Willie Mays: The Greatest of All-Time

Over the last few months, writer Joe Posnanski has been counting down his Top 100 baseball players of all-time at The Athletic. This week, he named Giants legend Willie Mays as Number 1.

It’s a name that really sings, doesn’t it? Willie Mays. Say it out loud, but say it quickly. Willie Mays. For 70 years, that name has echoed on streets and playgrounds, ball fields and school yards. Willie Mays. Imagine little kids across the country in 1951, when Willie debuted with the New York Giants, hearing that name dance out of their radio. Willie Mays. Imagine it rolling off their dad’s tongue in 1954, as he read aloud the story of The Catch from the morning sports page. Willie Mays.

That name continues to dazzle, though it’s been almost 50 years since Willie Mays last played in the major leagues. When my sons and I play baseball, they argue over who gets to “be” Willie Mays. And if you think I’m exaggerating, this was Tuesday:

He’s just three (and it’s fitting because I tried to name him Willie Mays, though my wife would not give in). He has never seen Willie Mays play, of course. He can tell you he was on the Giants. I think he could tell you his jersey number, but that’s about it. There’s something about that name that sparks the imagination, though.

Last Friday, Joe Posnanski published the next in line in his Top 100 series on The Athletic: No. 2, Babe Ruth. I think I gasped. I had long assumed Ruth would be #1. I predicted Joe would have Willie Mays #3. But #1? I read through the Ruth story, and it was fine, but I waited all weekend to read his story on Mays, and it did not disappoint. Here’s how it begins:

Think for a moment about the first vivid baseball memory you have.

Perhaps you have a hollow plastic bat in your hands and a Wiffle Ball floats toward you. How old are you? 3? 5? Older? All you want to do is hit the ball. Where does that hunger come from? Who taught you that? Nobody. It is an instinct. You stand rigidly with your legs spread apart and the bat resting on your shoulder — maybe your parents set you up that way like an action figure. The ball dangles in midair like a disco ball. You swing the bat the way you imagine it should be swung, and you connect, perfect contact.

The ball takes off like a leaf caught in the wind, and you begin to run and stumble toward invisible bases that hide in the grass. You run a tight circle around the pitcher — is it your dad? Your mom? Your grandpa? Your best friend? — until you make it all the way around.

And when you get back where you started, you tumble over in the best version of a slide that you can muster. Who taught you how to slide? No one. You just knew.

That memory is Willie Mays.

Perhaps you are at a ballpark. Everything looks so green. You’d seen games on television. You’ve looked at boxscores and imagined. But you never believed it could be so green.

The smells overwhelm you — what is that? Beer? Hot dogs? Funnel cakes? Sweat? Yes. All of it. Baseball smells like an amusement park and a backyard barbecue and an afternoon at a movie theater and recess at the playground all at once. Then you hear the sounds, cheers and chatter, boos and a vendor selling peanuts, claps and stomps and groans and hopeful screams that either rise into happy symphonies or trail off into disheartened sighs, all while an organist plays “Hava Nagila” and a Mexican Hat Dance and a cavalry charge and that nameless song that plays a duet with your rapid heartbeat.

Here we go (YOUR TEAM), here we go (CLAP CLAP).

Maybe you even keep score. You’d have to be a certain age for that to ring true, probably. To keep score, you mark (with your blunt pencil that barely leaves a mark) a 6–3 for a grounder to short or a 9 for a fly ball to right field or you trace that pencil all around the bases and draw a diamond for a home run.

And then a ball is hit deep and the center fielder chases after it, but there is no chance the ball can be caught, the geometry teacher in your head tells you so. Then you see the ball and the man converge, and at the last possible instant the center fielder takes flight and pulls it in, and all at once, all together, people lose their bleeping minds.

“Put a star next to that one,” someone tells you, and you do, you put a little star next to the “8.”

That memory, most of all, is Willie Mays.

Chills. Seriously, I’ve read that four times now, and it gives me chills every time. Posnanski absolutely nails it: Willie Mays deserves to be #1 because he was great, yes, but more than that he was and is everything great about baseball: he loved to play. Loved it. In all the clips I’ve ever seen, the joy he played with oozed from his pores. Look at the video of The Catch.

It’s INCREDIBLE on every level — the read, the speed, the athleticism, the determination, and the sheer difficulty — the impossible angle (straight back, which is just so hard to do), and then of course the way the ball sails right over his head and lands softly in his glove. Then there’s the awareness to immediately get the ball back into the infield, which saved the game, as the runner tagging from second had to stop at third (remember this is deep center at the Polo Grounds, so around 460 feet). But the thing that always tickles me about that catch is the panache — the way his hat flies off, the way he whirls around as he throws like he’s tossing a discus. He’s having an absolute ball, and it’s impossible not to love.

It doesn’t hurt, as a Giants fan, that he’s “ours.” Last season, we were driving on the freeway on the way to the ballpark when I came upon a license plate I had seen once before: 1SAYHEY. I said: “Oh my god. I think we’re about to drive past Willie Mays.” I sped up a little, then slowed down next to him. And sure enough, there he was, the Say Hey Kid, in the passenger seat. I waved. I don’t remember if he noticed. But I said to the kids, “Do you see that guy? That is Willie! Mays! FROM THE STATUE!” He was headed to the game, too.

It’s those days you show up to the ballpark and Willie shows up, too, that are really special. You feel like a little kid. And you get to point and say to your kids, “That, right there, is Willie Mays, the best baseball player there ever was.” No other fanbase gets that.

Willie turns 89 next month. And every time I see him I think, “Is this the last time?” But instead of getting sad, it makes me appreciate the experience more, and I cheer louder. Because I know he appreciates it. I hope someone read him Posnanski’s story — I know he’d appreciate that, too, because it’s great.

Posnanski sums up Willie Mays, and why he continues to resonate with so many, including two young boys in San Francisco, all these years later:

But even to the end, he sparked joy. What do you love most about baseball? Mays did that. To watch him play, to read the stories about how he played, to look at his glorious statistics, to hear what people say about him is to be reminded why we love this odd and ancient game in the first place.

Yes, Willie Mays has always made kids feel like grown-ups and grown-ups feel like kids.

In the end, isn’t that the whole point of baseball?

Consuming sports was different when Willie played. Not every game was on television. There was no national highlight show giving you the best plays of the night, every night. There are relatively few clips of Willie Mays actually playing baseball available even today. But my three-year old consumes sports the same way kids in the 1950s did: in brief clips that are fuzzy in their brains, in stories their parents tell them, and in the joy of saying a name like Willie Mays.

Thomas O’Brien is a litigation and estate planning attorney in San Francisco. When he’s not busy attending sporting events, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two young children. He can be reached at tjobrien@gmail.com.

Thomas O’Brien is an attorney in San Francisco. When he’s not busy attending sporting events, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two young children.

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