Saturday, May 7, 2011
Willie Mays turns 80
The greatest baseball player of all time turned 80 on Friday, and very few people who saw Willie Mays play in his prime would argue with that description.
I grew up in an American League market, so my views of Willie were limited to Saturday afternoons, when NBC's Game of the Week would often bring him into my living room, but there was never a doubt in my mind that those rare opportunities allowed me to be watching greatness.
Willie started his first full season as a pro in Minneapolis, where the Millers were the farm team of the New York Giants. He got off to a quick start in the spring of 1951 and was an immediate fan favorite. The Giants started slowly, and in late May, Willie got the call from Giants Manager Leo Durocher, telling him he was coming up to the Giants. The story has it that Mays told Durocher he didn't think he was ready for the big leagues. Durocher asked what he was hitting in Minneapolis. ".477," Mays said. "Well, do you think you can hit two-****ing-fifty for me in New York?" Durocher said.
Mays went to New York, was rookie of the year, and helped the Giants win the pennant. (He was the on-deck hitter when Bobby Thomson hit his famous pennant-winning homer in October.)
From then until his retirement in 1973, Mays did everything you could ask from a ballplayer. A lifetime average of .302, 660 home runs, 1,903 RBI and 338 stolen bases. Had he not lost nearly two full seasons to military service (he played only 34 games in 1952 and 1953 combined), and had he not played in the hitter-hostile environment of San Francisco's Candlestick Park, it would have been Willie, not Hank Aaron, who first broke Babe Ruth's mark of 714 career homers.
One more set of numbers - This is an AVERAGE Mays season: .302 BA, 36 HR, 103 RBI, 79 walks, 18 stolen bases. Do that today, and you'd make more than Joe Mauer's $26 million per year. The most Willie ever made was $165,000.
And yet the numbers alone don't do justice to what Willie did on the field. He had the strongest throwing arm of any outfielder in his era, maybe ever. He ran the bases "like he was riding a bicycle," as one writer once put it. He was the best center fielder ever, and when you talk about the greatest catch ever, the discussion pretty much begins and ends with his catch of a Vic Wertz blast in the 1954 World Series. He made the All-Star team 20 times, and received 95% of the possible votes in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility.
(The above picture is from the night he hit four home runs in 1961. YOU try holding four baseballs in one hand.)
A number of books have been written about him, but the one I recommend most is "Willie's Time," by Charles Einstein. It's not just a baseball book, but tells Mays' story in the context of the radical changes in American society from the 1950s through the '70s. A very good read.
Fortunately, I was given pretty free reign as far as names went when my boys were born. The oldest is Travis Carew Droogsma, named after another guy who handled the bat pretty well, and when our youngest came along, it was sort of a no-brainer for me: William Mays Droogsma.
My Willie graduates from college this Saturday, just days after his namesake turned 80. He, too, was a pretty good ballplayer, starting for a state championship team as a 12-year-old before turning his attention to hockey and golf. Happy Birthday, Willie, and congratulations, William. It was great to watch you both.