Why did Willie Mays win just two MVP awards in his career?

Mays and Berra remind us of the positive traits of American character (1:00)

William C. Rhoden explains why Willie Mays and Yogi Berra, who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, are still positive role models for people of the United States. (1:00)

Awards season is over and Mike Trout got screwed again. Or maybe he didn't, depending on how you view such things. Trout could have four MVP awards in four full seasons in the majors, but instead has just one, finishing second in the voting three times.

You know who else could have won more MVP awards? Willie Mays. He won only two, 11 seasons apart. When looking at Trout's historic four-year run in MVP voting the other day, I noticed Mays didn't rank in the top 10 of best overall totals. While he consistently ranked in the top 10 in MVP voting, he wasn't always in the top three, even though he was usually the best player in the league.

Considering Barry Bonds won seven MVP awards and nine others have won three, it's a little odd that Mays won just twice. So I thought I'd check and see what happened.


After winning Rookie of the Year honors in 1951, Mays spent most of 1952 and '53 in the Army. If not for those two missed years, he likely would have broken Babe Ruth's career home run record before Hank Aaron, an often forgotten historical note. He returned with a vengeance in 1954, winning his first MVP award as he led the National League with a .345 average and .667 slugging percentage (the highest of his career) while hitting 41 home runs and driving in 110 runs. Importantly, the Giants won the pennant, although this wasn't a prerequisite in the '50s: Of the 20 MVP winners across both leagues, seven didn't play on pennant winners.

WAR leaders

Willie Mays, 10.6

Robin Roberts, 8.6

Duke Snider, 8.4

MVP voting

Mays, 283 points (16 of 24 first-place votes)

Ted Kluszewski, 217 points (7)

Johnny Antonelli, 154 points

Kluszewski, a slugging first baseman, hit 49 home runs and drove in 141 runs, both figures leading the league. But did nearly a third of the voters really believe he was the best player in the league? Apparently so.


Mays led the NL with 51 home runs and also in WAR, slugging percentage, OPS, adjusted OPS and total bases and was second in batting average, runs, RBIs and stolen bases. The Giants fell to third place, 18.5 games behind the Dodgers.

WAR leaders

Willie Mays, 9.0

Duke Snider, 8.6

Ernie Banks, 8.2

MVP voting

Roy Campanella, 226 points (8 first-place votes)

Snider, 221 points (8)

Banks, 195 points (6)

Brooklyn teammates Campanella and Snider locked up in one of the closest votes ever, though Snider had the big advantage in WAR, 8.6 to 5.2. But Campanella was a catcher and viewed more as the team leader. The vote, however, was controversial: One voter left Snider off his ballot. If that ballot had placed Snider in the top five, he would have won MVP honors. That doesn't even tell the whole story, as Joe Posnanski wrote about with some detective work on that vote, in which a Philadelphia writer apparently listed Campanella twice on his ballot, first and fifth. The fifth-place vote was erased, everybody else moved up and the 10th-place vote apparently given to a Phillies pitcher named Jack Meyer. What we don't know: Did the writer intend for Snider to be his fifth guy? If so, Snider would have won.

Anyway, Mays finished fourth in the voting without any first-place votes.


Mays had a bit of a down year: 36 home runs, .296/.369/.557/, 84 RBIs, a league-leading 40 steals. Yeah, that's a down year for Willie Mays. The strong Giants teams of the late '40s and '50s had faded by now and the team finished 67-87. Willie actually hit well with runners on base, he just didn't have anybody to drive in.

WAR leaders

Duke Snider, 7.6

Willie Mays, 7.6

Hank Aaron, 7.1

MVP voting

Don Newcombe, 223 points (8 first-place votes)

Sal Maglie, 183 points (4)

Aaron, 146 (0)

Newcombe went 27-7 with a 3.06 ERA, so you can see why he won back when wins carried the day. The rest of the ballot? I guess you had to be there. Maglie was his Brooklyn teammate and went 13-5 with a 2.84 ERA. Roy McMillan was a Reds shortstop who hit .263 with three home runs and 51 runs; he got three first-place votes. I mean, he could apparently pick it, but that looks pretty weird 60 years later. Snider may have been the best player in the league but finished just 10th in the voting, behind four other Dodgers.

Mays finished 17th in the voting, behind a Reds pitcher named Hersh Freeman who pitched 108 innings with a 3.40 ERA.


