He helped usher in the era of MLB’s westward expansion, his star power fueling the New York Giants’ move to San Francisco in 1958. He hit 660 homers and may have beaten Hank Aaron to Babe Ruth’s record had he not lost nearly two years to military service. He has more seasons (six) of 10-plus Wins Above Replacement than Barry Bonds and Mike Trout combined. And he is the correct answer to these three questions: “Who is the oldest living Baseball Hall of Famer?” “Who is the greatest living ballplayer?” And, “Which ballplayer appeared three times on ‘The Donna Reed Show’ and once each on ‘Bewitched’ and ‘Mr. Belvedere’?”
Willie Mays contains multitudes.
In the living history of the Black ballplayer, he is the Alpha, the headwaters of a river that bends in some places, swells in others and sometimes seems in danger of drying up. His first major league manager was Leo Durocher, who played with Ruth. He was on deck when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard ’Round the World. He is Barry Bonds’s godfather.
When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Mays was a 15-year-old phenom in Westfield, Ala. His father pulled him aside after the news broke and said, “Now you have a chance, son.” He was 17 when he joined the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League, 19 when he signed with the Giants for $4,000, 20 when he debuted in the majors in 1951 and 42 when he hung up his spikes in 1973.
He was today years old when his influence was last felt by the Black ballplayers who have followed him.
“There was a steady climb for us, and it was literally on the backs of players like Willie,” said Tony Clark, a big leaguer from 1995 to 2009 who in 2013 became the first Black executive director of the MLB Players Association. “I’m grateful and thankful for him. I obviously didn’t accomplish half of what he did as a player, but he and the others helped pave for myself and other Black ballplayers to play the game we love.”
Mays’s place in the history of the Black ballplayer is sometimes lost — overshadowed by his place in the history of the greatest ballplayers. He didn’t have Robinson’s barrier-breaking import; he didn’t even integrate the Giants, with Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson beating him to the roster by two years.
What Mays did, though, was no less important. With his dazzling flair and ebullient personality, he became the first Black ballplayer to cross over into the greater public consciousness — to win over White America.
“While Jackie had the task of breaking the color barrier, and while there were legions of fans who fell in love with Jackie, there were also many who hated his guts for what he represented,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. “We never saw that level of hate with Willie. He experienced it in the minor leagues. But he grew into this iconic figure.
“He never succumbed to the weight of carrying his race. Every single player who broke into the majors in that timespan felt that added pressure of representing their race. There was a feeling of, ‘Oh, man, I can’t afford to fail.’ But Willie shouldered that tremendously well.”
Broadcaster Bob Costas remembers coming of age in New York City in the 1950s, when the question on every kid’s mind was this: Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays? As a Yankees fan, Costas’s pick was easy, though he concedes that even then he knew Mays was the better all-around center fielder.
“You had to have seen Mays to appreciate him,” Costas said. “You had to see how electric it was when he walked from the on-deck circle to the plate. How he made even the routine play seem so stylish and distinctive. How he loped into the dugout at the end of the inning. How his hat would fly off on the base paths. He was so magnetic. The stats support it, but they don’t tell the whole story.
“But there were some guys I knew, regrettably, whose affinity for Mantle over Mays was more based on race. It would be naive to think there weren’t some people who would’ve preferred a White superstar to be at the top of the pyramid.”
The embrace of Mays by so many White Americans can create the impression that he sailed through life without being subjected to overt racism — a laughable notion that, among other things, whiffs on the entire point of why the Negro Leagues existed in the first place. For every Willie Mays who made it out of the Negro Leagues and into the majors, there was a Piper Davis or a Pepper Bassett — two Birmingham Black Barons teammates who mentored the teenage Mays — who didn’t.
“We were playing for generations of players who were held back. We had a lot to play for, not just [for] us,” Mays told author John Shea in the memoir they co-wrote, “24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid.”
Mays’s Black Barons shared their stadium with the Class AA Birmingham Barons, whose play-by-play broadcaster was noted white supremacist Bull Connor. Connor doubled as the city’s public safety commissioner, occasionally enforcing segregation policies with fire hoses and police dogs.
Even in San Francisco, a supposed bastion of progressive tolerance, Mays’s initial attempt to buy a house in November 1957 — a cash offer of $37,500 for a home with majestic views on fashionable Miraloma Drive — was upended when the seller, under pressure from fellow homeowners who didn’t want Black people in their neighborhood, suddenly pulled out of the deal.
