Willie Mays, one of baseball’s all-time greats, dies aged 93

Mays, pictured with the Mets in 1972, was one of the best hitters baseball has ever seen
Mays, pictured with the Mets in 1972, was one of the best hitters baseball has ever seen - AP

Willie Mays, one of baseball’s greatest and most beloved players, has passed away aged 93, his family said on Tuesday.

Mays, known as the ‘Say Hey Kid’, is considered second perhaps only to the the iconic Babe Ruth in baseball’s pantheon of heroes and is one of the game’s first black stars.

His singular combination of talent, drive and exuberance helped him to 24 All-Star teams during a stellar 20-year career in San Francisco and New York.

Mays’ family and his former team, the San Francisco Giants, jointly announced on Tuesday night that he had died earlier in the afternoon.

“My father has passed away peacefully and among loved ones,” son Michael Mays said. “I want to thank you all from the bottom of my broken heart for the unwavering love you have shown him over the years. You have been his life’s blood.”

The centre fielder was baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer. His signature basket catch and his dashes around the bases with his cap flying off personified the joy of the game. His over-the-shoulder catch of a long drive in the 1954 World Series is baseball’s most celebrated defensive feat.

On the White House lawn in 2012. Mays was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015
On the White House lawn in 2012. Mays was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015 - AP
During the 1966 season when he set the National League record for home runs
During the 1966 season when he set the National League record for home runs - AP

Mays died two days before a game between the Giants and St Louis Cardinals which was set honour the Negro Leagues at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

“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,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said.

“Willie Mays took his all-around brilliance from the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League to the historic Giants franchise. 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.

“His incredible achievements and statistics do not begin to describe the awe that came with watching Willie Mays dominate the game in every way imaginable. We will never forget this true Giant on and off the field.”

Few were so blessed with each of the five essential qualities for a superstar – hitting for average, hitting for power, speed, fielding and throwing. Fewer so joyously exerted those qualities – whether launching home runs, dashing around the bases, loose-fitting cap flying off his head, or chasing down fly balls in centre field and finishing the job with his trademark basket catch.

Mays makes the 3,000th hit of his career, a single to left at the Giants' Candlestick Park in 1970
Mays makes the 3,000th hit of his career, a single to left at the Giants' Candlestick Park in 1970 - AP

“When I played ball, I tried to make sure everybody enjoyed what I was doing,” Mays told NPR in 2010. “I made the clubhouse guy fit me a cap that when I ran, the wind gets up in the bottom and it flies right off. People love that kind of stuff.”

Over 22 MLB seasons, virtually all with the New York/San Francisco Giants, Mays batted .302, hit 660 home runs, totaled 3,283 hits, scored more than 2,000 runs and won 12 Gold Gloves.

He was Rookie of the Year in 1951, twice was named the Most Valuable Player and finished in the top 10 for the MVP 10 other times. His lightning sprint and over-the-shoulder grab of an apparent extra base hit in the 1954 World Series remains the most celebrated defensive play in baseball history.

He was voted into the Hall in 1979, his first year of eligibility, and in 1999 followed only Babe Ruth on The Sporting News’ list of the game’s top stars. The Giants retired his uniform number, 24, and set their AT&T Park in San Francisco on Willie Mays Plaza, complete with a statue outside the stadium.

For millions in the 1950s and 1960s and after, the smiling ball player with the friendly, high-pitched voice was a signature athlete and showman during an era when baseball was still the signature pastime.

Mays' charisma made him one of the most popular players in the sport
Mays' charisma made him one of the most popular players in the sport - AP

Willie Howard Mays Jr. was born in the gritty steel town of Westfield, on May 6, 1931, during the segregation era and was inspired early to play baseball by his father and an uncle, he said.

“My uncle would say every day, ‘You’re going to be a baseball player. You’re going to be a baseball player, and we’re gonna see to that,’” he said. “At 10, I was playing against 18-year-old guys. At 15, I was playing professional ball with the Birmingham Black Barons, so I really came very quickly in all sports.”

Mays joined the New York Giants of the National League early in the 1951 season, four years after Jackie Robinson had integrated Major League Baseball.

He missed most of the 1952 season and all of 1953 while serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, spending much of his service time playing for the Army baseball team.

Mays returned to the Giants in 1954 and won the first of his two Most Valuable Player awards as he paced the Giants to a four-game World Series sweep of the Cleveland Indians.

Immortalised by ‘The Catch’

In the first game of that series, Mays pulled off The Catch, which remains one of the most memorable plays in baseball history.

Mays left his fans with countless memories. But a single feat served to capture his magic – one so unstoppable it was simply called “The Catch”.

In Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, the then-New York Giants hosted the Cleveland Indians, who had won 111 games in the regular season and were strong favourites in the postseason. The score was 2-2 in the top of the eighth inning. Cleveland’s Vic Wertz faced reliever Don Liddle with none out, Larry Doby on second and Al Rosen on first.

With the count 1-2, Wertz smashed a fastball to deep centre field. In an average park, with an average centre fielder, Wertz would have homered, or at least had an easy triple. But the centre field wall in the eccentrically shaped Polo Grounds was more than 450 feet away. And there was nothing close to average about the skills of Willie Mays.

Decades of taped replays have not diminished the astonishment of watching Mays race toward the wall, his back to home plate; reach out his glove and haul in the drive. What followed was also extraordinary: Mays managed to turn around while still moving forward, heave the ball to the infield and prevent Doby from scoring even as Mays spun to the ground. Mays himself would proudly point out that “the throw” was as important as “the catch”.

“Soon as it got hit, I knew I’d catch the ball,” Mays told biographer James S Hirsch in 2010.

“All the time I’m running back, I’m thinking, ‘Willie, you’ve got to get this ball back to the infield.’”

A tribute to Mays before the Chicago Cubs hosted his San Francisco Giants on Tuesday night
A tribute to Mays before the Chicago Cubs hosted his San Francisco Giants on Tuesday night - AP

When he retired, Mays held third place on the all-time home run list with 660, behind Hank Aaron at 755 and Ruth with 714. He was also the first ballplayer to hit 300 homers and steal 300 bases.

Mays was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility, won the Most Valuable Player award twice and was named to the all-star team 24 times, a record shared only with Hank Aaron and Stan Musial.

Mays was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015.

When Obama learned Mays was a distant cousin of political rival and former Vice President Dick Cheney, he lamented that he wasn’t related to someone “cool,” like Mays.