things up.”

1959: No player ever enjoyed the game of baseball more than the immortal Willie Mays. (Jon Brenneis/Getty)
1959: No player ever enjoyed the game of baseball more than the immortal Willie Mays. (Jon Brenneis/Getty)

When the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958, Mays had to struggle to win over a new hometown crowd. In 1962, he led the Giants to another pennant victory and, in 1964, became team captain. In 1966, the Giants signed him to a new contract, making him, for a time, the highest-paid player in the history of the game. While in San Francisco, he also made a reputation as a peacemaker, breaking up a bat-swinging fight between two players, and calming a potentially explosive situation that arose when the team manager made racially insensitive remarks to a sportswriter.

The immortal Willie Mays.
May 2, 1962: San Francisco Giants’ Willie Mays in action versus the Pittsburgh Pirates in San Francisco. (Hy Peskin)

In 1972, Willie Mays returned to New York to play for the Mets. During the baseball strike of that year, many players feared that veterans like Mays would not have the patience to see a long strike through. Even though he risked missing his last season, Mays was stalwart, and his solidarity with the younger players won him their renewed admiration. After hanging up his glove in 1973, Willie Mays remained for a time with the Mets organization, before becoming a public relations executive with Bally’s Resorts and Colgate-Palmolive. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.

November 24, 2015: President Barack Obama presents Willie Mays with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the 2015 Presidential Medal Of Freedom ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Kris Connor/WireImage)
November 24, 2015: President Barack Obama presents Willie Mays with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony in the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Connor)

In 1986, Willie Mays returned to the San Francisco Giants organization, where he serves as special assistant to the president of the club. In 1993 the Giants made this a lifetime appointment. His position in the history of his sport will last even longer. In baseball, Willie Mays is one of the immortals.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1975

“I don’t make history. I catch fly balls.”

Actually, Willie Mays did both. When Willie Mays joined the New York Giants in 1951, black players were still a rarity in the major leagues. Before Willie Mays, the typical baseball scout’s report on a talented black player would mention the player’s color first, his ability second. When scouts described young Willie Mays, they mentioned his remarkable skills first.

For 22 seasons, Mays astonished fans and fellow players with his hitting, his running and his unsurpassed fielding. As sportswriter Arthur Daley put it, he “could do everything and do it better than anyone else, (and) with a joyous grace.” In the 1950s and ’60s, fans couldn’t get enough of Willie Mays. In the first flush of his fame and popularity, he would get up early to play stickball in the street with the worshipful children who gathered in front of his Harlem boarding house.

Fans argue to this day about which was the greatest of his many spectacular catches. One thing all baseball lovers agree on: Willie Mays was one of the most versatile, virtuosic players of all time.

Watch full interview

In the first game of the 1954 World Series, you made a catch that is remembered to this day. Can you tell us about that?

Keys to success — Vision

I think the key to that particular play was the throw. I knew I had the ball all the time. In my mind, because I was so cocky at that particular time when I was young, whatever went in the air I felt that I could catch. That’s how sure I would be about myself. When the ball went up I had no idea that I wasn’t going to catch the ball. As I’m running — I’m running backwards and I’m saying to myself, “How am I going to get this ball back into the infield?” I got halfway out. As I’m catching the ball, I said, “I know how I’m going to do it.” I said, “You stop…” — I’m visualizing this as I’m running. It’s hard to tell people that — what I’m doing as I’m running. I know people say, “You can’t do all that and catch a ball.” I said, “Well, that’s what I was doing. Okay?” I was running, I was running. I’m saying to myself, “How am I going to get this ball back in the infield? “So now as I catch the ball — if you watch the film close — I catch the ball, I stop immediately, I make a U-turn. Now if I catch the ball and run and turn around — Larry Doby which is on second, Al Rosen on first — Larry can score from second. Because Larry told me — I didn’t see this, Larry had told me many times — “I was just about home when you caught the ball, I had to go back to second and tag up and then go to third.” So he would have scored very easily. So I said, well — as I’m running, I’ve got to stop and make a complete turn. You watch the film and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I stopped very quickly, made a U-turn, and when I threw the ball I’m facing the wall when the ball is already in the infield. So when you talk about the catch, more things went into the play than the catch. The throw was the most important thing because only one guy advanced, and that was Larry, from second to third. Al was still on first. And that was the key. To me it was the whole World Series.

