Giants legend Willie Mays dies at 93

Willie Mays, the iconic Hall of Fame center fielder who is known as the greatest all-around baseball player, died Tuesday, the San Francisco Giants announced. He was 93 years old.

Mays, nicknamed “The Say Hey Kid,” had a professional baseball career that spanned four decades, beginning with the Negro Leagues in the late 1940s and ending with the New York Mets in 1972. In between, he spent 21 years with the New York Giants, who would later move to San Francisco.

Mays' death triggered an outpouring of tributes, for both his decorated playing career and his impact on everything else around baseball.

Mays was born on May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama, and named Willie, not William. Both his parents were talented athletes, but his father was the one who introduced Mays to baseball. Cat Mays was a semi-pro player on several local Black teams and had his son sitting in the dugout with him at 10 after teaching him the fundamentals years before.

By the time he was in high school, Mays starred in several sports. His professional baseball career began in 1948, when he played for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro League before he had finished high school. He signed with the Giants after he graduated high school in 1950 and earned his call-up to the majors in May 1951 after barely a year of playing in the minors.

Mays was a true five-tool player, excelling at speed, throwing, fielding, hitting for average and hitting for power. He had a career triple-slash line of .301/.384/.557, with 660 home runs, 525 doubles and 338 stolen bases. He was the NL stolen-base leader four times and led the NL in homers four times. Over 24 seasons in the majors, he grounded into just 45 double plays.

In May, 10 hits were added to Mays’ career total when Negro League stats were officially integrated into MLB’s historical record. His home run total was not adjusted due to the lack of box scores from those games.

In the grand scheme of his career, it didn’t take long for Mays to become the amazing all-around player we remember today, but it wasn’t instantaneous. He debuted on May 25, 1951, and didn’t put up overwhelming numbers — his first hit, a home run, came against the Boston Braves in his fourth game in the majors — but won Rookie of the Year, the first of many accolades.

He also earned his nickname, “The Say Hey Kid,” in his rookie year. It was given to him by either his manager, Leo Durocher, or writer Barney Kremenko of the New York Journal American, who said he gave Mays that name because the shy, first-year player "would blurt 'Say who,' 'Say what,' 'Say where,' 'Say hey.' In my paper, I tabbed him the 'Say Hey Kid.' It stuck."

Mays spoke and sang backup on “Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)” in 1954, recorded by the Treniers, with music legend Quincy Jones conducting the orchestra.

Mays didn’t get the chance to follow up on his promising MLB debut until 1954, after he served two years in the Army during the Korean War. He spent most of that time (the majority of 1952 and all of 1953) playing on military baseball teams with other MLB players and traveling around to entertain the troops.

PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 2:  Willie Mays #24 of the New York Giants warms-up while catching fly balls at the wall before a Spring Training game on March 2, 1955 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images)
Willie Mays' status as an inner-circle Hall of Famer is only part of his legacy. (Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images)

When he returned home in 1954, the switch had been flipped. Mays had the greatest season of his career, hitting .345/.411/.667 with 41 home runs. He won MVP and was selected to the All-Star Game.

While that was his best overall season, he had many great ones after that. From 1955 to 1966, Mays finished in the top six of MVP voting in all but one year, winning MVP again in 1965 and coming in second two times. He was selected to the All-Star Game 20 times in his career (24 times if you count the second All-Star games from 1959 to 1962). He won All-Star MVP in 1963 and 1968, becoming the first player to win the award twice, and also won 12 Gold Gloves.

Despite his prolific hitting, Mays said he enjoyed fielding more than anything else.

"Don't get me wrong: I like to hit,” he told the Sporting News in 1955. “But there's nothing like getting out there in the outfield, running after a ball and throwing somebody out trying to take that extra base. That's real fun."

As a player, he set many on-field records, but one off-the-field record set an important precedent for future players. On Feb. 20, 1963, he signed a contract with the Giants worth $100,000 per year, the first six-figure contract in baseball history.

Despite his on-field success, Mays won just one World Series in his 24-year career, with the 1954 New York Giants, who swept the Cleveland Indians (now known as the Guardians). That series gave us one of the most iconic plays in MLB history: Mays’ famous over-the-shoulder catch.

The play, still known simply as “The Catch,” came in Game 1 at the Giants’ stadium, the Polo Grounds. The score was 2-2 in the top of the eighth inning, and the bases were loaded with Cleveland players. Cleveland’s Vic Wertz came up to bat and smashed a ball into the stadium’s cavernous center field. Mays, running at full speed from shallow center toward the wall, managed to track down the ball and make a stunning, no-look catch. Then he turned on a dime and fired a throw to second base, which prevented any runners from scoring.

Mays said he didn’t evaluate his outfield plays ("I don't compare 'em. I just catch 'em," he said via ESPN), but “The Catch” is still considered one of the greatest of all time.

And Mays never had any doubt that the ball would fall into his glove.

“I had it all the way,” he said.

Mays began a slow decline in the late 1960s, though he still posted a National League-best .425 OBP in 1971. The Giants traded him to the Mets in May 1972, after which he was finally playing in front of New York crowds once again.

While Mays wasn’t named an All-Star in 1972 for the first time in his career, he earned another nod in 1973, his final season.

After retiring, he became the Mets hitting coach until 1979, when he terminated his baseball contract to become a greeter at an Atlantic City hotel and casino. Then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn banned Mays from baseball due to the gambling connection, but he was reinstated in 1985 by Peter Ueberroth, Kuhn’s successor.

The Giants, who retired Mays’ number in 1972, signed him to a lifetime contract in the 1990s, making him a permanent special assistant to the president. He spent years visiting the Giants’ minor-league teams, attending spring training and making appearances on behalf of the club.

Mays is survived by his son, Michael. Mays married his wife, Mae Louise Allen Mays, in the early 1970s. She died in 2013 following a long battle with Alzheimers.

Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility. It was a surprise that he wasn’t a unanimous choice. Twenty-three members of the BBWAA didn’t select him on their ballots, giving Mays 94.68% of the vote.

New York Daily News writer Dick Young was flabbergasted.

"If Jesus Christ were to show up with his old baseball glove, some guys wouldn't vote for him,” Young wrote. “He dropped the cross three times, didn't he?"

Despite those 23 Mays-less ballots, Mays was revered in the industry. Years after he retired, many baseball announcers of that era still considered him to be the best all-around player they ever watched.

His first manager, Leo Durocher, maintained through the years that Mays came to the majors fully formed as a legend.

"I never taught him anything," Durocher said. "He taught me. Willie is the greatest player I ever saw. No doubt in my mind."

Warren Spahn, who pitched the ball that became Mays’ first major-league hit (a home run), reflected on that moment years later.

"He was something like 0 for 21 the first time I saw him. His first major-league hit was a home run off me — and I'll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I'd only struck him out." (Mays was actually 0 for 12 when he faced Spahn the first time.)

Even celebrities understood how talented Mays was.

“I can’t stand Willie Mays,” Dodgers fan Cary Grant said in 1971. “Imagine, knowing when a fellow is going to hit the ball and how far and where and at what instant it will come down at a given point and being there when it does.”

Actress Tallulah Bankhead summed it up simply: "There have been only two authentic geniuses in the world: Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare."

In 2015, Mays received the greatest honor the government can bestow on a civilian: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When he was given the award by President Barack Obama, he joined Ernie Banks, Yogi Berra and Stan Musial as the only baseball players awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor.