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Willie Mays Carries the Torch for His Generation


I once asked Willie Mays what his proudest achievement was in baseball.

His oft-cited designation as the greatest all-around player in history?

His two Most Valuable Player Awards?

The Catch?

None of the above.

“I came into the league with a 32-inch waist and I retired with a 32-inch waist,” he told me 12 years ago when I interviewed him for a biography.

A bit surprising, but not really. Mays takes great pride in his durability as a player, and it wasn’t an accident. He never drank, never smoked, watched his diet and rarely went clubbing.

His self-discipline made possible an epic career that began with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948, reached exalted heights with the New York Giants in the 1950s and didn’t end until 1973. Playing center field for 22 years in Major League Baseball, with a record 7,095 putouts and with 6,066 total bases, Mays surely ran more miles on the field, and with greater speed and more style, than any player before or since.

And he’s still going.

Mays will turn 90 on Thursday. He is the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame, which recently has become particularly bittersweet. Since the beginning of 2020, we have seen the passing of 10 Hall of Famers, including Henry Aaron, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline and Tom Seaver, all of whom were Mays’s contemporaries.

Mays at the Polo Grounds in 1954.Credit…Patrick A. Burns/The New York Times
Mays at Shea Stadium in 1973.Credit…Associated Press

It’s as if a curtain were falling on an entire era of baseball, and an extraordinary era it was — from the 1950s through the ’70s, a period when M.L.B.’s expansion west turned the game into a transcontinental enterprise; when the burgeoning medium of television created instant megastars; and when the All-Star Game mattered. When the “Game of the Week” was must-watch TV and baseball was venerated as a model of inclusion and diversity.

Mays alone now holds the torch for that era.

He has lived in the Bay Area since the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, and he lives in a house he purchased in 1969. He typically travels to Scottsdale, Ariz., for the Giants’ spring training — he holds court in the clubhouse and gives young players nicknames — but Covid-19 restrictions kept him housebound this year.

A small circle of loyal friends looks after Mays, but aging is not much easier for a living legend than it is for someone else. Glaucoma has compromised his vision so that he has not driven in years, and even watching the games on TV can be difficult, though his ears still perk when he hears an announcer cry, “A Willie Mays catch!”

“He didn’t have to throw the ball,” Mays will grumble. (After his over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series, Mays’s throw from deep center in the Polo Grounds prevented the go-ahead run at second from tagging up and scoring.)

As with anyone who reaches his ninth decade, what is most difficult for Mays is that he keeps losing friends and loved ones — and he has always been anxious about death. He was raised by his Aunt Sarah in Fairfield, Ala., and when she died in 1954, Mays returned home for her funeral but was so distraught that he stayed in his bedroom for most of the visit. He avoids all funerals, if possible, but they are, of course, inevitable. His beloved wife, Mae, died in 2013, and rarely does a month go by in which someone he knows from the baseball world, including the Negro leagues, does not pass away.

He was particularly close to Seaver, who as a college player noticed that Mays didn’t button the top of his jersey, so Seaver never buttoned the top of his. They became teammates when Mays was traded to the Mets in 1972, and before each game Seaver started, Mays asked him how he was going to pitch each hitter. As the game progressed, Seaver discreetly signaled to Mays in center what adjustments he was making on the mound, and Mays repositioned himself accordingly.

Those subtleties are why Mays’s lifetime stats, as exceptional as they are — .302 batting average, .941 O.P.S., 660 home runs, 338 stolen bases, 12 Gold Gloves — do not capture his true greatness. He defied the box score.

The paradox of Mays’s career is that the part he is most proud of — his durability — is not only overlooked but completely subverted by the misfortunes of his final game. It’s time to correct the record.

Mays wasn’t just durable (2,992 regular-season games). He rarely took a day off.

His first full year was 1954, when the season was 154 games, and he played in more than 150 for eight straight seasons. In 1962, when the National League extended its season to 162 games, he played in every one (plus two All-Star Games), and he continued at close to that clip for the next four years. In 1966, he played all 10 innings of the All-Star Game in St. Louis’s muggy 105-degree heat. How hard did he push himself? Twice in his career, Mays collapsed on the field or in the dugout from exhaustion and was hospitalized. Not until he was 41 did he play fewer than 100 games.

Mays made a pair of fielding mistakes in Game 2 of the 1973 World Series, but the 42-year-old also collected the final hit of his career in the 11th inning of that game, which the Mets won.Credit…Associated Press

Along the way, he won his second M.V.P. Award at 34, and was still one of the game’s best players at 40 — his .907 O.P.S. was 225 points above the league average. The following year, in 1972, he led the Mets in on-base percentage and was third on the team in batting average. It was the Say Hey Kid’s triumphant return to New York, and had he retired then, after years of slamming into catchers and crashing into walls, he would have been remembered for his rugged invincibility.

But Mays played one more year, 1973, and injured throughout the season, he appeared in only 66 games. The Mets reached the World Series, and though Mays had barely played in six weeks, in Game 2 in Oakland, he pinch-ran in the ninth inning and was then sent into center field. It was a brutal sunny day, with players staggering under pop-ups all day (six errors were committed). In both the ninth and 12th innings, Mays lost fly balls in the sun and looked terrible doing so. He was scorned for his pratfalls.

Never mind that many great athletes — Babe Ruth and Aaron in baseball, Johnny Unitas, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan in other sports — play too long. Mays became the cautionary tale for all athletes — and, for that matter, entertainers and politicians — who don’t know when to quit.

Mays is too proud to acknowledge that this hurts him, but I’m certain it does. He makes no claims about being the greatest player of all time and isn’t interested in the discussion. He dismisses comparisons to other players. He jokes that if he had known stats were important, he would have paid attention to them. He is too stubborn to be an egotist.

What was important to him was that he helped his team win, he entertained the fans and he honored the game — which, in his mind, he did by playing every game he could, as hard as he could, as long as he could.

Willie Mays at 90? Of course. It befits a man whose durability, on and off the field, is his legacy — and whose endurance is a poignant reminder of a certain era in American sports, glorious but vanishing.

James S. Hirsch is the author of “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend.”