AKA William Howard Mays, Jr.
Birthplace: Fairfield, AL
Race or Ethnicity: Black
Sexual orientation: Straight
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Baseball Hall of Famer
Military service: US Army (drafted 1952, discharged 1954)
Willie Mays was one of the best baseball players ever, maybe the best. Wearing jersey 24, he played for the New York Giants, and stayed with the team as it moved across the country to become the San Francisco Giants. In his late career, Mays returned to New York to play for the Mets. He could hit almost any pitch for average and power, with excellent fielding, throwing and baserunning skills. His career totals are staggering -- 3,283 hits, six-hundred-sixty home runs. And he did it all without steroids, and with two early years of his career spent in the Army instead of the ball park.
Mays' father was a semi-pro baseball player, and so was his grandfather. Even his mother had been a better-than-average high school athlete on the track team. His parents divorced when Mays was a tot, and he was raised by his father, with help from a close-knit family of cousins, aunts, and half-siblings. He attended segregated schools, and wore the same shoes until they were falling apart. He played quarterback on the football team and regularly led the basketball team in scoring, but his high school did not have a baseball team, so young Mays played on his father's company team, where he and the batboys were the only children on the field.
At 15, he was paid a dollar a game to play for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, and quickly earned a raise. He hit a double off Satchel Paige in his first at bat, but in his first year with the team, Mays' father's rule was that Willie could not accompany the team on road trips, and could not play on school nights, so until the school year ended he played only in home games.
After a few impressive years with the Black Barons, a scout for the New York Giants watched Mays play and wrote back to his bosses, "They got a kid playing center field practically barefooted that's the best ballplayer I ever looked at. You better send somebody down there with a barrelful of money and grab this kid." Mays signed with the Giants for $250 a month and a $15,000 signing bonus. His father had to co-sign the contract, as Mays was still a minor.
The Giants assigned him to their farm team in Sioux City, Iowa, but he never wore that club's uniform -- the manager made it clear there would be no blacks on his team. Instead Mays played for the Giants' affiliate in Trenton, New Jersey, where he was the only black player. He was jeered by fans for his color, received death threats, and he was housed in a seedy, "colored-only" hotel across town from the rest of the players. Years later, Mays told how several of his white teammates had come to his hotel room, snuck in the window and slept on the floor, to make sure he was safe and to let him know he was one of them. On the field, he hit .353 and was promoted to AAA (one step below the big leagues). Playing for the Minneapolis Millers, he hit a staggering .477 before being called up to the Giants at the age of 20.
The Giants were 17-19 and in fifth place when he arrived. He went without a hit in his first several games, but the team started winning on the strength of Mays' amazing defense. He collected just one hit in his first 25 at-bats, but ended up batting .274 that season, winning Rookie of the Year honors and leading the Giants to the pennant. Then Mays was drafted, and spent most of two seasons in the Army.
When he returned, he simply dominated the game, batting above .300 ten seasons, leading the league in hitting in 1955, '62, '64, and '65, and winning the league's Most Valuable Player award in 1954 and '65. In his career he had 7,095 putouts, the major league record for an outfielder, and won a dozen Gold Glove honors for outstanding defensive play. He undoubtedly would have won more Gold Gloves, but he was in his fifth season before the award was concocted. And even more than the stats might suggest, Mays won games by playing the outfield smart and certain, then came through with a clutch hit time after time.
In the first game of the 1954 World Series against heavily-favored Cleveland, with the score tied and two runners on base in the eighth inning, the Indians' Vic Wertz hit a deep, deep drive to center field -- Mays' territory. At the crack of the bat, Mays ran full-speed toward the wall, glancing up at the last moment to pull down the ball with an amazing over-the-shoulder catch that still makes all-time highlight reels. What sometimes is not shown, though, is what happened next. After catching the ball, Mays stopped cold, twirled around and shot the ball back to the infield, keeping the runner at first base from advancing, and holding the runner from second base at third. It killed Cleveland's rally, and sucked the spirit out of the team -- the Giants won the game and swept the series. Even decades later, it is called simply "the Catch", but Mays always said he had made many catches that were more impressive.
Off the field, he baby-sat for manager Leo Durocher's son, and during his years in New York he was often seen playing stickball with kids in Harlem. His salary peaked at a reported $175,000 for his final season, a pittance by modern standards, but Mays always sent money home to provide for his family in Alabama. He was generally considered a nice guy, and when the crotchety Durocher was eventually fired by the Giants he gave Mays a kiss on the cheek in the dugout. Mays was a good friend of fellow baseball player Bobby Bonds, and is the godfather of Bonds' son, Barry Bonds.
After his playing years, Mays worked as a coach and took a part-time job with Bally's Resorts. In perhaps the most boneheaded decision of then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's career, he ordered Mays to quit the Bally's job in 1979, because the company owned casinos and Kuhn feared baseball might be tarnished by his association with "the gambling industry". Mays quit coaching instead, and Kuhn banished him from baseball. Kuhn's decision was reversed a few years later when Peter Ueberroth became Baseball Commissioner.
A larger-than-life-sized statue of Mays now stands at the front gate of the Giants' ballpark, capturing him as he throws the ball from the outfield.
Father: William Howard "Cat" Mays (steel worker, b. 1912)
Mother: Anna Sattlewhite (d. 1953 childbirth)
Father: Frank McMorris (stepfather, married Sattlewhite)
Wife: Margherite Wendell Chapman (m. 14-Feb-1956, div. 1961, one son)
Son: Michael Mays (adopted 1958 with Chapman, concert promoter)
Wife: Mae Louise Allen (m. 27-Nov-1971, d. 19-Apr-2013 Alzheimer’s)
High School: Fairfield Industrial High School, Birmingham, AL (1950)
Endorsement of Coors 2001
Academy of Achievement 1975
NL Rookie of the Year 1951
National League MVP 1954
Hickok Belt 1954
Associated Press Athlete of the Year (male) 1954
National League MVP 1965
Alabama Sports Hall of Fame 1977
Baseball Hall of Fame 1979
Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame 1980
Hip Replacement Surgery 2004
SPORTS FRANCHISE HISTORY
New York Mets (1972-73)
San Francisco Giants (1958-72)
New York Giants (1951-57)
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
When Nature Calls (13-Sep-1985) · Himself
Author of books:
Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays (1988, memoir)
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