Willie Mays, baseball’s electrifying ‘Say Hey Kid,’ dies at 93 (2024)

Willie Mays opened his big-league career with a confidence-rattling 0-for-12 stretch before finally blasting a home run off Warren Spahn early in 1951.

“I’ll never forgive myself,’’ Spahn later joked. “We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out.”

Instead, to the delight of everyone except opposing pitchers, Mays’ home run atop the left-field roof at the Polo Grounds served as a warning blast for one of the longest and most exhilarating careers in baseball history.

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Mays, who died on Tuesday in Palo Alto, Calif., at age 93, still represents the gold standard for an all-around ballplayer and might do so forever. He could hit, run, field and throw with equal aplomb. “If he could cook, I’d marry him,” manager Leo Durocher once said.

The San Francisco Giants announced Mays’ passing Tuesday evening. No cause of death was provided.

“My father has passed away peacefully and among loved ones,” Michael Mays said as part of the Giants’ announcement. “I want to thank you from the bottom of my broken heart for the unwavering love you have shown him over the years. You have been his life’s blood.”

Beyond his skills and his gaudy stats, Mays brought an irresistible ebullience to the diamond. The “Say Hey Kid” performed with a showman’s flair, making basket catches in center field, taking daring chances on the base paths, winning four home run crowns, 12 Gold Glove Awards and laughing all along with that gleeful high-pitched voice. “That’s what his idea was, to please the crowd,’’ the late Giants reliever Stu Miller observed. Mays even wore a cap one size too small to ensure that it would fly off cinematically whenever he darted across the field.

With his incandescent style, Mays forever made the game look fun, whether it was dazzling in a Giants uniform or playing stickball with the kids on St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street in his Harlem neighborhood — sometimes on the same day. As Dodgers executive Branch Rickey once said, Mays’ greatest attribute “was the frivolity in his bloodstream (that) doubled his strength with laughter.”

Willie Mays, baseball’s electrifying ‘Say Hey Kid,’ dies at 93 (1)

Willie Mays, shown here at the 2014 World Series, remained a regular visitor at Giants home games into his twilight years. (Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

Mays flashed that effervescence even in old age. Into his 90s, he was a frequent visitor to the Giants’ home ballpark at 24 Willie Mays Plaza, where a bronze statue of his glorious right-handed swing greeted up to 3 million fans a year. For anyone attending their first game, there was no better introduction to Giants baseball.

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“I’m not sure what the hell charisma is,’’ former Reds slugger Ted Kluszewski once said, “but I get the feeling it’s Willie Mays.”

Rob Manfred, the MLB commissioner, issued a statement from Birmingham, Ala., where, coincidentally, this week’s game at Rickwood Field will honor a significant chapter of Mays’ early career.

“All of Major League Baseball is in mourning today as we are gathered at the very ballpark where a career and a legacy like no other began,” Manfred said. “Willie Mays took his all-around brilliance from the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League to the historic Giants franchise. From coast to coast in New York and San Francisco, Willie inspired generations of players and fans as the game grew and truly earned its place as our National Pastime.”

News of Mays’ death hit the baseball world hard.

“I am beyond devastated and overcome with emotion,” Barry Bonds wrote in an Instagram post. The seven-time MVP’s father, Bobby Bonds, was a Mays teammate and dear friend. “I have no words to describe what you mean to me — you helped shape me to be who I am today. Thank you for being my Godfather and always being there. Give my dad a hug for me. Rest in peace Willie, I love you forever.”

Keith Hernandez, the former first baseman turned New York Mets broadcaster, grew up in the Bay Area. He struggled to maintain his composure on the air Tuesday while discussing a conversation he’d had with the older version of Mays.

“What always came off was: He was The Say Hey Kid. He had that ebullient personality — infectious and genuine,” Hernandez said, fighting tears. “And I got to tell him that he was the greatest player I ever saw.”

Mays spent 23 seasons in the majors, batting .301 with 660 home runs, 339 stolen bases and 3,293 hits. He won two NL MVP awards, a number that looks like an injustice through the retroactive lens of modern analytics: By WAR, Mays was the best player in the National League nine times.

It is with great sadness that we announce that San Francisco Giants Legend and Hall of Famer Willie Mays passed away peacefully this afternoon at the age of 93. pic.twitter.com/Qk4NySCFZQ

— SFGiants (@SFGiants) June 19, 2024

He was a 24-time All-Star who led the league in slugging percentage five times, stolen bases four times, and triples three times. He is also the only major-league player to have hit a home run in every inning from the first through the 16th, and he finished his career with a record 22 extra-inning home runs.

Joe Posnanski’s bestselling book, “The Baseball 100,” threw in a few extra points for artistic impression and ranked Mays as the greatest player in history.

“What do you love most about baseball? Mays did that,’’ Posnanski wrote. “To watch him play, to read the stories about how he played, to look at his glorious statistics, to hear what people say about him is to be reminded why we love this odd and ancient game in the first place.

“Yes, Willie Mays has always made kids feel like grown-ups and grown-ups feel like kids. In the end, isn’t that the whole point of baseball?”

Tallulah Bankhead, the stage and screen actress (and Giants fan), famously said that “there have only been two authentic geniuses in the world, Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.”

She added: “But, darling, I think you’d better put Shakespeare first.”

Mays’ teammates would dispute that ranking. Besides his five-tool athletic gifts, Mays also brought Mensa-level baseball intellect to the diamond. “Willie’s IQ was off the charts,” Barry Bonds, the longtime Giants outfielder and Mays’ godson, said in November 2022. “It’s very hard to explain to people about the mindset of my godfather and what he could do. It’s the same thing whenever you’re talking about the greatest athletes to ever play the game. It wasn’t that Muhammad Ali’s hands were faster than Joe Louis’ or whatever. They were just smart. They knew what was coming. They see the field differently than others.”

Tim McCarver, the longtime catcher, was among those who insisted that Mays was so far ahead in terms of strategy that he would sometimes flail on a pitcher’s curveball early in a game as a way of duping the pitcher into throwing that same pitch later in a key situation. Mays was also a perceptive base runner who, when scoring from second on a single, would slow up around third just long enough to draw a throw from the outfield. Doing so allowed whoever hit the ball to reach second. “You have to be thinking two or three ways when you’re running the bases,’’ Mays explained. “Not just one way. Two or three.”

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Mays amazed teammates with his defensive jumps on balls hit to the outfield, as well his knack for racing home from third if a pitch so much as trickled away from the catcher at home plate. “Willie Mays was not the fastest guy in baseball, but he was the quickest to react,’’ the late Giants broadcaster Lon Simmons once said.

Mays was so many steps ahead of the other players that his managers, especially Durocher and Herman Franks, let him direct traffic during games. “I managed the field when I played,’’ Mays said. “The other players played off me, like a quarterback.”

Mays said his duties included calling the pitches from the outfield. He’d touch his head for a fastball, his chest for a breaking ball and his knees for a changeup — one, two, three. His blend of physical and mental prowess allowed him to remain productive long after many contemporaries trailed off. He played until age 42 at a time when such a thing was rare. He ranked among the league’s top-10 oldest players in each of his final six seasons.

Throughout his career, he was annually one of the most durable players. Starting in 1954, Mays played at least 150 games a season for 13 years in a row, a feat not even the game’s most revered iron men, Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, could match.

Born Willie Howard Mays on May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Ala., the kid’s future seemed preordained from the crib. As the tale goes, the baby was six months old when Willie Mays Sr. put a baseball on a chair and told his son, “Go get it.”

Both parents were distinguished athletes. Mays Sr., who worked by day sweeping floors at the local steel mill or serving as a railroad porter, also found time to star in the local semipro Tennessee Coal and Iron League. Willie’s mother, Annie Satterwhite, led her Birmingham-area high school team to three consecutive basketball state titles and also excelled on the track team.

Willie Mays, baseball’s electrifying ‘Say Hey Kid,’ dies at 93 (2)

Willie Mays with Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe after they returned from military service, in 1954. (Associated Press)

By age 5, Mays would play catch with his father on the farmland near their home. Willie Sr. taught his son each position, starting with catcher, and told him that he could boost his value by honing every skill required on the diamond. Mays fared well in other sports, too, averaging 20 points a game on the basketball court and serving as the star quarterback at Fairfield Industrial High.

