Considered by many the greatest player of all time, Mays was the prototype of the complete player; he hit for average and power, ran the bases with intelligence and speed, played a spectacular centerfield, and possessed a great arm. He was also remarkably durable, playing in at least 150 games for 13 consecutive seasons.
Mays starred in baseball, basketball, and football at Birmingham, Alabama’s Fairfax Industrial High School before joining the Birmingham Barons of the Negro National League at age 17. The New York Giants purchased his contract in 1950, and he played for Trenton of the Interstate League, then joined the Triple-A Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in 1951. In his 35-game stay at Minneapolis, he hit a sizzling .477, and the Giants called him up in late May 1951.
Mays had a discouraging 0-for-12 start with the struggling Giants. Manager Leo Durocher kept his spirits up by declaring that despite his poor start, Mays was and would remain the Giants’ full-time centerfielder that season. His first hit was the first home run of his ML career, off Warren Spahn. It helped Mays to end his slump, and he became one of the sparks that ignited the Giants in their classic, come-from-behind pennant chase, climaxed by Bobby Thomson‘s dramatic ninth-inning playoff home run that beat Brooklyn for the NL championship. Mays was on deck when Thomson hit it out. His World Series debut saw him play opposite future cross-river rival Mickey Mantle, who was also a rookie. The meeting foreshadowed the debate of nearly a decade about who among Mays, Mantle, and Brooklyn’s Duke Snider was the greatest New York centerfielder of the 1950s.
Mays served in the army in 1952 and 1953, and the Giants finished second and fifth, respectively. He returned to the Polo Grounds in 1954, leading the NL with a .345 batting average with 41 homers and 110 RBI to help the Giants to the NL flag. The 1954 World Series is most often remembered for a marvelous outfield play by Mays in the first game. With the score tied late in the game, Indians first baseman Vic Wertz clubbed a long drive to deep centerfield at the Polo Grounds. At the crack of the bat, Mays turned his back to the plate, raced for the outfield wall, glanced up at the last minute, and pulled the ball in over his shoulder. Nearly 430 feet from the plate, he whirled and threw on a line to the infield. The play killed the Indians’ threat, and the Giants won the game and swept the Series.
In 1955, his last season under manager Durocher, Mays led the league with 13 triples, 51 home runs, and a .659 slugging average. He won four consecutive stolen-base titles from 1956 through 1959. He stole 338 bases in his career and might have had more had he and the Giants not elected to minimize his chance of injury on the basepaths. His unique 1957 performance of 20 or more doubles, triples, homers, and stolen bases established his claim as one of the game’s greatest all-around offensive threats.
Mays had a habit of addressing his fellow players with a high-spirited “say hey” salutation, prompting New York sportswriter Barney Kremenko to call him the Say Hey Kid. An exuberant figure during his earlier days in New York, he became a folk hero by playing stickball with children in Harlem streets bordering the Polo Grounds. He was embraced lovingly by New Yorkers, who were heartbroken when the Giants moved to San Francisco following the 1957 season, but his reception in the Bay Area was lukewarm by comparison, and he was never shown the affection accorded to Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey, who debuted there. Some writers ascribed Mays’s limited popularity to his New York affiliation. Other writers found Mays to be aloof from the fans as well as the media, and there were rumors that he demanded special treatment from his managers. Nevertheless, he continued to shine. He cracked 49 home runs in 1962 as the Giants tied the Dodgers for first place on the last day of the season and captured the pennant in a three-game playoff before losing the World Series to the Yankees in a seventh-game 1-0 squeaker.
Along with Mantle and Aaron, Mays was the dominant slugger of the 1950s and 1960s. From 1958 through 1966, he produced eight consecutive seasons of over 100 runs and RBI. He collected four home runs in a game in Milwaukee on April 30, 1961, and he hit three homers in a game on two other occasions. He hammered 52 homers in 1965 to join Ruth, Foxx, Kiner, and Mantle as the only players with more than one 50-home run season. He hit 30 or more homers in each of 11 seasons. On May 4, 1966, Mays passed Mel Ott’s 19-year-old record of 511 National League home runs and finished his career with a total of 660, ranking him third on the all-time list behind Henry Aaron‘s 755 and Babe Ruth‘s 714.
Mays’s preeminence as a centerfielder is supported statistically by his career total of 7,095 putouts, the most in major league history. He used his patented basket catch on routine fly balls, and he regularly dumbfounded onlookers by making seemingly impossible plays. After a particularly astonishing display in which Mays raced to his left, speared a fly ball, spun 360 degrees counterclockwise, and threw the ball on a 325-foot line to nail a tagging Dodger baserunner at the plate, Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen commented, “I won’t believe that play until I see him do it again.”
In May 1972, the fading Mays was traded to the Mets. With them, he played his final season and made his final World Series appearance on a 1973 team that had finished the year with a record just slightly over .500. The ten-year contract he signed as a goodwill ambassador and part-time coach for the Mets took effect after his retirement as a player. Shortly after Mays’s election to the Hall of Fame in 1979, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn issued a controversial order requiring Mays to choose between his employment by the Mets and his job as a greeter for a hotel casino. Mays chose employment by the casino, and he was barred from his baseball duties in October 1979. However, the edict was lifted in 1985 by new commissioner Peter Uberroth. Mays then retained his job as greeter while serving as a part-time hitting coach for the Giants.