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Willie Mays - the 'Say Hey Kid' considered baseball's best all-around player - dies at 93

Willie Mays is widely considered the best baseball player in history. His speed, his hitting and overall understanding of the game. He's shown here at the 2004 Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Al Messerschmidt
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WireImage / Getty Images
Willie Mays is widely considered the best baseball player in history. His speed, his hitting and overall understanding of the game. He's shown here at the 2004 Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Willie Mays, a generational baseball player known as the 'Say Hey Kid', has died at 93. He was considered by many to be the greatest all-around baseball player in history.

Mays' Hall-of-Fame career spanned more than two decades, from the 1950s to 1970s. He spent nearly all of those years with the Giants – first in New York and then in San Francisco. He was named to the All-Star team 24 times and won National League Most Valuable Player awards in 1954 and 1965.

“All of Major League Baseball is in mourning today as we are gathered at the very ballpark where a career and a legacy like no other began. Willie Mays took his all-around brilliance from the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League to the historic Giants franchise," said Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred. "From coast to coast in New York and San Francisco, Willie inspired generations of players and fans as the game grew and truly earned its place as our National Pastime."

MLB is hosting a game Thursday between the Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals at historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala. where Mays once played. Baseball officials were already planning to honor Mays's extensive career at the game including an unveiling of a Willie Mays mural.

Fans are already remembering the incomparable skill and infectious joy the player nicknamed "The Say Hey Kid" brought to ballparks across the country.

Five tools

Somehow, the name Willie Mays never was enough. Talk to those who watched him play...those who heard about what he did...and it was always the great Willie Mays.

What he did, as a ballplayer, was everything. In the trade, the best all-around players are called five-tool players. Mays mastered all five.

Number one – Hitting. 3,000 hits is a hallowed number in baseball. Mays finished with 3,283. His career batting average was a stellar .302.

Number two – Hitting with power. His career total of 660 home runs is the sixth most in history.

Willie McCovey was Mays' longtime teammate in San Francisco.

"His legacy will go down as the greatest player of all time," McCovey said. "I think we all know that already."

Mays' command of tools three, four and five (Speed, Fielding and Throwing) is best illustrated in one epic play in 1954.

A play simply known as "The Catch."

No magic

It was Game One of the '54 World Series, Giants versus the Cleveland Indians in the Giants' enormous ballpark, the Polo Grounds. In the eighth inning, the score was tied and Cleveland had men on first and second base. The Indians' Vic Wertz hit a line drive to deep centerfield, where Mays played. Mays turned and sprinted toward the centerfield wall, his back to home plate.

He made the catch over his head. Legendary announcer Jack Brickhouse called the action, saying the catch "must've been an optical illusion to a lot of people."

But not to Mays.

In a 2010 NPR interview, he explained there was no magic involved. Just practical thinking the moment Wertz hit the ball.

"You make sure that everything is happening within sequence," Mays said. "That means I gotta catch the ball, I gotta stop, I gotta make a 360 [turn]. By the time I make the 360, the ball should be back into the infield. The key to me was the throw. Getting it back into the infield so nobody could advance."

Mays got the ball back in. No one scored on the play, the Giants won the game and eventually, the World Series. Four games to none.

As great and celebrated as the catch was, it wasn't Mays' favorite.

"He caught a ball as a rookie in Brooklyn," said Jim Hirsch, who wrote the authorized biography, "Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend" in 2010. "It was a long fly ball hit into left centerfield, toward the fence. He dove flat out, caught the ball, hit the fence and the ground at the same time. [Mays] knocked himself out. He got a concussion. But he held onto the ball. He said that was his greatest catch."

A student

It would be easy to credit those moments, which were so numerous, to Mays' supreme athleticism. He certainly had that. But Hirsch said there was a lot more involved in Mays' approach to baseball.

"Tom Seaver [the Hall of Fame pitcher who died in 2020] told me this story," Hirsch recalled in an interview. "When Willie was traded to the [New York] Mets in 1972, the first thing Willie did was he went over to Seaver with the opposing team's lineup and he said to Tom, 'how are you going to pitch each of these players and where should I play?'"

