They called him “The Say Hey Kid” when he broke into major league baseball with the New York Giants in 1951. Willie Mays, 20, was perhaps the most complete player baseball had ever seen. Mays was a “five-tool player.” He could hit, hit for power, run, throw and field.
My goodness, could Willie field. His official position was center field, but he roamed much of the outfield in the vast Polo Grounds. When a teammate was once asked what position he played, he replied: “Me and Willie Mays play left field.”
In the 1954 World Series, Mays made what is arguably the greatest catch in baseball history. The catch robbed Vic Wertz and the Cleveland Indians, which went on to lose the series to the underdog Giants.
People said it wasn’t Mays’s greatest catch, but it came in the Fall Classic and was televised at a time when the nation was becoming mesmerized by the small screen. Other people said the throw Mays made after chasing down Wertz’s rocket was even greater than the catch.
As a boy growing up in Evansville, Indiana, in the 1960s, I was a proud owner of a Willie Mays baseball card. This was no small feat. Mays cards were a rare find. I was the only one of my neigborhood friends who possessed Mays, then of the San Francisco Giants. (The Giants franchise, along with the Dodgers, moved to the West Coast in the late 1950s.)
Each of us bought a box of 500 baseball cards. The top players such as Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson and Roberto Clemente were gold. You dug through your massive box of cards and hoped to get lucky.
My friends wanted to trade for my Willie Mays card. I wouldn’t do it. It was the one baseball card that was off limits. Then one day Willie was gone. I looked everywhere but couldn’t find him.
Not long after one of my buddies returned my Willie Mays card. He was sorry. It was wrong.
Such was the popularity of Mays. Kids and grownups loved him. I might have stolen Willie, too, if I had thought I could get away with it.
(I’m currently reading Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, an authorized biography by James S. Hirsch. It’s a good one.)