The Giants’ center fielder was as much of a force on defense as he was with a bat in his hands.
By HAL BOCK
When baseball’s brightest gather in San Francisco for Tuesday night’s All-Star game, they’ll bring along a buzz of anticipation, the kind of excitement that only the game’s top players can generate.
Willie Mays would know all about that.
In his time, the golden age of Aaron and Aparicio, Kaline and Koufax, Musial and Mantle, Mays collected superlatives. He defined baseball greatness, a man equipped with unsurpassed natural skills and a pure zest for the game that made him one of the most dynamic players in history.
“What made Willie different was his desire,” Hall of Famer Ernie Banks said. “A lot of folks have talent. It takes more. It takes focus and dedication. It takes heart. Willie had all that.
“He played the game as if he was the only one out there. His eyes would light up. His energy would kick in and he’d be ready to go. I had the privilege of watching and playing against a great talent.
“He played so hard, it inspired me to get out there every game. I couldn’t wait to play the Giants and watch him.”
Mays once owned San Francisco, much the way Barry Bonds does today. He was the centerpiece of the Giants team that moved from New York to California in 1957, but he was not embraced at the start because he was imported from the East.
The city wanted homegrown stars such as Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda, who, like Mays, all wound up in the Hall of Fame. Eventually, though, Mays won the hearts and minds of San Francisco fans.
Today’s separate talents
Tuesday night’s game will display new stars from the raw power of Prince Fielder to the blinding speed of Jose Reyes to the overall excellence of Ichiro Suzuki.
Mays combined all those skills.
Simple statistics do not do him justice. There was a .302 lifetime batting average and 660 home runs, 1,903 runs batted in and 3,283 hits, substantial numbers that were skewed because he missed two seasons serving in the Army and then played much of his career in a wind tunnel called Candlestick Park.
“He played in some unusual parks,” Banks said.
“The Polo Grounds had strange dimensions for a power hitter. Candlestick was so windy. Willie adjusted to wherever he was playing. He hit the ball everywhere. He adjusted to the park and the team he was playing. He’s an amazing person.
“I once asked him what he thought about when he was at bat. He said, ‘I don’t think. I just see the ball and I hit it.’ ”
Simple as that.
Mays was as much of a force on defense as he was with a bat in his hands.
“There was nothing he couldn’t do,” said Dick Groat, the longtime Pittsburgh and St. Louis shortstop who beat Mays for the batting title in 1960.
“He played as well as anybody who ever played the game. He had no shortcomings. You knew in the clutch, he was always going to hit the ball hard. In the field, he was instinctive. He got a great jump on every ball.
“I was surprised when he didn’t make the play.”
So were Mays’ teammates.
“He played with a flair,” teammate Monte Irvin said in the Hall of Fame yearbook last year.
“I played with him almost six years and some of the catches he made were just unbelievable. He had a great arm and he made those basket catches.”
Mays played in 24 All-Star games over 20 years and set records for at-bats, hits, runs, extra-base hits, triples and stolen bases.
“I think it was Ted Williams who said they invented the All-Star game for Willie Mays,” Banks said.
“He was right about that.”