Willie Mays, Oldest Living Hall of Famer, Marks May 6 Birthday


Willie Mays, the oldest living Hall of Famer, turned 91 on May 6.Michael Marconi, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

By Dan Schlossberg

Today is not only my birthday but also the birthday of Willie Mays, the oldest living Hall of Famer. He has reached the ripe old age of 91.

Born in Westfield, Alabama in 1931, Mays played in the Negro Leagues, made a minor-league stop in Minneapolis, and then took the baseball world by storm after a slow start.

Determined to impress New York Giants manager Leo Durocher, the muscular centerfielder went 0-for-12 and went crying to the field boss. Durocher reassured him and Mays hung in there, finally pounding his first hit against a tough opponent: future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn.

Spahn later said that he had not surrendered that hit, he and his fellow pitchers wouldn’t have had to worry about Willie for so many years.

To be sure, Mays lasted a long time. He was an All-Star 24 times, a Gold Glove winner 12 times, and an MVP twice. He led the National League in home runs and stolen bases four times each.

Most impressively, perhaps, he had the NL’s best WAR (Wins Against Replacement) in nine different seasons. Nine!

Although his home run total was deflated by the whirling winds of his home park in San Francisco – not to mention the horseshoe shape of the Polo Grounds in New York – Mays managed to hit 660, including four in one game against Lew Burdette and the Milwaukee Braves in 1961.

He finished first in slugging and OPS (on-base plus slugging) five times each and total bases three times.

Geez, the guy was good – by far the best member of the musical Willie, Mickey, and The Duke.

A terror in the All-Star Game, Willie was the opposite in the World Series. In fact, he hit only one home run while appearing in the Fall Classic three times. His resume also lacks an RBI crown.

But he had a pair of 30/30 seasons – an extremely rare feat – plus a Rookie of the Year award, two All-Star Game MVP trophies, and a batting title.

Mays had all the skills to win a Triple Crown but never did, despite two 50-homer seasons – a level arch-rival Hank Aaron never reached.

He was as versatile as Aaron too, filling in at first base, third base, and even shortstop as well as the two outfield positions flanking his normal station in center.

The Say-Hey Kid had a .301 lifetime batting average, just below Hank Aaron’s but ahead of Mickey Mantle’s, but never earned more than $165,000 in a season. He started and ended in New York, playing for the Giants and Mets, respectively.

Known for flamboyant outfield play that featured basket catches, Mays also had a powerful throwing arm. The video of his World Series catch and throw against Cleveland’s Vic Wertz at the Polo Grounds in 1954 is still making the rounds.

Many people consider him the greatest player of all time (though the ghosts of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron might argue).

The lone Mays mystery that remains is why 23 writers left him off their Hall of Fame ballots in 1979.

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author or co-author of 40 baseball books, including The New Baseball Bible. He covers the game for forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, and others. E.mail him at ballauthor@gmail.com.

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