Mays hit .333/.407/.626 with 35 home runs, 20 triples, 38 steals and won a Gold Glove in the first year those were introduced. He or Aaron was the best player in the league, but the Giants were again under .500 while Aaron's Braves won the pennant. Mays drove in fewer than 100 runs but hit .315 with runners in scoring position and .310 with men on base. Giants leadoff hitters had a .316 OBP and their No. 2 hitters had a .318 OBP. It's worth another study, but it seems Mays didn't have the RBI totals that Aaron did primarily because of the quality of hitters in front of each guy.

WAR leaders

Willie Mays, 8.3

Hank Aaron, 8.0

Eddie Mathews, 7.4

MVP voting

Aaron, 239 points (9 first-place votes)

Stan Musial, 230 points (5)

Red Schoendienst, 221 (8)

In the end, the right guy won (Mays finished fourth), but if a 36-year-old Musial playing first base and 17 fewer games won -- and he nearly did -- it would have been an embarrassment.


In his first year in San Francisco, Mays' home runs dipped to 29, but he hit a career-high .347 and led the NL in runs, OPS and steals.

WAR leaders

Willie Mays, 10.2

Ernie Banks, 9.4

Hank Aaron, 7.3

MVP voting

Banks, 283 points (16 first-place votes)

Mays, 185 points (3)

Aaron, 166 points (0)

Banks had a monster season, hitting 47 home runs and driving in 129 runs. He was a solid MVP choice. Of course, the Cubs finished 10 games under .500, eight games behind the Giants in the standings. So the Cubs' finish wasn't held against Banks. He did set a record for home runs by a shortstop and I'm guessing his RBI edge -- 129 to 96 -- was a decisive factor over Mays as well. Once again, not Mays' fault: He hit .331 with RISP and .373 with runners on (of course, stats that are only tracked retroactively). Banks also thrived in Wrigley: 30 of his 47 home runs came there and he hit .340 in the friendly confines, .287 on the road. What kind of numbers would Mays have put up there?


Mays hit .313/.381/.583 with 34 home runs, 43 doubles, 125 runs, 104 RBIs, a league-best 27 steals, won another Gold Glove (he'd win 12 in a row). However, he ranked just fourth among position players in WAR, the only time until 1967 that he'd fall out of the top three.

WAR leaders

Ernie Banks, 10.2

Hank Aaron, 8.6

Eddie Mathews, 8.2

MVP voting

Banks, 232 points (10 first-place votes)

Mathews, 189 points (5)

Aaron, 174 points (2)

Mays finished sixth.


By WAR, Mays was easily the best player in the league: .319/.381/.555, 29 home runs, 103 RBIs, 107 runs. As always, he played nearly every game (he played 151-plus games 13 consecutive seasons, with many of those during 154-game seasons). At 79-75, the Giants were also-rans behind the first-place Pirates.

WAR leaders

Willie Mays, 9.5

Hank Aaron, 8.0

Ernie Banks, 7.8

MVP voting

Dick Groat, 276 points (16 first-place votes)

Don Hoak, 162 points (5)

Mays, 115 points (0)

So, after giving the MVP to Banks two years in a row while playing on a losing team, in 1960 the voters suddenly reversed course and gave all the first-place votes to members of the Pirates. Groat hit just two home runs and drove in 50 and is often cited as one of the worst MVP winners, but his WAR of 6.2 was actually pretty solid. It wasn't Mays-solid, of course. Aaron was treated with even less respect than Mays, hitting 40 home runs, driving in 126 and finishing 11th in the balloting.


Mays hit .308/.393/.584, with 40 home runs -- his most since 1955 -- and led the NL with 129 runs, although Aaron slipped past him in WAR.

WAR leaders

Hank Aaron, 9.4

Willie Mays, 8.7

Ken Boyer, 8.0

MVP voting

Frank Robinson, 219 points (15 first-place votes)

Orlando Cepeda, 117 points (0)

Vada Pinson, 104 points (0)

The Reds won the pennant and Robinson, Pinson and pitcher Joey Jay (who got the other first-place vote) all finished in the top five. Robinson had an excellent year, 7.7 WAR. Mays finished sixth in the voting, Aaron eighth. Aaron probably got slighted in MVP voting to some extent, although he finished with more top-three finishes than Mays (seven to five). Note that Mays' teammate Cepeda finished second, apparently due to hitting six more home runs and driving in 19 more runs. RBIs, everyone!


One of the worst MVP results, not so much because Maury Wills didn't have a good season but because Mays had a monster year -- maybe his best -- and the Giants beat the Dodgers in a playoff to win the pennant. Mays hit .304 with 49 home runs and 141 RBIs and 130 runs (matching Wills). Wills had a .720 OPS compared to Mays' .999. And in the stretch run? Mays hit .337/.437/.673 in September with nine home runs and 28 RBIs in 28 games.

