The town of Cooperstown, also known as the Mecca of baseball and a place synonymous with the game, is home to legends of the game. Located around 190 miles north of Yankee Stadium and 240 miles west of Fenway Park in the heart of the state of New York, the National Baseball Hall of Fame contains the finest players to have played the game, from Ruth and Robinson to Aaron and Aparicio; from Schmidt and Smith to Mays and Mantle. In anticipation of visiting the Hall Of Fame in late July for the first time, I will be covering a different Hall Of Famer each week here for Franchise Sports: some the revered, some the remembered, some the divisive, some the potentially forgotten. This week, the focus is on Giants legend Willie Mays.
AT&T Park is without question one of the most picturesque and well-known stadia in the whole of Major League Baseball. The view across the bay, the retired numbers on the stands, the World Series titles, the shadow of Alcatraz across the bay, the tram ride to the ground.
Along with all this stands a larger-than-life statue of Willie Mays, with whom we start our Cooperstown journey in this column. Willie Mays is not only the best San Francisco Giants player of all time, but perhaps one of the most recognisable, most talented and, let’s face it, coolest players across the game of all time.
If you try to make a limited list of the best hitters of all time, using any given metric, Mays will generally wind up somewhere near the top. He didn’t appear to have any weaknesses. His career WAR of 156.4 is 3rd on the all-time list for position players. He ranks 7th on the all-time list for runs scored (2,062), 5th for home runs (660) and 5th in extra-base hits (1,323). He appeared in 24 All-Star games, was a 12-time Gold Glover in CF, was a two-time MVP and was a part of the 1954 New York Giants’ World Series win over the Cleveland Indians. During that championship-winning season, even by his lofty standards, Mays was incredible, slashing .345/.411/.667 in 151 games with 41 home runs, 110 RBI and 175 OPS +. The Indians outfit the Giants defeated were no mugs; in fact they had won 111 games in the regular season, and were considered heavy favourites in the lead up to the showdown at the time. Unfortunately for them, alongside his phenomenal hitting prowess, it was, of course, down to Mays to steal the show; this time defensively out in CF as he famously and astonishingly ran down a fly ball by Vic Wertz with his back to the infield in Game 1, in a play which became known as ‘The Catch’.
All this from a player who, having started his career in the Negro Leagues with the Birmingham Black Barons, progressed through the New York Giants organisation before starting his MLB career by going 0-25, resulting in Mays begging to return to the minors (Mays had averaged .477 in AAA ball prior to his first call-up). However, Giants GM of the time Leo Durocher insisted he remain, such was his faith in the young man.
Such facts only give a brief idea of the quality of Mays’ career. He was the original 5-tool player; a player voted the second-best baseball player of all time by The Sporting News, and a man who having lived through the racially-segregated era of baseball at such an early age, came to the big leagues and left an impression still felt now on Giants baseball and the whole of baseball in general, thoroughly deserves his position in the Hall Of Fame. The only question, predictably, is why he ‘only’ amassed 94.7% of the vote from the BBWAA voters at the time – but given it took so many years for Mariano Rivera to break that ceiling, it is senseless dwelling on this detail!
AT&T Park, at 24 Willie Mays Plaza, plays host to his statue, ensuring his legacy is rightly cast in bronze. His place in Cooperstown, donning the cap of a Giants team he led both in the East and the West, ensures his legacy will forever be alongside the legends of yesteryear, today and tomorrow.
How deserved that is.