You love baseball. Tim Kurkjian loves baseball. So while we await its return, every day we'll provide you with a story or two tied to this date in baseball history.
ON THIS DATE IN 1931, "The Say Hey Kid" was born.
When Willie Mays debuted for the New York Giants in 1951, he quickly became the greatest combination of power, speed and defense that the game had ever seen. And nearly 60 years later, despite massive changes in today's athlete, Mays remains exactly that.
Mays dominated with flair, with charisma, whether he was chasing down a deep fly ball, making a famed basket catch that has never been duplicated, hitting a ball 450 feet, stealing yet another base as his cap flew off, or playing stickball with kids in the streets of New York.
"With Willie, it was like Tiger Woods coming to your town -- you always expected him to win," said Hall of Famer Lon Simmons, who came to San Francisco as a broadcaster in 1957. "The fans expected a miracle from Willie every day. He just gave them a miracle every other day."
When Mays retired in 1973, he had the third-most homers (660) and the 29th-most stolen bases (338). He won 12 Gold Gloves, most by any center fielder, most by anyone in the 500-home run club. His catch against Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series -- back to the plate, in the deepest part of the Polo Grounds -- might be the most famous defensive play in baseball history.
"Too much is made of it," Indians pitcher Bob Feller told me. "We all knew Willie would make that catch. It wasn't that hard. He's Willie Mays."
By virtually any measure, Mays is one of the five best players of all time. For some, he is the best ever; for others, only Babe Ruth was better. I once asked Rangers manager Doug Rader, who played against Mays, who was the greatest player he had ever seen. He said, "Willie Mays. Who else?"
Mays has to be the greatest living baseball player. And that incredible handshake, with those legendary vise grips for hands, is still strong as he nears age 90.
Mays made 24 All-Star teams. Perhaps the greatest tribute to his greatness came from Walter Alston, who managed the Dodgers, and occasionally, the All-Star team.
"When I was playing in the All-Star Game, Walter would tell me, 'OK, you know these guys better than I do, you make out the lineup,'" Mays said. "So I did. I hit leadoff to get something going. Then Roberto [Clemente] would get me over, Hank [Aaron] would get me in, and we were ahead."
Of course, Mays hit a homer to lead off the 1965 All-Star Game.
Other baseball notes for May
In 1862, Toss Kelly was born. He was an umpire. Toss Kelly.
In 1915, Babe Ruth hit his first home run. He would be the first to hit 30, 40, 50 and 60 in a season.
In 1998, Kerry Wood, age 20, struck out 20 and walked none in a 2-0 Cubs victory over the Astros. He joined Bob Feller as the only pitchers ever to strike out as many batters in a game as they were years old.
In 1941, Hank Greenberg hit two home runs for the Tigers. The next day, he reported for military service, making $21 a month as a private in the army. He was discharged Dec. 5, 1941, then reenlisted two days after Pearl Harbor.
In 2012, the Orioles' Chris Davis got the victory and Red Sox outfielder Darnell McDonald got the loss in a 17-inning game at Fenway Park -- the first time in nearly 90 years that a position player for each team got a pitching decision in a game. Davis, Babe Ruth and Jim Tobin are the only players in history to have a pitching victory and a three-homer game in the same season. Tobin did both in the same game in 1942.
In 2010, Robin Roberts died. He is a Hall of Famer. He won 286 games, mostly for the Phillies He was a wonderful and kind man. When I interviewed with ESPN in 1997, the driver of my car said, "I just dropped off one of my favorite people of all time, Robin Roberts." To which, I said, "Yes, he was great. One of the best pitchers ever. Won 286 games. One of the Whiz Kids." The driver looked back at me and asked, "Who are you talking about?" I explained again, the great pitcher, Robin Roberts. He said, "No. No. I'm talking about the Robin Roberts."