If the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, is a sacred place for MLB fans, then Willie Mays is one of the players who give it such fame. En route to the Hall of Fame, Mays wrapped up his run with a .302 batting average and a legendary career as a centerfielder.
Fans associate Mays most with the Giants, starting in New York and then San Francisco. He concluded 22 seasons with a short stint back in New York — this time with the Mets. But there’s a bit more to Mays’ MLB years than just his time with those two MLB teams.
Willie Mays’ time in the Negro Leagues Baseball
Mays began his pro baseball career during his last two years of high school. He played for the Chattanooga Choo-Choos from 1945-47, reports WRCBtv. Once he graduated, the Birmingham native went full time with the local NLB affiliate, the Black Barons.
In 1948, Mays helped lead the teams to the pennant. They lost the NLB World Series 4-1. Not quite the hitter we know today, he wrapped the season with a .262 batting average. But his athleticism was already there. MLB scouts regularly attended his games, hoping to get him on board.
The frontrunner to snap up Mays, the Boston Braves let the athlete slip through their fingers by dragging their feet on a competitive offer. He landed with the New York Giants instead. Had the deal occurred, the Braves would’ve had both Mays and home-run king Hank Aaron.
Why Mays missed two seasons in the majors
Mays is most famous for his time with the Giants. The 24-time All-Star developed into a .302 career hitter, according to Baseball-Reference. He started incredibly strong. Mays immediately won the 1951 NL Rookie of the Year as the Giants erased a 13-game deficit to take the division from the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Then, life came knocking. The sports phenom had to report to the U.S. Army to fight in the Korean War. Mays missed two seasons that likely would’ve been among his most productive. As ESPN reports, some baseball writers think he would’ve been the first to take down Babe Ruth’s home run title if he didn’t sit out those two seasons.
Mays returned without skipping a beat, and the Giants got to the World Series in 1954. As if preemptively winking at sportswriters lamenting the hits they missed out on, he turned in a defensive play that defined his career. In Game 1 against the Cleveland Indians, Mays stole a 425-foot home run with an iconic over-the-shoulder play — simply called “The Catch.”
Mays’ long list of accolades
Riding the momentum, the Giants won the 1954 World Series — Willie Mays’ only World Series win. But MLB fans are familiar with this phenomenon; a single player can rarely help a team to the postseason, never mind a title. Just ask Mike Trout, the best active player in today’s game.
According to Baseball Almanac, Mays tallied 3,283 MLB hits, 660 home runs, 1,903 RBIs and — thanks to his rare running ability — 338 stolen bases in MLB.
On the other side of the ball, he won 12 Gold Gloves as a center fielder. This ties him with Roberto Clemente, one of the most lauded MLB defenders ever. He took his final title at the position as late as 1968, demonstrating how little his instincts and athleticism diminished over his career.
Mays played baseball in some professional capacity for 28 years, if not all of them for full seasons. His longevity helps his all-time stat sheet, but his single-season accomplishments still loom large.
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