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Willie Mays Was The Quintessential Baseball Star


In recent years, few things have become more ubiquitous in sports than the phrase “GOAT.” The constant presence of sports talk radio on both radio and television has led to frequent use of the acronym, shortened from Greatest of All Time, in made-for-media debates about the best players in particular sports.

Often, debates about “GOATs” suffer from recency bias, in which younger commenters online do not even think to consider athletes who played before the days of Twitter, YouTube, and viral highlights. But Major League Baseball lost arguably its greatest all-around player on Tuesday, when Willie Mays passed away at age 93.

All-Around Talent

Separate and distinct from the “GOAT” acronym, baseball has a unique term for evaluating position players. Scouts often describe a stellar prospect as a five-tool player, one who displays excellence in all facets of the game: hitting for average, hitting for power, running, fielding, and throwing.

During his two-decade career, primarily with the New York and San Francisco Giants, Mays epitomized the five-tool player.

He had a .302 lifetime batting average and 10 seasons of batting in at least 100 runs. He hit a total 660 home runs, 54 fewer than Babe Ruth. If not for a nearly two-year absence when serving his country in the Korean War, Mays could have broken Ruth’s career home run record before Henry Aaron did.

Mays had the most stolen bases during the 1950s, even though he didn’t play for nearly two seasons during the decade, and was the first player to steal 30 bases while hitting 30 home runs.

He had a record total of 12 straight Gold Gloves for fielding, including at the age of 37 — an amazing feat for a center fielder, who must cover enormous amounts of territory in the outfield.

And as for throwing, while Mays’ famous basket catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series to rob Cleveland’s Vic Wertz of a near-certain inside-the-park home run has become legendary, few remember how he quickly pivoted and fired a missile from the depths of center field in New York’s Polo Grounds to prevent two runners on base from advancing in a tie game.

ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser made the cogent argument for Mays as a five-tool player: Babe Ruth was arguably the best power hitter, Ted Williams the best pure hitter for average, Roberto Clemente had the best arm, and so on. But Willie Mays ranks among the top three to five players in each of the five facets that comprise a position player, making him the most well-rounded baseball player.

Likewise, ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian noted that when reporting a story several years ago, virtually all the former players he interviewed named Mays as the best they had seen or played with. If the respect of one’s peers and colleagues constitutes the true mark of excellence, then Mays had it in spades.

Mays also brought with him a certain panache, both on and off the field. While Aaron spoke softly and let his game do the talking, Willie Mays carried himself with a style and swagger that few could match. Not many baseball players have popular songs written about them, but the “Say Hey Kid” had one all his own, recorded by the Treniers 70 years ago. And its tagline summed it up: “That Giants kid is great!”

Bittersweet Commemoration

Mays’ death Tuesday came two days before a special baseball game being held Thursday. The game, a previously scheduled tribute to the Negro Leagues, will take place at historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

The game was essentially created as a tribute to Mays, with his former team, the San Francisco Giants, playing on a field where Mays himself starred for the Birmingham Black Barons 75 years ago. When the game was announced last year, Mays said, “I can’t believe it, I never thought I’d see in my lifetime a Major League Baseball game being played on the very field where I played baseball as a teenager.”

Those words seem particularly poignant in retrospect, given that Mays did not survive to see the game designed to honor his legacy. But that legacy will live on far beyond Mays’ lifetime.

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