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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commentary: Willie Mays was as good - and as cool - as anyone who ever played

Former Giants star Willie Mays celebrates with the 2014 World Series championship team during a victory parade in San Francisco.  (Tribune News Service)
By Thomas Boswell Washington Post

The first time I met Willie Mays and shook the hand of the greatest baseball player I’ve ever seen, I was looking at his face, not at my hand. Then I looked down. My hand had disappeared inside his grip. Mays fingers were like cigars. “He has Wes Unseld’s hands,” I thought.

Since Unseld is 6-foot-7, 245 pounds in the NBA record book and Mays, on my 1957 Topps card of him, is listed as 5-10½, I suppose this is impossible. But myths, and memories, have their prerogatives.

I enjoy thinking that Mays’ huge, powerful hands help explain a lot, like the prodigious distance of his longest home runs, several over 500 feet, despite being listed, at various times, as 170, 175 or 180 pounds. Or his ability to hit rockets to all fields when it seemed he’d been fooled and his feet were scrambling in the batter’s box like a crab as he swung. Or why he could hit with only nine fingers on the bat and his left pinkie below the knob. And, of course, how his powerful arm could launch that iconic spinning-discus heave from deepest center field in the Polo Grounds all the way to second base in the ’54 World Series.

Of course, his hands don’t explain his fabulous batting eye, with almost as many walks as strikeouts. Or his blurring speed on the bases, which let him steal what he wanted whenever it was needed most. Or his acrobatic, twisting slides, which made hard dirt seem as malleable to his wishes as water in a swimming pool might be to us. Or his center field GPS that let him gobble ground in the outfield alleys on his way to climbing a fence so he could plant his free hand on the top, then lunge even higher. Or his baseball IQ and daring – psychological warfare version – that rattled, intimidated or embarrassed opponents into playing their worst when faced with the certainty that he would play his best.

Or, so important to those of us who got to watch most of his prime, his thrilling love of personal style in every gesture as he turned the field into a stage. Hats have flown off other heads before, but Willie’s flew the best. Anybody can make a basket catch then throw the ball back submarine – but on every catch? Except those on which he was flying level with the ground.

Whether wise or not, whether suited to your own proper use, or, more likely, outside your comfort zone, Mays inspired you to spread yourself. For instance, to type in the kind of overblown hat-flying sentence fragments that, when you wrote about so many others, you were able to say to yourself, “Now stop that!”

Mays made us normal folks feel just a little crazy, a little more wildly alive, in the best ways. For example, my senior year in high school, when Mays hit 52 home runs and won N.L. MVP in ’65, our best player was my teammate and shortstop, Charlie Freret. I was proud of a bone bruise he left in my knuckle for years from catching his pegs to first base. When the All-Star Game came to RFK Stadium in 1968, a young man ran into center field during the game to try to shake Mays hand. The photo made the papers in part because it was symbolic – D.C. was an AL town, and Mays embodied all the greatness in the NL that we never got to watch in person. So, why not, go nuts and run to Willie. The guy in the picture was Freret.

On the field, Mays, spontaneous joy and the unscriptable randomness of every baseball bounce were a perfect menage a tois of creativity, hard-earned craft and pure play. The big smiles, the pictures of him playing stick ball with kids in Harlem, his “Say Hey Kid” moniker, bestowed because he greeted so many people with a simple “Say, Hey,” were all genuine.

Because I didn’t become The Washington Post’s national baseball writer until two years after Mays retired, I never got to meet that version of the man. I always looked for him at Old Timers Games and Hall of Fame inductions, and I had a long talk with him as part of something he was promoting; after all, he was from that century of exploited MLB players who looked out for a post-career income. In 22 years, Mays earned less than $2 million pretax.

His resting face in retirement seemed to have plenty of emotions going on behind the surface, some of them sad or tired. Any African American who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1930s and ’40s, played three years in the segregated Black leagues and was never paid a fraction of what he was worth by MLB owners had to know, to the bone, all about racism. His long friendship with Giant teammate Bobby Bonds, and his tutoring of his godson Barry Bonds, put Mays close to the flame but outside the controversies surrounding Barry.

Both of the Bonds men loved baseball the game and, along with Willie, were deep students of it – three gurus. Nobody talked inside-baseball better than Barry. One afternoon, long before a game, Barry was in the mood to talk hitting, and he kept returning to Mays advice as a touchstone.

All three were ambivalent, however, and at times perhaps bitter, toward MLB the institution. Sometimes with cause. Bobby had been a strong early backer of the players’ union when that was a risk. When Barry passed both Babe Ruth and Aaron for the all-time homer record, I’m convinced that, in part, he did it for his late father and Willie. What isn’t a tangled web?

The one place where I saw what I think of as the Young Willie was whenever he was in a group of ballplayers of any age. Mays loved to tease, in his high-pitched voice, and to be teased. His calm refrain to deflect almost any question was, “Whatever makes sense.” My wife wishes I hadn’t adopted it.

My favorite star growing up was Aaron. When you factor in how spectacularly Aaron played past the age of 35, though naturally in less games a year as he aged, while Mays’ production fell off past 35 as most do, you can make a case that there’s almost nothing to choose between the total careers of the pair. Quiet Henry was often content to be a bit overlooked in Milwaukee and Atlanta, while flamboyant Willie loved the attention that New York poured on him and San Francisco, too.

But in Mays’ prime, from his MVP in ’54 through his MVP in ’65, when the most knowledgeable baseball experts on the planet (teenagers) debated such things, it was Willie, the equal to any center fielder, who edged injury-prone Mickey Mantle for the top glamour spot. Mantle changed the game when he came to bat. Mays changed the game whenever he was on the field.

Baseball fans love debates, especially the ones we know will never get settled. Wins Above Replacement is a modern stat with imperfections. But, for today, the All-Time Leaders among everyday players make an interesting top five: 1. Barry Bonds (162.8), who gets a big asterisk from me; 2. Babe Ruth (162.2); 3. Willie Mays (156.4); 4. Ty Cobb (151.4); and Aaron (143.1). When you include WAR from pitching, too, then No. 1 is Ruth (182.6) followed by Walter Johnson (166.9).

Close enough for newspaper work.

Among active players, the leader is Mike Trout. At 86.2. We know how great Trout has been.

Of course, Willie Mays wasn’t twice as good. But – so long, Say, Hey – sometimes it seemed that way.