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Mays began his professional baseball career at age 16 with the Chattanooga Choo-Choos, a Negro League minor-league team. He also played with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948, 1949 and 1950 and carried lessons from those days for the rest of his life. Mays treasured the wisdom gleaned from manager Piper Davis as well as teammates Bill Greason, Artie Wilson, Jimmy Zapp “and so many others who looked out for me. I couldn’t have accomplished what I did without those guys,” he said in a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle days before MLB was scheduled to pay tribute to the Negro Leagues with a game at Rickwood Field in Birmingham on Thursday.

Mays’ baseball education came during a pivotal era. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors in 1947, and as Mays’ skills emerged, so did the number of MLB scouts swirling around him. The Brooklyn Dodgers seemed to have an inside edge after catcher Roy Campanella and pitcher Don Newcombe helped alert their club to the young supernova after watching him during a barnstorming tour after the 1949 season.

“We saw this young center fielder who threw Larry Doby out by a mile. Larry said, ‘Who the hell is that?’’’ Newcombe recalled in the book “We Played the Game” by Danny Peary. “Roy called Brooklyn and told Al Campanis, who had just become a scout.”

The Dodgers sent scout Wid Matthews to check out Mays but decided to pass. Matthews told his bosses: “The kid can’t hit the curveball.”

The New York Giants came away with a different view, even if they weren’t actually looking. Scout Eddie Montague landed on Mays only after being dispatched to evaluate Black Barons’ first baseman Alonzo Perry. Montague’s eyes instead drifted toward the do-everything outfielder, who he later called “the greatest young player I had ever seen in my life.” Montague told his bosses: “You better send somebody down here with a barrelful of money.”

The Giants signed Mays with a $4,000 signing bonus and a salary of $250 a month. His transition came with some culture shock. In 1950, Mays went from playing in the Negro Leagues to playing for the all-white Trenton (N.J.) Giants as the only person of color in the entire Interstate League. He experienced racism like never before. He responded to taunts and jeers from the crowd only with his play, as Robinson had done.

Mays had a terrific two games against Hagerstown that season. Before the series finale, the PA announcer began reading the lineups. “When he got to mine,” Mays recalled, “he said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I know you don’t like this kid. But please stop hollering at him. He’s killing us.'”

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Contrary to that Dodger scouting report, the kid could hit a curveball after all. Mays made short work of the minor leagues after opening the ’51 season with the Triple-A Minneapolis Millers by batting .477 over 35 games.

It was late May when the Millers traveled to Sioux City, Iowa, for an exhibition game. Mays was in a movie theater during an off day when he learned he was being called up to the big leagues. Between features, the house lights went on and the manager called out to the crowd: “If Willie Mays is in the audience, would he immediately report to his manager at the hotel?”

Is there a more fitting way for the most theatrical player of all time to get promoted to the majors?

Perhaps the most famous pep talk in baseball history came after a June 1, 1951, game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Mays started just 1-for-26 as a rookie — the only hit was that homer against Spahn — and the .038 average had him all but begging to go back to the minors.

Coaches found Mays crying in front of his locker after an 0-for-5 night and summoned Durocher for emergency emotional support.

“As long as I’m the manager of the Giants, you are my center fielder,’’ the manager assured the prodigy. “You are the best center fielder I’ve ever looked at.”

Mays went 2-for-4 with a triple in a 14-3 victory the next day, and Cooperstown may have well as gone ahead and started bronzing the plaque. He finished as the Rookie of the Year, batting .274 with 20 homers, 68 RBIs and a 120 OPS+. The Giants rallied back from 13 games back to capture the pennant that season and when Bobby Thomson hit his famed “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” to finish off the Brooklyn Dodgers, Mays was the man on deck.

Mays opened the 1952 season by batting just .236 in 34 games before he was drafted into the U.S. Army, an obligation that kept him out of the major leagues until 1954. By the end of that season, he was back in the October spotlight. In Game 1 of the 1954 Fall Classic, the center fielder made one of the most memorable plays in baseball history. With two runners on and the score tied 2-2 in the top of the eighth, Vic Wertz blasted a ball an estimated 460 feet to center field at the Polo Grounds.

