McCoy: Willie Mays was greatest player in baseball history

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

It is rare for a song written about baseball to become a standard, as one entitled ‘Talkin’ Baseball’ by Terry Cashman became.

It is about baseball’s Golden Era, the 1950s and he sings about many of its stars, but its featured lyrics are, “Talkin’ baseball, Willie, Mickey and the Duke, Say Hey, Say Hey, Say Hey.”

Willie, Mickey and the Duke were the three legendary center fielders that played at the same time in New York — Willie Mays for the New York Giants, Mickey Mantle for the New York Yankees and Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Cashman put Willie’s name first and the ‘Say Hey’ was the nickname New York sports writers called Mays. That’s because Mays could never remember names and greeted most people with, “Say hey.”

And those three center fielders were fantastic, Hall of Famers all, but while Mantle and Snider are legends, Mays was iconic.

Most baseball aficionados agree that Mays was the best all-around baseball player in the history of the game.

Check Baseball Reference’s Willie Mays page. It lists how many times in which Mays led the league in one category or another. It lists 37 of them. Thirty-seven!

Mays had two 50 home run seasons, he hit 20 triples one season, he won 12 Gold Gloves. He hit 660 home runs. He only won two Most Valuable Players awards and perhaps should have won more.

The significance, though, is that his first MVP was in 1954 and his second was in 1965. That’s a span of 11 years. No other professional athlete won two MVPs that far apart in any sport — baseball, basketball or football.

Willie Mays passed away Tuesday at age 93 and Ken Griffey Jr., who was Willie’s godson, said it the way I felt it, “When I heard it, my heart dropped to the floor.”

It wasn’t always that way for me.

It was 1954 and I despised Willie Mays. I was 14 and closed eyes about any player that didn’t wear a Cleveland Indians uniform.

And when Mays made ‘The Catch’ on Vic Wertz in the first game of the 1954 World Series, Mays was a four-letter word in my vocabulary.

Then the years passed, and I began to appreciate what Willie Mays was all about and I recognized him for what he was. There are great players and then there are legends.

Mays was on the top of any list of baseball legends. There was nothing he couldn’t do on a baseball field.

A writer once asked him if ‘The Catch’ was the best catch he ever made and he said, “I dont rate ‘em. I just catch ‘em.”

I began covering baseball in 1973, the last season the aging Mays played, a part-timer for the New York Mets.

I only met him once and that was because of my mentor, Earl Lawson of the Cincinnati Post. Lawson covered most of Willie’s career, but Mays never remembered his name. He called him Scoops.

Lawson introduced me to Mays, and we shook hands and I stood in awe, speechless, as Lawson and Mays conversed. I jotted a couple of notes.

But I did tell Mays how much I despised him after ‘The Catch’ and why. He gave me that high-pitched giggle, and said, “Glad I won you over.”

The next day Lawson I walked into the Mets clubhouse to interview manager Casey Stengel. Mays saw us and said, “Hey, Scoops. Hey, Lefty.” He didn’t remember my name, but he noticed the day before that I took notes left-handed.

Mays was flamboyant on the field without trying. He wore his cap a size too small so it would fly off when he whizzed around the bases, “Because fans liked to see my hat fly off.”

His description of himself was simplistic, “They throw the ball, I hit it. They hit the ball, I catch it.”

But there was never anything simplistic about Willie’s majestic talent.

And he was appreciative of what Jackie Robinson, baseball’s first Black player, meant for him. He once said, “Every time I look into my wallet, I see Jackie Robinson.”

The St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants, Willie’s old team, played a game Thursday night at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, the oldest professional baseball field in America.

Mays played at Rickwood for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League.

As a tribute to Mays, maybe one of the outfielders should have made a basket catch, if they could. Only Mays ever perfected that daring play of catching a fly ball at his belt, as if his glove was a basket.

I never interviewed him or talked at length with him. It was my great loss. I went from despising him to developing a baseball worship of what he was. The best ever. Truly a-Mays-ing.

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