I once asked Willie Mays what his proudest achievement was in baseball.
His oft-cited designation as the greatest all-around player in history?
His two Most Valuable Player Awards?
None of the above.
“I came into the league with a 32-inch waist, and I retired with a 32-inch waist,” he told me 12 years ago when I interviewed him for a biography.
A bit surprising, but not really. Mays takes great pride in his durability as a player, and it wasn’t an accident. He never drank, never smoked, watched his diet and rarely went clubbing.
His self-discipline made possible an epic career that began with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948, reached exalted heights with the New York Giants in the 1950s and didn’t end until 1973. Playing center field for 22 years in Major League Baseball, with a record 7,095 putouts and with 6,066 total bases, Mays surely ran more miles on the field, and with greater speed and more style, than any player before or since.
And he’s still going.
Mays turned 90 on May 6. He is the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame, which recently has become particularly bittersweet. Since the beginning of 2020, we have seen the deaths of 10 Hall of Famers, including Henry Aaron, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline and Tom Seaver, all of whom were Mays’ contemporaries.
It’s as if a curtain were falling on an entire era of baseball, and an extraordinary era it was — from the 1950s through the ’70s, a period when MLB’s expansion west turned the game into a transcontinental enterprise; when the burgeoning medium of television created instant megastars; and when the All-Star Game mattered. When the “Game of the Week” was must-watch TV and baseball was venerated as a model of inclusion and diversity.
Mays alone now holds the torch for that era.
He has lived in the Bay Area since the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, in a house he purchased in 1969. He typically travels to Scottsdale, Ariz., for the Giants’ spring training — he holds court in the clubhouse and gives young players nicknames — but COVID-19 restrictions kept him housebound this year.
As with anyone who reaches their 90s, what is most difficult for Mays is that he keeps losing friends and loved ones — and he has always been anxious about death. He was raised by his Aunt Sarah in Fairfield, Ala., and when she died in 1954, Mays returned home for her funeral but was so distraught that he stayed in his bedroom for most of the visit. He avoids all funerals, if possible, but they are, of course, inevitable. His beloved wife, Mae, died in 2013, and rarely does a month go by in which someone he knows from the baseball world, including the Negro leagues, does not die.
The paradox of Mays’ career is that the part he is most proud of — his durability — is not only overlooked but completely subverted by the misfortunes of his final game. It’s time to correct the record.
Mays wasn’t just durable — with 2,992 regular-season games — he rarely took a day off.
His first full year was 1954, when the season was 154 games, and he played in more than 150 for eight straight seasons. In 1962, when the National League extended its season to 162 games, he played in every one (plus two All-Star Games), and he continued at close to that clip for the next four years. In 1966 he played all 10 innings of the All-Star Game in St. Louis’ muggy 105-degree heat. How hard did he push himself? Twice in his career, Mays collapsed on the field or in the dugout from exhaustion and was hospitalized. Not until he was 41 did he play fewer than 100 games.
Along the way, he won his second MVP Award at 34 and was still one of the game’s best players at 40 — his .907 OPS was 225 points above the league average. The following year, in 1972, he led the Mets in on-base percentage and was third on the team in batting average. It was the Say Hey Kid’s triumphant return to New York, and had he retired then, after years of slamming into catchers and crashing into walls, he would have been remembered for his rugged invincibility.
But Mays played one more year, 1973, and injured throughout the season, he appeared in only 66 games. The Mets reached the World Series, and although Mays had barely played in six weeks, in Game 2 in Oakland, he pinch-ran in the ninth inning and was then sent into center field. It was a brutal sunny day, with players staggering under pop-ups all game (six errors were committed). In both the ninth and 12th innings, Mays lost fly balls in the sun and looked terrible doing so. He was scorned for his pratfalls.
Never mind that many great athletes — Babe Ruth and Aaron in baseball, Johnny Unitas, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan in other sports — play too long. Mays became the cautionary tale for all athletes — and, for that matter, entertainers and politicians — who don’t know when to quit.
Mays is too proud to acknowledge that this hurts him, but I’m certain it does. He makes no claims about being the greatest player of all time and isn’t interested in the discussion. He dismisses comparisons to other players. He jokes that if he had known stats were important, he would have paid attention to them. He is too stubborn to be an egotist.
What was important to him was that he helped his team win, he entertained the fans and he honored the game — which, in his mind, he did by playing every game he could, as hard as he could, as long as he could.
Willie Mays at 90? Of course. It befits a man whose durability, on and off the field, is his legacy — and whose endurance is a poignant reminder of a certain era in American sports, glorious but vanishing.