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Turning his back to home plate, Mays ran toward the wall on a dead sprint and caught the ball over his shoulder. Then he whirled to deliver a rocket of a throw toward the infield. Larry Doby tagged up and made it to third, while Al Rosen went scurrying back to first.

It remains known as The Catch.

“I was very co*cky. When I say that, I mean that everything that went in the air, I thought I could catch. I was very aware of what was going on,’’ Mays said during a visit to a Giants home game in 2003. “When the ball was hit off Don Liddle, the pitcher, I’m saying to myself, ‘Two men are on.’ I’m talking to myself as I’m running.

“As the ball is coming in, I’m saying to myself, ‘I have to get the ball into the infield.’ In my mind, I never thought I would miss the ball. When you watch the play, look at the way I catch the ball. It’s like a wide receiver catching a pass going down the sideline, which is over the left shoulder, on the right side. I had learned about that while playing football in high school.”

In all, Mays had 17 seasons with more than 20 homers and twice topped the 50-homer mark. Mays, his godson Barry Bonds, Andre Dawson, Carlos Beltrán and Alex Rodriguez, are the only players to compile more than 400 homers and more than 300 stolen bases.

When Rawlings introduced the Gold Glove Award for fielding excellence in 1957, Mays won his first of 12 in a row, a total matched among outfielders by only Roberto Clemente. Giants teammate Monte Irvin once said of Mays: “It was his solemn duty to catch a ball that wasn’t in the stands.”

Over the years, all of it — power, speed, defense — left even his rivals in awe.

“I can’t believe that Babe Ruth was a better player than Willie Mays,’’ Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax once said. “Ruth is probably to baseball what Arnold Palmer is to golf. He got the game moving. But I can’t believe he could run as well as Mays and I can’t believe he was a better outfielder.”

Reggie Jackson said: “You used to think that if the score was 5-0, he’d hit a five-run homer.’’

Willie Mays, baseball’s electrifying ‘Say Hey Kid,’ dies at 93 (3)

Buster Posey, right, was among the many modern Giants to make sure to listen whenever Mays shared his wisdom. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Strange as it sounds in retrospect, though, San Francisco fans were slow to fully embrace the New York import when the franchise moved to the West Coast for the 1958 season. Bay Area fans gravitated toward “homegrown” stars, such as Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda. It didn’t help that Mays continued to wax nostalgic about the Big Apple. At the end of that ’58 season, a fan poll voted Cepeda as the Giants’ MVP, even though Mays had more hits, more homers, more triples, more walks, more stolen bases and a higher OPS.

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“I think San Francisco supported the whole club when I first came out … but you could feel the fans wanted their own ballplayer,” Mays told author Steve Bitker in 2001. “I guess they chose Cepeda. It didn’t bother me. I never had any letdowns in baseball. I know what I did.”

When the Giants moved from Seals Stadium to blustery Candlestick Park in 1960, the right-hander reconfigured his swing to drive the ball toward right-center field, where the wind was more forgiving. Mays led the NL in home runs three times while playing at The ‘Stick, including a career-high 52 in 1965.

The greatest single day of his career, though, was on the road at County Stadium in Milwaukee on April 30, 1961. The day hardly had the makings of a classic. Mays arrived at the ballpark terribly ill due to some questionable room service spare ribs he consumed with McCovey a night earlier. Mays felt so rotten before the game that he warned manager Alvin Dark to leave him out of the lineup.

But as a test run, Mays borrowed a lighter bat from teammate Joey Amalfitano and took some hacks in the batting cage. “Every ball I hit, for the first six balls, goes out of the ballpark,’’ Mays recalled.

With a change of heart (and stomach), Mays promptly marched over the lineup sheet, crossed out whoever had been listed as the center fielder and inked in his own name. Then he went 4-for-5 with eight RBIs, becoming just the ninth player in baseball history to hit four home runs in a single game.

“How about some more ribs?” McCovey asked him when it was over.

