New York 500 Club: Willie Mays
As Alex Rodriguez chases 600 home runs -- and beyond -- ESPNNewYork.com looks back at the seven sluggers in the 500 Home Run Club most associated with the Big Apple, either because they played their prime years with New York teams or hit No. 500 in a local uniform.
William Howard "Willie" Mays Jr. is a retired major league baseball player who began his career with the New York Giants and moved with the franchise to San Francisco before returning to New York to end his career with the Mets. Mays was a two-time NL MVP and is one of just seven players in baseball history to hit at least 600 home runs during his career.
He played in 24 All-Star games, compiling 660 career home runs (third all-time when he retired) and is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, having been elected on his first ballot with 94.7 percent of the vote in 1979.
Mays was known as the "Say Hey Kid" though the exact origins of the nickname are not clear.
Mays' father and grandfather had both been baseball players. Willie followed in that tradition, playing semipro ball at the age of 16. In 1948, he joined the Birmingham Black Barons, who made it all the way to the Negro Leagues World Series.
Because he was still in high school at the time, Mays played only on Sundays during the school year. Still, he performed well enough the grab the attention of several major league scouts, including one from the New York Giants. The team purchased his contract once he graduated, and assigned Mays to their Trenton affiliate.
Willie Mays hit.353 in Trenton in 1950 and was promoted to Triple-A Minneapolis for the start of the 1951 season. In 35 games with the team, Mays hit .477 and was called up to the major leagues on May 24, 1951, becoming just the tenth African-American player in major league history.
New York Giants (1951-1957)
Mays got off to a slow start in the majors, going hitless in his first 12 at bats. In his 13th at-bat, he hit a home run off future Hall-of-Famer Warren Spahn, snapping him out of his slump. Despite having only a .274 batting average, 20 home runs and 68 RBI in 121 games, Mays won the 1951 Rookie of the Year Award. His team staged one of the most dramatic comebacks in baseball history, culminating in Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard Round the World" that defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in a best-of-three playoff for the National League pennant. Mays was on deck when the famous home run took place.
After a two year hiatus due to military service in the U.S. Army, Mays returned to baseball in 1954. He led the league in hitting with a .345 average and blasted 41 home runs, taking home the MVP Trophy in the process.
The Giants went to the World Series, where they swept the Cleveland Indians, 4-0. It was there that Mays made one of the most famous defensive plays in baseball history, tracking down a long fly ball off the bat of Vic Wertz, then whirling around and throwing the ball back to the infield to prevent the runners from scoring after the fact.
At both the plate as well as in the field, Mays continued to do things that baseball had never seen before, creating the 30-30 club in 1956 when he stole 40 bases to go along with hitting 36 home runs. In 1957, Mays won the first ever Gold Glove for center field, the first of 12 consecutive times he would be so honored. Mays also became just the second player in baseball history to have 20 doubles, triples, home runs and steals in the same season in 1957.
During his time in New York, Mays was part of a triumvirate of Hall-of-Fame centerfielders, along with Mickey Mantle of the Yankees and Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The trio combined for 17 All-Star appearances in New York between 1950 and 1957. They also manned center field in five Subway Series during that span.
San Francisco Giants (1958-1972)
After the 1957 season, the two New York NL franchises moved west, with the Dodgers going to Los Angeles and the Giants moving to San Francisco. The trip west did nothing to slow Mays down. That first season in California, Mays had a career-best .347 batting average and missed his third straight 30-30 season by just one home run.
In 1962, the Giants once again finished the regular season tied with the Dodgers, with Mays hitting 49 home runs and driving in 141 runs during the regular season. Once again, the Giants won the three-game playoff, with Mays hitting two home runs in the opener. The Giants lost to the Yankees in the World Series in seven games.
The 1965 season marked Mays' second MVP campaign. He belted a career-high 52 home runs, including the 500th of his illustrious career, on September 13, 1965 against Don Nottebart of the Houston Astros. After the season, Mays signed a two-year contract that made him the highest paid player in all of baseball.
Although Mays continued to make the All-Star Game year after year, his production began a slow and steady decline over the following six seasons. In 1971, at the age of 40, Mays hit only .271 with 18 home runs and a career high 123 strikeouts.
New York Mets (1972-1973)
In the middle of the 1972 season, the Giants traded Mays back to New York, where he joined the Mets in exchange for Charlie Williams and $50,000. Although he was no longer able to play more than part-time, and often was slotted at first base instead of in the outfield, in 1973 Mays helped the Mets to reach the post-season for only the second time in the club's history.
In the playoffs, Mays went 3-for-10 for the Mets as they defeated the Reds in the NLCS before falling to the Oakland A's in the World Series. After the final game, Mays called it quits, officially retiring from baseball with a career batting average of .302, 3,283 hits and 660 home runs.
After retiring, Mays remained in the New York Mets organization, helping out as the team's hitting instructor until the end of the 1979 season.
In January of 1979, Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility. Somehow, 23 of the 432 voters did not see fit to make the election unanimous.
That same year, Mays, along with Mickey Mantle, accepted a public relations job with Bally's casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Because of the gambling connection, even though no sports betting exists in New Jersey, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn banned the pair from baseball-related activities.
During the 1981 baseball strike, Terry Cashman released the song "Talkin' Baseball", which was inspired by a picture of Mays, Mantle and Snider and recalled the glory days of of baseball in the 1950s.
In 1985, Peter Ueberroth lifted the ban on Mays, allowing him to become a fulltime special assistant to the Giants, a position he has held for close to 25 years.
Lineage and Legacy
Mays' godson is slugger Barry Bonds, who declined to wear Mays' trademark No. 24 jersey when he was with the Giants, opting instead to wear his father's No. 25. Mays' number is retired by the team, but gave his blessing to have it offered to his godson to wear.
The current stadium of the San Francisco Giants is located at 24 Willie Mays Plaza, and every May 24 in the city of San Francisco is celebrated as Willie Mays Day.
Willie Mays was born May 6, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama. Mays's parents, Ann and Willie Sr., divorced when he was just three years old, and he was primarily raised by his aunt Sarah. Mays married his first wife, Margherite Wendell Chapman, in 1956 and they divorced in the early '60s. They adopted a son, Michael, in 1959. Mays remarried, to Mae Louise Allen, in 1971.
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