On September 29, 1954, centerfielder Willie Mays of the New York Giants made an amazing over-the-shoulder catch of a fly ball hit by Cleveland Indians first baseman Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. The catch is considered to be one of the greatest in baseball history. The New York Giants went on to win the World Series.

Do you think that was your greatest catch?

Willie Mays: I made a catch in Ebbets Field, off of a guy by the name of Bobby Morgan. And it was in the tenth inning, bases loaded, a ball was hit over the shortstop — on the line — over the shortstop. Now you’ve got to visualize this. Over the shortstop. I go and catch the ball in the air. I’m in the air like this, parallel. I catch the ball, I hit the fence. Ebbets Field was so short that if you run anywhere you’re going to hit a fence. So I catch the fence, knock myself out. And, the first guy that I saw — there were two guys — when I open my eyes, was Leo and Jackie. And I’m saying to myself, “Why is Jackie out here?” Jackie came to see if I caught the ball, and Leo came to see about me. So I’m saying to myself, “This guy is thinking very cool.” I’m talking about Jackie, now. He wasn’t even on the field, he was in the dugout. Now this is my thinking, he may have a different reason. That was my best catch, I think. It was off of Bobby Morgan in Ebbets Field. I caught a lot of balls bare handed, which I felt was good, but that was my best catch I think.

Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Giants' Willie Mays after the 1956 All-Star Game. Their multiple-run homers gave the National League a sweet victory over the American League. (©Bettmann/CORBIS)
Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Giants’ Willie Mays after the 1956 All-Star Game. Their multiple-run homers gave the National League a sweet victory over the American League. (©Bettmann/CORBIS)

What about the great catch in the All-Star Game?

Willie Mays: That wasn’t hard. That was a long fly ball. That was just a “time catch.” You know what a “time catch” is? It’s like when you’re riding. You ride it in slow motion, then you pick up the speed. I knew I could catch it if it stayed in the ball park, but it was just going over the fence. That wasn’t a hard play, it was just a time catch.

What were some of your other favorite plays?

Willie Mays: I made a catch in Yorktown that — they had a little-bitty fence. It wasn’t a fence, it was a canvas. I jumped the fence. As I’m jumping, I catch the ball as I’m falling over. It was a canvas fence. What made it so hard — here’s the downgrade, and there was a hill that you had to go up, and you had to run up this hill and then you had to catch it over this fence. And then as I’m going up, it made it much easier for me, because as soon as I go up, I continue going up, I kept running, and then I leap. As I’m leaping, I catch the ball — a line drive — I catch it over my head and fell over the fence. That’s one. Nobody never paid no attention about it because it wasn’t a big deal. That was in the minor leagues. Who’s going to know about that?

What were you thinking when Bobby Thomson hit the famous “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” to win the pennant for the Giants in 1951?

Willie Mays: I was thinking about the day before. Bobby Thomson had hit a home run off of Ralph Branca in Ebbets Field, so I thought, “They’re not going to pitch to him. They’re going to walk Bobby Thomson, and Leo is going to pinch hit for me.” That was what I was thinking. I was thinking so hard, when Bobby hit the home run, I was the last guy to get to home plate. I didn’t realize what was happening until everybody started running out. If you ever see a picture, you’ll see number 24 right in the background of all this pile. Knowing what I know about Leo, I think he would have pinch hit for me, that was my thinking. He said, “No, I would have let you hit.” I said, “No, I don’t think so.” But it didn’t happen, and I was very glad it didn’t, very glad.

New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson hit the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” pennant-winning home run off Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, October 3, 1951. Waiting in the on-deck circle to hit behind Thomson was rookie Willie Mays.

New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham and manager Leo Durocher embrace player Bobby Thomson after his ninth inning homer ("the shot heard 'round the world") gave the Giants a surprise victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers, sending the Giants to the 1951 World Series. (AP Images)
New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham and manager Leo Durocher embrace player Bobby Thomson after his ninth inning homer (the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”) gave the Giants a surprise victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers, sending the Giants to the 1951 World Series. (AP Images)

As a teenager, you made the transition from semi-pro ball in Birmingham, Alabama, to the Negro League, to the minors and finally to Major League Baseball. Was there someone who discovered or guided you?

