Willie Mays, San Francisco Giants legend and Hall of Famer, dies at 93

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Wednesday, June 19, 2024
World pays tribute to Willie Mays: SF Giants legend dies at 93
Reaction is pouring after the death of San Francisco Giants legend and Hall of Famer Willie Mays, who died Tuesday. He was 93 years old.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Willie Mays, whose unmatched collection of skills made him the greatest center fielder who ever lived, died Tuesday afternoon at the age of 93, the San Francisco Giants announced.

The Say Hey Kid left an indelible mark on the sport, with his name a constant throughout baseball's hallowed record book and his defensive prowess -- epitomized by "The Catch" in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series -- second to none.

All told, in a career that spanned 20-plus years (1951-73) -- most of them with his beloved Giants -- he made 24 All-Star teams, won two NL MVP awards and had 12 Gold Gloves. He ranks sixth all time in home runs (660), seventh in runs scored (2,068), 12th in RBI (1,909) and 13th in hits (3,293).

Mays was born on May 6, 1931, and grew up in Alabama. He excelled in baseball, football and basketball in high school. But his love of baseball trumped all sports. In 1948, at the age of 17, he began his professional career with the Birmingham Black Barons, helping the team to the Negro League World Series that season. Since Mays was still in school, he only played on the weekends with the club; he traveled with Birmingham when school was out.

The New York Giants caught wind of Mays and purchased his contract from Birmingham in 1950. Mays had no trouble acclimating, batting .353 in 81 games with Trenton that season. In 1951, Mays broke out with the Triple-A Minneapolis Millers; he batted .477 in 35 games before the Giants recalled him in May.

At age 20, Mays was the 10th Black player in the major league history. After going hitless in his first three games, Mays' first career hit was a home run off Hall of Famer Warren Spahn in the first inning of the Giants' 4-1 loss to the Braves on May 28, 1951. Mays was also on-deck when the Giants' Bobby Thomson hit his NL pennant-winning home run against the Dodgers on Oct. 3, 1951, famously known as "The Shot Heard 'Round the World."

The Korean War interrupted Mays's career in 1952. He played in 34 games for the Giants (batting .236) before he was drafted by the U.S. Army. Mays was assigned to Fort Eustis in Virginia and he kept his skills sharp by playing games regularly. Mays also missed the entire 1953 season because of military service; he did not return to the Giants until the spring of 1954. But the layoff from professional baseball did not affect him. Mays won the first of his two career NL MVP awards that season, leading the league in batting at .345 and hitting 41 HR with 110 RBI. (Mays won his other NL MVP in 1965.)

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During Game 1 of the 1954 World Series against the Cleveland Indians at the Polo Grounds, Mays made one of the most famous plays in baseball history. With the score tied at 2 and two runners on base, Cleveland's Vic Wertz hit a 2-1 pitch to deep center in the top of the 8th inning. Mays sprinted toward the wall with his back away from Wertz. He made a basket catch while on the run, pivoted and fired the ball into the infield. Mays's catch and quick relay throw prevented both runners from scoring; the Giants won the game 5-2 in 10 innings.

Today, the play is simply known as "The Catch."

On May 11, 1972, Mays was traded from the Giants to the New York Mets for pitcher Charlie Williams and $50,000. After the 1973 season, Mays retired. In 1979, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In his 22-year career, Mays was selected to 24 All-Star games. He led the NL in home runs four times, and when he retired, his 660 home runs ranked third in big league history; he now ranks sixth behind his godson Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Ruth, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols. He also finished with 3,283 hits (12th all time) and 1,903 RBI (12th all-time) in his career.

With the exception of 1951, when he wore No. 14, Mays wore No. 24 his entire career. Mays' legacy still resonates in San Francisco. The Giants ballpark is located at 24 Willie Mays Plaza, complete with a statue of Mays. The city of San Francisco also celebrates every May 24 as Willie Mays Day.

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