Happy 80th Willie Mays - The best ever?

Willie Mays turns 80 today. Here’s an article by David Schoenfield arguing why the Say Hey Kid is the best to ever play the game. Agree? Disagree? I find it compelling, and I always have Mays in my Top 5, but I’m not sure he really overcomes Ruth.

The long-time St. Louis Cardinals announcer (and St. Louis icon) Jack Buck once said that Willie Mays was the most complete, most exciting baseball player he had ever seen. Buck wouldn’t go so far as to say Mays was better than Stan Musial (unthinkable in St. Louis) or Henry Aaron, but he clearly held Mays in higher regard than Mantle, Williams, Frank Robinson, Pete Rose or any other post-WW2 player except for Musial and Aaron.

Comparing Mays to a pre-war player? Different eras, different circumstances, different yardsticks.

Why is this even a discussion?
Joe Shlabotnik.

I’m not sure he did either. Ruth was a MVP quality major league pitcher with the Red Sox before he was moved to a home run position. It’s going to be extremely difficult to talk me out of the position that Ruth was the best baseball player ever.

That said, I have no problem with ranking Mays second.

I’d say without hesitation he was greater than Aaron. Aaron might have been a slightly mroe valuable hitter but it’s an awfully close call, and Mays was a wonder in center field. Aaron was no slouch with the glove, but there’s a big difference between a magnificent center fielder and a pretty good right fielder.

Comparing him to Ruth or Bonds is hard, as they’re different eras, and a lot of the article linked to in the OP feels like baby boomer rationalization.

If you wanna say Mays is the best ever, I’m not going to say you’re wrong. Mays was preposterously awesome. And it IS kind of silly that he only won the MVP Award twice.

I have always been of the opinion that you can’t NEVER decide who is the “best”–ranked by #1, # 2, etc. Useless.

You can perhaps say that a player is one of the top 5/10 or so players. Mays, IMHO, would be in the top ten.

Musial, while a great player, would not be in my top ten.

I just came in to say that for my very first live baseball game as a youngen, I saw Willie Mays hit a grandslam homer in Candlestick. :slight_smile:

Ruth’s pitching is vastly overrated these days - it seems it’s become increasingly popular to say “Oh, but Ruth would have been a HOF pitcher”. Eh - he played 5 years as a pitcher. Yes, he was very good - but he wasn’t the best pitcher in the league at any point during that stretch. Once he was moved into the lineup, he became the greatest player on the planet at the time. If the Red Sox or the Yankees had put him in the field on the days he wasn’t pitching - we’d be having an entirely different discussion. But that’s what it seems like this has become - that Ruth somehow was both a hitter and pitcher all at the same time.

I’m not going to disagree with the assessment that Mays was the best all-around player but you should know I’m probably biased since my formative early years as a baseball fan were spent in Northern California where, even though he was past his prime, he was a living icon.

That being said, I think Aaron did have an edge on Mays in terms of conditioning and keeping himself healthy so he could still put up productive numbers when he was in his late 30s (e.g., Aaron hit 40 home runs in 1973 at age 39). Aaron also avoided the injuries that plagued Mantle and losing some of his prime years to military service like Mays and Williams.

And you are right that is silly that Mays only won 2 MVPs in his career. There were at least 11 other seasons where he could’ve won and hardly anybody would’ve complained about it being undeserving. Of course, I think a lot of it had to do with the stinginess of NL MVP voters in letting one player get too many and the fact the Giants often came up short in terms of making the post-season.

I don’t consider Willie Mays the greatest player ever, though it’s not an outrageous suggestion. He did a lot of things extremely well.

But even among his contemporaries… I’m not sure he was as good as Mickey Mantle, who did everything Willie did AND got on base more.

As great as Mays was, he was something like a .239 hitter in the World Series with no home runs. Which may be a bit unfair because out of the four he was in, one came in his first year and one came in his last. And those Giants teams were loaded with talent in the 1960s (they were the first team to get a lot of players from the Dominican Republic) but finished a lot of seasons two games out of first. Which is not really Mays’s fault, the front office inevitably made poor trades and the manager in the first part of the 1960s was a bible thumping racist idiot (Al Dark, although it was his team, and not Herman Franks’s, who made it to the World Series).

It’s a small thing to criticize someone on and it is a team sport but shouldn’t “the greatest ever” have a more substantial record in the post season?

I wish I knew who did the voting but in 1969 “the centennial season of professional baseball” it was Joe DiMaggio who was voted “greatest living player”. Which went to his head, he insisted on being introduced last and as “greatest living”

But on the other hand, Mays could hit, run, field, throw and had power. Few players have all these tools as well as Mays.

DiMaggio’s elected as the “Greatest living player” in 1969 should be taken with about a pound of salt. Who really believed that?

The Mantle-Mays comparison is a fascinating one because Mantle really was a better hitter, and played very well in many World Series. Mantle was as good a hitter as Albert Pujols and was an outstanding center fielder, that’s how good he was. But he was falling apart by his early 30s and out of the game at 36; Mays played much longer.

I mean, I’m not gonna complain about getting either guy for my team.

Me neither- their slugging percentages are almost identical. Mantle got on base more because he walked more; he didn’t steal nearly as much, but by most accounts was extremely fast and COULD have stolen a lot of bases.

But as you say, Mays stayed productive a lot longer. Mantle had a lot more injuries (some were bad luck, some were HIS fault), and Mays took better care of himself. At his best, I think Mantle was a little better, but Willie stayed at his best longer.

When I was a kid, we always argued over who was greater, Mays or Mantle. I always liked Mays more, for pretty much the same reason that in prizefighting, brawlers like Dempsey are usually rated “greater” than boxers like Tunney: Mays was more exciting.

But Bill James made a very objective, convincing computation that Mantle’s overall contributions eclipsed Mays’. Specifically, Mays had an edge on fielding, Mantle on offense, and all things being equal, offensive contributions are greater.

Mays’ incredible catches and throws were the sort of things they write poems about, but Mantle’s bat won more games. According to James. (There’s that damn poetry again).

Mantle was also a terrific switch hitter. He was fast until he blew out his knee.
I don’t like Mays. A girl I know used to run autograph shows. She said he would collect the money and then smear balls white people offered. Caused her a lot of grief.
She said the hockey platers were the best gentlemen. Easy to work with and polite.

As a die-hard San Francisco Giants fan (I’m not old enough to remember them in New York) I’m going to say that Mays was the best ever. That being said, I’m not going to try to poke holes in the arguments for Ruth or Mantle; I’ll just politely point out that the are wrong :slight_smile:

I think Mantle was a LITTLE better, but I certainly don’t see why any Giant fan would feel he’d gotten the short end of the stick.

Do you actually believe such an obviously racist urban legend?

I never heard any racism attributed to Mays.

But around 1987, the Washington Post printed a letter from a woman who had recently taken her young son to a local bookstore where he was autographing a new book.

Mays coldly demanded money to autograph the kid’s baseball.

In light of what a ruthless business sports memorabilia has become in the last few decades, Mays’ actual demand doesn’t seem out of line. I’m sure he was being squeezed hard by some agent, maybe even forbidden to sign stuff for free.

But it was jarring to read about such rudeness by one of my childhood idols.

To me, what made Willie the greatest was how breathtakingly beautiful he was to watch. His movement in the field, at bat, and on the basepaths was so full of energy and natural grace. You just couldn’t take your eyes off of him when he was on the field.
The numbers certainly describe how effective he was, but for me the thing that makes a ballplayer really outstanding is measured by how much I want to watch them play. And I’ve never seen anyone I love to watch more than I did Mays.