WAR leaders

Willie Mays, 10.5

Frank Robinson, 8.7

Hank Aaron, 8.5

MVP voting

Maury Wills, 209 points (8 first-place votes)

Mays, 202 points (7)

Tommy Davis, 175 points (3)

So why Wills? The writers were transfixed by his record 104 steals -- remember, steals had gone way down in the 1940s and '50s and nobody had stolen even 70 bases since Ty Cobb set the previous mark of 96 in 1915.

OK, so they got caught up in Wills' achievement in a time when the real value of stolen bases wasn't understood. They got it wrong. The weird thing: Nine of 20 voters didn't even put Mays in the top two. Aaron once cited race as a factor as a reason he got snubbed through the years, but I don't think that was the case with him or Mays: Wills, Robinson, Banks, Newcombe and Campanella were all black. The writers just found reasons to give the MVP trophy to somebody else.

In his biography of Mays, James S. Hirsch writes that Mays, while highly thought of by writers, "always had his critics. He rarely disclosed much except to his favorite reporters; he could be snappish if he didn't like a question or would stand up interviewers entirely. He was always his worst publicist. Some reporters took offense."

Is that what happened, at least in 1962? Impossible to know all these years later. I think it was as simple as the voters being mesmerized by something different -- the stolen bases -- rather than Mays' all-around brilliance.


Now 32, Mays was as good as ever: .314/.380/.582, 38 home runs. The Giants fell to third in the NL behind the Dodgers and Cardinals.

WAR leaders

Willie Mays, 10.6

Sandy Koufax, 9.9

Dick Ellsworth, 9.9

MVP voting

Koufax, 237 points (14 first-place votes)

Dick Groat, 190 points (4)

Hank Aaron, 135 points (1)

A loaded year as six NL players had a WAR of 8.0 or higher. Mays finished fifth in the voting.


Mays hit under .300 for just the second time since 1954 (.296) but led the NL with 47 home runs.

WAR leaders

Willie Mays, 11.1

Ron Santo, 8.9

Dick Allen, 8.8

MVP voting

Ken Boyer, 243 points (14 first-place votes)

Johnny Callison, 187 points (2)

Bill White (2)

The combined WAR of the top two guys was 12.2, not much higher than Mays' 11.0. He finished sixth with no first-place votes. This was the year of the Phillies' late collapse, as the Cardinals beat them and the Reds by one win for the pennant, with the Giants three games back. That certainly pushed Boyer to the MVP honors and apparently was enough to push Mays down in the balloting.


In terms of WAR, this was Mays' best season: .317/.398/.645, 52 home runs, first in the NL in home runs, OBP and slugging. The Dodgers beat out the Giants by two games to take the pennant.

WAR leaders

Willie Mays, 11.2

Juan Marichal, 10.5

Jim Maloney, 9.0

MVP voting

Mays, 224 points (9 first-place votes)

Sandy Koufax, 177 points (6)

Maury Wills, 164 points (5)

So even though the Dodgers won the pennant, Mays took MVP honors, in part because Koufax and Wills split votes. Koufax went 26-8 with a 2.04 ERA and a then-record 382 strikeouts. Wills stole 94 bases. Of course, it only took Mays' greatest season -- and perhaps a huge final month, when he hit .360 with 11 home runs -- to impress the voters, although given other MVP votes of the era, it's a little strange Koufax didn't win.


At age 35, Mays finally started the decline phase of his career, although he still led NL position players in WAR after hitting .288 with 37 home runs.

WAR leaders

Sandy Koufax, 9.8

Juan Marichal, 9.8

Willie Mays, 9.0

MVP voting

Roberto Clemente, 218 points (8 first-place votes)

Koufax, 208 points (9)

Mays, 111 points (0)

This was Mays' final hurrah as an MVP candidate, as he'd pick up votes only twice more but not finish in the top 10.

So there you go. If there's one thing to take away from this, it's the star power that existed in the National League at this time that made MVP voting pretty difficult: Mays, Aaron, Koufax, Robinson, Clemente, Banks, Mathews, Snider.

You do wonder if there was something else going on, the need for writers to prove they understand "inside baseball." Obviously, WAR didn't exist back then and voters focused on stats like home runs and RBIs and wins or, in the case of Wills, stolen bases. Some of these same debates continue today. It's easy (and boring) to give the MVP award every year to Mays. So one year the voters convince themselves of Groat's gritty leadership or the value of Wills' stolen bases or Banks' slugging exploits as a shortstop or favor a guy from a playoff team.

Sound familiar?