Rest in peace, Willie Mays

The baseball world says goodbye to a giant.

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There have been innumerable great baseball players in the history of the sport, in Major League Baseball and otherwise. Those you could describe as singular talents, however, makes for a much shorter list. The ones for which there has really just been the one of them, ever — even someone as incredible as Mickey Mantle has their future comparison point in Mike Trout.

Willie Mays was one such player, as we’re all being reminded of on Wednesday morning, after learning that the 93-year-old legend passed away peacefully on Tuesday. Maybe not the greatest at any one thing in history, except for being the level of great he was at as many things as he was. Consider that, as incredible as, say, Mookie Betts has been in his career thus far, as a threat at the plate and on the bases and in the field, he’s just nowhere near what Mays accomplished. Betts has a career OPS+ of 139, which is excellent, yes, but Mays finished at 155 even after his down years, of which there weren’t many. Really, just the one, at age 42 in 1973, after a career that kicked off as a 17-year-old in 1948. Mays had nine top-five MVP finishes, received MVP votes in 15 of his 23 seasons, led the league in homers as many times as he did steals — four a piece — and, oh, was a great defender, too. He lost a full year and most of another to military service in Korea, too, as the draft was still around when Mays was playing ball.

Another thing that makes Mays stand out is that he’s such a center piece of what baseball was and is. As Bradford William Davis pointed out on Twitter on Tuesday night:

But beyond his unassailable on-field brilliance, Mays was a Birmingham Baron before he was a New York Giant. Willie was our most prominent link to an era where athletes as gifted and as brilliant as him were forbidden from playing against all the best competition.

Mays got his start as a teenager not in the growing minor-league system of Major League Baseball, but as a Birmingham Baron, a member of a Negro Leagues team. And despite clubs like the Red Sox knowing all about Mays his talent so obviously on display even as a teen when they got a look at him, he wouldn’t end up playing for them. Just like Jackie Robinson before him, whom the Sox tried out and passed on. And this despite, as Mays put it in his 2020 memoir, that the Red Sox could have “had me easy” in 1950. Signing Mays would have meant the Sox integrating, which wouldn’t happen until 1959 — eight years after Mays debuted with the New York Giants. It’s easy to say the Sox failed to win for the better part of a century due to the curse of the the Bambino, who was dealt to the Yankees and kicked off an era of Boston’s team no longer mattering, but that’s because it was easier to do that than to blame the racism that filtered down through the organization from its owner, Tom Yawkey, for decades. Ted Williams had a 185 OPS+ from 1950 through the end of his career in 1960, is all I’m saying: plop Willie Mays next to that guy and history is probably a lot different.

In my own career, I had a little tribute to Mays going for a bit. My morning baseball newsletter for SB Nation that I wrote for a few years was named “Say Hey, Baseball,” as a reference to Mays’ nickname, the “Say Hey Kid.” It was a little something, sure, but the idea of that newsletter was to wake you up with something exciting and/or important that had gone on in the game the night before or was worth talking about that day, and who better as a representative for excitement and being worth talking about than Mays?

You’re sure to see a number of odes to and eulogies of Willie Mays today. Take the time to read them, as there’s always something new and fascinating to learn about the man, his life, his career. As a true ambassador of the game who, even late into life, still made appearances and talked ball, he’ll be missed.

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