Time eventually tagged out even Mays. He played the final year and half of his career for the New York Mets, and his swan song took place in the 1973 World Series against the A’s, where his two misplays in the outfield in Game 2 became a cautionary tale about once graceful athletes sticking around too long.

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It was a portrayal Mays forever resented. “They said, ‘Well, look at that old man falling down.’ Well, anybody could have slipped. It was a wet field,” he protested. For another thing, in the 12th inning of that same game, Mays delivered a run-scoring single off Rollie Fingers to break a 6-6 tie and propel the Mets to a 10-7 victory.

“I don’t think a guy should be criticized for playing as long as he feels he can play,’’ Mays said. “I contributed all the way until I quit.”

Mays worked in several goodwill ambassador roles in retirement, including a problematic deal with Bally’s Casino in Atlantic City for which he was paid to greet people and play golf. Because of the proximity to the gambling industry, then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn reacted by prohibiting Mays and Mickey Mantle (who had a similar job) from having salaried roles with major-league clubs. In essence, Kuhn forced two of the greatest names in baseball history to sever their ties with the game.

Pete Ueberroth erased that restriction shortly after being named MLB commissioner in March 1985, welcoming Mays and Mantle back.

Mays spent much of the rest of his life savoring the embrace of the game he loved. When the Giants opened their new waterfront ballpark in 2000, Mays became a regular visitor and spent many a day spinning yarns in the home clubhouse. It was not unusual to spot him holding court in the office of longtime equipment manager Mike Murphy, where those two would be joined by McCovey, Cepeda or other ex-players such as Amalfitano or Jim Davenport.

Jon Miller, the Giants broadcaster, savors one such encounter. Barry Bonds had recently surpassed the 600 home run mark, which prompted Mays to wonder how high he could go. Miller recounted Bonds saying the only thing that mattered was reaching 660 — Mays’ total — because to him that represented greatness. “Six-sixty,” Mays replied in that high-pitched laugh. “You better get to work, boy!”

Modern players were smart enough to tap into the resource, too. Michael Morse, who hit a pinch-hit tying homer in the decisive Game 5 of the 2014 NLCS, explained later he did so with help from some recent tips from the Say Hey Kid. “He doesn’t miss many games,’’ Morse said at the time. “He’ll break down your swing. He’ll break down the way you’re playing defense.”

When Peter Magowan, a Giants fan from the Polo Grounds days, purchased the team in 1993, one of his first acts was to give Willie Mays a lifetime contract to be a part of the Giants organization. So, it was something of a surprise, in the early 2000s, when Mays approached Magowan about a contract extension.

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“Willie, it’s a lifetime contract. You know what that means, right?” Magowan said.

“I know what it means. I still want an extension,” Mays replied.

As it turns out, Willie had requested an extra year on the deal to ensure that his second wife, Mae, would be cared for even after he was gone. That was Mays at his best — still thinking several moves ahead. Sadly, Mae preceded him in death on April 19, 2013, due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

In 2015, Mays was honored by Barack Obama at the White House with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. In 2020, he teamed with writer John Shea to write “24: Life Stories and Lessons from The Say Hey Kid.” It became an instant New York Times bestseller. In that book, Obama, the first Black president, says: “It’s because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for President.”

Willie Mays, baseball’s electrifying ‘Say Hey Kid,’ dies at 93 (4)

The Willie Mays statue at the Giants home ballpark is the common meeting spot for fans young and old. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

Though his eyesight and hearing faltered in his twilight years, that sing-song voice never wavered. Mays sounded as if he’d be up for a stickball game, even till the last.

“Willie Mays was the happiest guy in the world to be Willie Mays,’’ Simmons, the broadcaster, once said. “That’s what he wanted to be: He wanted to be Willie Mays.”

— Sources for this story included “We Played the Game,’’ edited by Danny Peary; “The Original San Francisco Giants,’’ by Steve Bitker; “Baseball’s Greatest Quotations,” by Paul Dickson; and SABR Bio Project; “The New Biographical History of Baseball,” by Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella; “The Giants Big 50,” by Daniel Brown.

(Photo of Willie Mays from 1964: Associated Press)

Willie Mays, baseball’s electrifying ‘Say Hey Kid,’ dies at 93 (2024)
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