Willie Mays: Piper Davis saw me play with a club called the Grey Socks. They played us down in my little hometown and they had an exhibition game. And he came down, and I hit a ball about 450. It should have been a home run in any ball park. I was only about 14 then, and I was playing shortstop. Then they hit a ball and it hit me off my chest. Bang! I pick up the ball and go to go to second. The second baseman wasn’t there, so I pick it up and threw it to first. So he said to me, “How did you have that instinct of knowing how to do that?” I said, “Piper, I just reacted. If the guy wasn’t there, why would I throw him the ball? You’ve got to go the next and get that one run out.” So he talked to my father, to let me come and play with the Birmingham Black Barons the next year, which I was around 15. And my father said, “I don’t know if he’s ready. He might be too young.” He said, “Well, I’ll take care of him.” Piper Davis did this for me. If you pitched today, you were my roommate tonight. The next day, another pitcher, he was my roommate. I never went out alone. I never stayed by myself alone. I think I was programmed to do good things when I came into the majors. I knew how to play.

Keys to success — Preparation

Piper and I would sit on the bench and he’d say, “This guy is going to knock you down. Don’t worry about it,” he said. “He’s trying to scare you.” He’d say, “This guy hits this way.” He and I had a sign. His sign was behind his back, only with the hand, again, left or right. That’s the way the guy’s going to pitch. Because he was the manager and he used to call almost all the pitches, so he knew exactly what to do. So, Piper had the first influence on me to be patient and to learn because I wasn’t old enough to understand about playing with guys that were 25. Some was older, some pushed their age back, so they might have been older than what I’m saying, but they was all grown. I’m out there by myself. I’m probably the youngest of all the teams around the league I’m talking about.

How was it when you broke into the minor leagues?

Willie Mays: My first game in the minor leagues was when I was signed by a guy by the name of Eddie Montague. He signed me to go to Trenton, New Jersey, that was the Interstate League.

Keys to success — Perseverance

I was the first black in that particular league. And, we played in a town called Hagerstown, Maryland. I’ll never forget this day, on a Friday. And, they call you all kind of names there, “nigger” this, and “nigger” that. I said to myself — and this is why Piper Davis came in — in my mind, “Hey, whatever they call you, they can’t touch you. Don’t talk back.” Now this was on a Friday. And the Friday night I hit two doubles and a home run; they never clapped. The next day I hit the same thing. There was a house out there in the back there, I hit that twice. Now they started clapping a little bit. You know how that is, you know, they clapped a little bit. By Sunday there was a big headline in the paper: “Do Not Bother Mays.” You understand what I’m saying? They call you all kinds of names. Now this is the first two games I played. By Sunday, I come to bat, they’re all clapping. And I’m wondering, wait a minute, what happened to the Friday, what happened to the Saturday? This is running through my mind now.

Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers (L) congratulates New York Giant Willie Mays, after the Giants beat the Dodgers 7 to 1, capturing the 1954 National League pennant.
Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, congratulates the New York Giants Willie Mays, after the Giants beat the Dodgers 7 to 1, capturing the 1954 National League pennant.
The first African American players in major league baseball were subjected to constant insults and harassment. This hand-written death threat was sent to Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The first African American players in major league baseball were subjected to constant insults and harassment. This handwritten death threat was sent to Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers prior to a game in Cincinnati.

You were housed separately from your teammates in Hagerstown. Did you feel isolated? Do you think that separation made you susceptible to potential trouble?

I couldn’t stay with the ball club, and when they dropped me off in Hagerstown — this was a unique thing that I had happen to me, my first time — they dropped me off downtown in the black area. About two o’clock in the morning, three players came through the window, and they slept on the floor. One of my right fielders, Hank Rowland, one of the catchers, Herb Perelto, and another guy, Bob Easterwood, slept on the floor until about six o’clock in the morning. I said, “Hey man, I don’t need no help here.” I said, “I think I can handle whatever happens.” “No, no, no, we’re going to stay here.” They stayed with me until six o’clock in the morning. They got up, went back out the window, and came back around four o’clock. Picked me up, we drove back to the ball park, nobody knew about it, but I did. I was so thankful, not because what happened. It’s because I felt that those guys understood my problems, they knew that, hey, if something would happen, I might have got hurt, or I would have hurt somebody, and then I wouldn’t have had a career.

Willie Mays, after the New York Giants moved to San Francisco. (AP Images)
Willie Mays, after the New York Giants shocked the baseball world and moved to San Francisco, California in 1958.