No. 8: Willie Mays

The Say Hey Kid
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

"He was probably the best all-around player when you take everything into consideration. It seemed like that Willie never made a mistake," says Sandy Koufax about Willie Mays on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, December 10, 10 p.m. ET).

Mays, a two-time MVP who hit 660 home runs and won 12 Gold Gloves, was voted No. 8 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.

Signature game
Sept. 29, 1954 -- Mays and others believe he made better catches than his robbery of Vic Wertz. But because of the stage - Game 1 of the World Series - it is regarded as his greatest.

The game was tied 2-2 in the eighth inning when the Giants' Don Liddle relieved to face Wertz with runners on first and second and nobody out. The Cleveland Indians slugger cracked a drive to deep centerfield in the Polo Grounds, far over Mays' head. But Mays, traveling on the wings of the wind, raced after it. With his back to the infield, with his arms extended and his hands cupped, he caught the ball facing the right-centerfield bleachers, an estimated 450 feet from home plate. Then he swiftly pirouetted and, like a shot putter, threw the ball back in, losing his hat and his balance in the process.

"I had it all the way," the Say Hey Kid said later with a grin.

In the bottom of the 10th, Mays walked and stole second. After an intentional walk, Dusty Rhodes pinch-hit a three-run homer that gave the Giants a 5-2 victory on their way to a surprising Series sweep.

Odds and ends

  • Mays received $6,000 for signing with the Giants after graduating high school in 1950.

  • New York Journal American sportswriter Barney Kremenko said that in Mays' rookie season, the reticent Mays "would blurt 'Say who,' 'Say what,' 'Say where,' 'Say hey.' In my paper, I tabbed him the 'Say Hey Kid.' It stuck."

  • Mays' biggest booster was his first manager with the Giants, Leo Durocher. "I never taught him anything," Durocher said. "He taught me. Willie is the greatest player I ever saw. No doubt in my mind."

  • Three years before making "The Catch," Mays made "The Throw." On Aug. 15, 1951, he ran down Carl Furillo's drive in right-center, some 330 feet from home, wheeled, and threw out Billy Cox trying to score from third base. "It was a good play, but I got to see him do it again," Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen said after the 3-1 loss.

  • Mays was on deck when Bobby Thomson homered to win the 1951 pennant.

  • In 1954, "Say Hey" (the Willie Mays song) was recorded by the Treniers, with Mays singing background and Quincy Jones directing the orchestra.

  • From 1954-63, Mays batted lower than .300 just once (.296 in 1956). His highest averages were .347 in the team's first year in San Francisco (1958) and his National League-leading .345 in 1954.

  • When the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco, Mays was supplanted as a local icon by Orlando Cepeda. "This is the damnedest city," said Frank Conniff of the Hearst newspapers. "They cheer Khrushchev and boo Willie Mays."

  • On April 30, 1961, Mays hit four homers against the Braves (the first two off Lew Burdette) in a 14-4 victory in Milwaukee.

  • On the last regularly scheduled game of the 1962 season, Mays' homer off Houston's Dick Farrell in the eighth inning gave the Giants a 2-1 victory and enabled them to tie the Dodgers (1-0 losers) for first place. In the playoff opener, Mays hit two homers. In the ninth inning of the deciding third game, he had a key single in a four-run rally as the Giants won, 6-4.

  • Hitting 37 homers in 1966 gave a 35-year-old Mays a total of 542. But he never hit more than 28 again, and had just 118 in his final seven seasons to finish with 660. (By comparison, Hank Aaron hit 245 homers after his 35th birthday.)

  • Only Mays, Aaron and Eddie Murray have 3,000 hits and 500 homers.

  • In Mays' first game after being traded by the Giants to the Mets, in 1972, his homer gave New York a 5-4 win over his former team.

  • Mays holds the record for most home runs in extra innings, 22.

  • Mays never homered in 20 World Series games. He batted just .239 with only six RBI in 71 at-bats as his teams went 1-3.

  • Mays, Aaron and Stan Musial played in the most All-Star Games (24). Mays also holds All-Star records for at-bats (75), hits (23), runs (20), triples (3, tied with Brooks Robinson) and total bases (40, tied with Musial).

  • Voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979, he was the ninth player to be so honored in his first year of eligibility. But when 23 of 432 baseball writers failed to vote for Mays, Dick Young wrote, "If Jesus Christ were to show up with his old baseball glove, some guys wouldn't vote for him. He dropped the cross three times, didn't he?"