“Willie Mays, the spectacular center fielder of San Francisco’s newly acquired Giants, ran into the color barrier here yesterday,” read the San Francisco Chronicle of Nov. 14, 1957. “He and his wife were turned down in their attempt to buy a house — because they are Negroes.” It took pressure from San Francisco’s mayor and others to put the deal back on track, but 18 months later someone threw a bottle through Mays’s front window. (Mays still lives in nearby Atherton, in a house he bought in 1969.)
The view of Mays’s place in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s is frequently colored by the criticism lobbed at him by Robinson, who more than once called out Mays for not saying and doing more in the name of the larger cause. Robinson once called Mays a “do-nothing Negro.”
Mays didn’t “wish to stir things up,” Robinson wrote in his 1964 book, “Baseball Has Done It.” “But there’s no escape, not even for Willie … from being a Negro.”
Robinson’s criticism stung, and the sting has only partially subsided. In “24,” Mays wrote: “Jackie did a lot of things for the race. I did what I did. I didn’t always go out and talk in the public. Sometimes I’d do it behind the scenes. … I didn’t tell everyone what I did.”
It also seems unfair, even for Robinson himself, to hold Mays, who grew up poor in the 1940s Deep South with only a high school education, to the same standards for activism as Robinson, who grew up in Southern California and was educated at UCLA.
“Their experiences and backgrounds were vastly different. That shaped who they were as men,” said Clark, the MLBPA leader. “And we needed them both.”
Kendrick, the Negro Leagues museum president, argued that Mays did as much for the larger cause of the Black community by being himself and demonstrating his superiority on the field as Robinson did with his own actions and words.
“I understand where Jackie was coming from because he wanted Willie to be more like him and be on the front lines,” Kendrick said. “But it’s not everybody’s calling to do that. Willie Mays made his own indelible impact on civil rights in a completely different way. What Willie did, and what the vast majority of those players did who transitioned from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues, was they demonstrated that there wasn’t a level of superiority [based on race].
“And it made people more cognizant that this [colorblind equality] shouldn’t be confined to the playing field but should be present in every walk of life.”
There can never be another like Mays, if only because the elements for his creation no longer exist. Baseball no longer holds the imagination of the country the way it did in the 1950s and ’60s. Mays, a three-sport high school athlete who was the quarterback of the football team and a high-scoring guard on the basketball team, probably wouldn’t even choose baseball, with its longer developmental curve, if he emerged today out of Alabama.
And there can never be another Mays because the game doesn’t produce superstars like him anymore. No one of recent vintage who is in Mays’s ballpark as a player — not Bonds, not Alex Rodriguez and not Albert Pujols, all of whom passed Mays on the all-time home run list — is anywhere near as beloved nationally as Mays. And no one who comes close to Mays’s radiance as a star could touch him as a player.
“Derek Jeter, as an example, is a great, classy player, with a franchise where history matters,” Costas said of the Yankees’ Hall of Fame shortstop. “But as great as he was, you can’t say he was as great a player as Mays.
“You have all the factors with Mays. The objective greatness. The charisma and magnetism and style. And then his personality. When you saw him interviewed, you just liked him. And he had great contemporaries to be measured against in Mantle and Aaron.”
In the age of Technicolor superstars and on-demand streaming, it is hard to get jazzed about grainy, black-and-white footage of an over-the-shoulder catch, especially when the old folks are constantly telling you that’s what real baseball was. But Mays has never meant more. The nine-plus months between April 6, 2020, and Jan. 22 — a period when Mays, like much of the world, was sequestered at home amid a global pandemic — brought an unprecedented run of deaths of Hall of Famers, among them some of Mays’s closest friends: Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Phil Niekro, Tommy Lasorda, Don Sutton, then Aaron himself. Only Lasorda and Ford were older than Mays.
So when a fully vaccinated Mays emerged for a celebration of his life at Oracle Park on May 7, the day after his 90th birthday, it was as if he understood what his mere flesh-and-blood presence meant to people. He was mostly pushed in a wheelchair. Glaucoma and macular degeneration have robbed him of much of his eyesight, and his hearing isn’t great, either. But when a Sharpie and a box of baseballs were placed in front of him, he signed them carefully and slowly. And when the Giants paraded him around the warning track in a 1956 Oldsmobile convertible, the crowd roaring at the sight of him in the passenger seat, he pushed himself up against the seat-back so his head could be above the windshield, giving the fans a better view.