"So they went down the lineup, got their strategy. Mays and Seaver developed these signals so that as Seaver changed the way he was going to pitch the hitters, Willie would adjust where he played in centerfield."

"Tom Seaver played in the majors for about 20 years," Hirsch said, adding, "The only player who ever approached him [like that] was Willie Mays. Willie understood the game in a way that no one else did. He was smarter than anyone else. He studied the game. He tried to understand all the nuances in an era before we had computerized fan graphs that told you where every hitter hit the ball, depending on what pitch was thrown."

And a showman

As important as it was for Mays to understand the game, it was also essential to celebrate baseball.

Flair was everything, and it was why the fans who were thrilled by Mays' escapades on the diamond, had a smile on their faces too.

"Willie liked to say that when fans left the ballpark he wanted those fans to be talking about him on the field," Hirsch said in an interview. "What did he do?"

He grinned and laughed. He caught fly balls with his glove at his waist – the famed basket catch. When he ran, his baseball cap came off. By design.

"I made the clubhouse guy fit me a cap that when I ran, it flies right off," Mays said in the 2010 NPR interview, adding, "you [also] have to tilt your head a little bit because you got to get the wind in there. People love that type of stuff, y'know?"

The showmanship was born on an Alabama Negro League team, the Birmingham Black Barons. That's where Mays first started playing professionally as a teenager. Even before then, he played on a semi-pro team sponsored by the steel mill where his dad worked. Father and son played together in the outfield.

"Everybody knew [Willie Mays, Sr.] in Birmingham," Mays told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006. "They called him 'Cat' because he could run like a cat, very quick. When I played with him, I played center, he played left. I said, 'You play on the line, I'll take care of everything else.'"

That confidence continued with the Black Barons.

"What was significant in that league," says Mays biographer Jim Hirsch, "the fans on Sunday would go to church, then after go to the ballpark. And that was their entertainment. This is the late 1940s. They'd go to games not just to see a team win, and compete, but to get that entertainment. That [influenced] how players would take leads off bases and steal bases; how they would throw the ball; how they'd turn a double play. It wasn't just turn it the way we see it now. Shortstops would throw the ball behind their back or a first baseman would do something dramatic."

Mays and other Negro League players imported that style of play when the Major Leagues were integrated. You can see that style in today's game. The basket catch isn't a novelty anymore; outfielders charge the ball, like infielders, as Mays first did.

Away from baseball, a private man

The Mays effervescence and energy often disappeared away from the ballpark.

"Willie loved the spotlight of centerfield," says Hirsch, "but he hated the scrutiny of stardom."

Although endlessly loyal with close friends, Mays was an intensely private person who tried to keep people at arm's length. Partly because of how he was raised in the segregated south of the 1930s and 40s.

"He was told by his elders that if you want to survive in a white man's world, you had to keep your head down and your mouth shut," says Hirsch. "And he kept those words to heart his entire life."

His reticence led to criticism by another baseball icon.

Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947, criticized Mays for being a prominent black athlete during the volatile 1960s who didn't use his platform to speak out publicly on civil rights.

"Jackie was a guy that would speak his mind very clearly," Mays said in the 2010 NPR interview. "I applaud him. I don't know if I could have done the things that he did when he came in. But what am I going to change? I can't change the world. I can live the way I live and hope that I can help people of all races, all the time."

President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to baseball great Willie Mays at the White House in Washington, DC, on November 24, 2015.
Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to baseball great Willie Mays at the White House in Washington, DC, on November 24, 2015.

Barack Obama, America's first African-American president, acknowledged Mays's impact in 2015, when he awarded Mays the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S.

"In his quiet example while excelling on one of America's biggest stages, [Mays] helped carry forward the banner of civil rights," Obama said, adding, "it's because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for president."

Willie Mays played baseball for 22 seasons and better than almost anyone else. He valued his longevity and durability, telling Hirsch he was proud he came into the league with a 32-inch waist, and left the league with a 32-inch waist.

But baseball fans today are honoring "24" - Willie Mays' uniform number and not just 24. The great 24.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.