No need to exaggerate Mays' greatness

There's a new biography of Willie Mays and it's getting rave reviews (including here, here and here).

Mays didn't write the book, but he "authorized" it and is getting half the proceeds, and that's brought him into the wonderful world of book promotion. In turn, that's led to a new round of appraisals, most of which are perfectly accurate -- since it's difficult to overstate Willie Mays' excellence -- but at least one of which ... well, let's just say I've tried to dispose of one misconception before, and clearly I failed.

    Outstanding as Mays was, his career was nagged by a huge "what if." Numerous observers believe that Mays, not Hank Aaron, would have been the first to surpass Babe Ruth's home run mark of 714 were it not for two factors. First, Mays spent part of the 1952 season and all of 1953 serving in the Army. Then, after the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, he played home games for 12 full seasons (1960-71) at Candlestick Park, where the incessant winds muted drives pulled to left field by right-handed-hitting sluggers such as him.

    Asked if Candlestick denied Mays batches of homers, former Giants broadcaster Lon Simmons responded without hesitation.

    "No doubt about it," said Simmons, who saw Mays' best years in San Francisco.

    Right-hander Bob Bolin recalled watching the gusts stifle dozens of Mays' clouts when the Giants' bullpen was situated down the left-field line in Candlestick's early years.

    "The ball would actually be out of the ballpark on those high drives, and the wind would push them back in," said Bolin, who pitched for the Giants from 1961 to 1969.

    Undaunted, Mays learned to stroke pitches to right-center field, where the breezes carried batted balls toward the fence. But if Candlestick frustrated him, he wouldn't reveal it.

    "It was miserable to play there, and he never, ever said how bad it was," said shortstop Chris Speier, who began his 19-year career with the Giants in 1971.

    Indeed, when asked about Candlestick, Mays cast no aspersions other than to say, "We picked probably the coldest place in the city to put a ballpark."

It's odd to me that so many people aren't content with Willie Mays' career.

Considering, you know, that purely on the merits of the existing statistical record -- well, that and the firsthand accounts of his adventures in center field -- he's one of the three or four greatest players who ever played.

That said, I would be happy to give Mays extra credit for all those extra home runs he should have hit. The only problem is that I can't find them.

Ballpark-wise, we can divide Mays' career into five chapters. I know, I know ... only two chapters come easily to mind. Please bear with me for a moment.

Chapter 1 - The Polo Grounds: Famously short down the lines, famously distant to deepest center field, the Polo Grounds was a lovely place for dead-pull hitters, not so much for gap hitters. Mel Ott was a pull hitter, and hit 323 of his 511 career home runs at the Polo Grounds. Mays not particularly pull-happy, or at least he didn't take particular advantage of those short porches in Harlem; in his Polo Grounds seasons, he hit 94 home runs there and 93 on the road.

Chapter 2 - Seals Stadium: While the Giants waited for their new digs on Candlestick Point, they played in old Seals Stadium for two seasons, during which Mays hit 32 homers at home and 31 on the road.

Chapter 3 - Candlestick (I): In 1960, the Giants moved into Candlestick, which was inhospitable to just about every sort of living creature, including right-handed power hitters. It was 335 feet down the left-field line, 397 feet to left-center, and 420 feet to straightaway center. By contrast, Seals Stadium had been roughly 30 feet closer in left-center, 20 feet closer in center. Willie Mays, the Giants' greatest player and the most famous player in the National League, hit only a dozen home runs in his new home (and 17 on the road). We'll never know how many home runs Mays "lost" to the wind and the spacious dimensions, but it might have been another dozen. It might have seemed twice that. And that's what everyone remembers happening, every year.

Chapter 4 - Candlestick (II): But that isn't the way it was. After just one season, the Giants pulled the fences in. Most dramatically in left- and right-center fields, from 397 feet to 365 feet.

365 feet!

In 1960, there were only 80 home runs hit in Candlestick: 46 by the Giants and 34 by their opponents. In 1961, that number jumped more than 100 percent, to 174 home runs. Wind or no wind, Candlestick went from being one of the toughest home-run parks in the National League to one of the easiest, and it seems unlikely, on the face of it, that Willie Mays wouldn't have taken advantage.

He did. In the five seasons before 1961, Mays hit 163 home runs. From 1961 through 1965, Mays hit 226 home runs and led the league three times. He was not a creation of the suddenly cozy Candlestick; of those 226 homers, 108 came in road games. But after 1960 Candlestick sure doesn't seem to have hurt his power numbers.

Mays hit 37 homers in 1966, and wouldn't top 30 again in his career. In his remaining seasons as a Giant, he usually hit slightly more homers at home than on the road.

Chapter 5 - Shea Stadium: Included only for the sake of completeness. Mays joined the Mets in 1972 and hit 14 home runs over two seasons: seven at Shea, seven on the road.

Mays did lose a significant number of home runs because of his military service in 1952 and '53. It's possible that if not for those missed seasons, he would have broken Ruth's record before Aaron did. When he did play, though, he hit 335 home runs in his home ballparks and 325 on the road. Most players probably do enjoy a slightly larger edge, but Mays played in a particularly tough place for power hitters in just one of his 22 seasons.

Those numbers that we see, unadjusted and unexaggerated, are a pretty fair representation of how good Willie Mays really was. And they're plenty good enough.