So his cap would fly off as he sped around the bases. Maybe he'd stroke one of his 3,283 hits or score one of his 2,062 runs in a crucial situation. Or he'd make a catch -- any would do, whether it was his signature basket catch or a running, leaping grab in the gap.
"He had that natural ability to diagnose things, even sometimes before they happened," said former right-hander Don Newcombe, one of the last links to the fabled Brooklyn Dodgers teams of the 1950s.
Hence the sporting world beheld an entertainer who remained one of baseball's biggest attractions through his career, an innovator who hit, ran and fielded like nobody else, and ultimately became a legend of the New York and San Francisco Giants who's widely considered the game's greatest living player and among the finest ever.
That's a lot to attribute to one man. Then again, people who watched Mays play believed he could do everything.
"Over the years, when I'm asked who's the greatest baseball player I've ever seen, I say 'Willie Mays' without hesitation," said Newcombe, 83, who won the National League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards in 1956. "I say 'Great' with a capital G. I'll say it until I die. The man could do everything not only well but extra well."
Mays, 78, is being reintroduced to fans like never before. Though dozens of books have been written about him, he has cooperated with a biographer for the first time, resulting in James S. Hirsch's "Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend," published by Scribner and due in bookstores on Tuesday. Mays will be touring the country to promote the book, and already has been interviewed by Bob Costas on MLB Network. That interview is scheduled to air Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET/5 PT.
Overwhelming evidence of greatness
Mays' career statistics and accomplishments are overwhelming. His 660 homers, fourth all-time, are garnished by a .302 batting average, 1,903 RBIs and 12 Gold Glove Awards for defensive excellence -- won consecutively from the honor's inception in 1957, after Mays' seventh season in the Major Leagues.
Mays more than measured up by currently favored standards, as well. He led the National League in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) five times and ranked among the NL's top 10 in on-base percentage in 15 seasons -- capped by a league-high .425 figure in 1971, at the age of 40.
But his charismatic style transcends his numbers.
Nobody since Mays, who played 22 seasons from 1951 to 1973, has regularly used the basket catch to snare fly balls.
"They don't let them do that any more," Mays said, as if he were discussing driving without a seat belt.
The basket catch wasn't showboating for Mays, who insisted that he dropped only two flies -- 10 years apart -- while cradling balls at his waist.
When plays proved more challenging, the center fielder ranged wherever it was necessary to record the out. The most enduring example of his defensive brilliance is his over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz's drive in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series at New York's Polo Grounds, still considered one of the most breathtaking moments in Fall Classic history. Newsreel footage immortalizes not only the play, but -- as he turned his back to home plate to race for the ball -- his No. 24. That number grew to be synonymous with Mays, just as No. 23 and Michael Jordan are inextricably linked.
Mays' skill on the basepaths further enlivened the sport. Many players were fast; Mays was fast, instinctive and daring. His connoisseurs marvel about a mid-1960s game in which he allowed Los Angeles second baseman Jim Lefebvre, who fielded a grounder, to look him back to third base. Mays then dashed home safely after Lefebvre threw to first.
No less a figure than Ty Cobb said that Mays restored the art of baserunning. Thus Mays combined power and speed in unrivaled proportions, becoming the first Major Leaguer to amass 300 homers and 300 stolen bases.
"I created my own identity," he said.
Mays achieved celebrity status almost instantly after he reached the Majors with the New York Giants in 1951. His effervescent nature, which spawned his nickname, "The Say Hey Kid," complemented his electrifying play. So many people flocked to see Mays that the Giants led the NL in road attendance nine times in 11 years between 1961 and 1971, according to figures provided by Pete Palmer, co-editor of the "Barnes & Noble ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia."
"Any city that we played in, when we arrived there, the newspaper said, 'Willie Mays and company,' recalled Felipe Alou, one of Mays' distinguished teammates.
Greater legend denied?
Outstanding as Mays was, his career was nagged by a huge "what if." Numerous observers believe that Mays, not Hank Aaron, would have been the first to surpass Babe Ruth's home run mark of 714 were it not for two factors. First, Mays spent part of the 1952 season and all of 1953 serving in the Army. Then, after the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, he played home games for 12 full seasons (1960-71) at Candlestick Park, where the incessant winds muted drives pulled to left field by right-handed-hitting sluggers such as him.
Asked if Candlestick denied Mays batches of homers, former Giants broadcaster Lon Simmons responded without hesitation.
"No doubt about it," said Simmons, who saw Mays' best years in San Francisco.
Right-hander Bob Bolin recalled watching the gusts stifle dozens of Mays' clouts when the Giants' bullpen was situated down the left-field line in Candlestick's early years.
"The ball would actually be out of the ballpark on those high drives, and the wind would push them back in," said Bolin, who pitched for the Giants from 1961 to 1969.
Undaunted, Mays learned to stroke pitches to right-center field, where the breezes carried batted balls toward the fence. But if Candlestick frustrated him, he wouldn't reveal it.
"It was miserable to play there, and he never, ever said how bad it was," said shortstop Chris Speier, who began his 19-year career with the Giants in 1971.
Indeed, when asked about Candlestick, Mays cast no aspersions other than to say, "We picked probably the coldest place in the city to put a ballpark."
Candlestick couldn't truly stop Mays, and neither could many pitchers. He was the first player to exceed 20 home runs for 17 years in a row, helping him score 100 runs or more in 12 consecutive seasons (1954 to 1965). Reflecting his impressive longevity, he exceeded 50 home runs 10 years apart, in 1955 (51) and 1965 (52). From 1954 to 1966, Mays hit .315 and posted yearly averages of 40 homers, 109 RBIs and 117 runs. He also reigned supreme in the clutch by hitting a record 22 extra-inning homers.
Blessed with otherworldly reflexes, he was virtually unrivaled in his ability to adapt to breaking pitches.
"You could get him out, but you had to make perfect pitches," said Hall of Fame right-hander Don Sutton, against whom Mays batted .373. "There are some hitters that put up good numbers who are somewhat one-dimensional. You could throw the same thing to them over and over and over and over. You couldn't do that with Willie. You'd throw two good curveballs and move him back, and then you'd come back with that third curveball -- and if it's not better than the first two, he'd hit a bullet."
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who caught for the Braves during Mays' peak, resorted to shenanigans in hopes of disrupting Mays' timing at the plate.
"I tried not to call the signals too soon, and he used to yell at me because he wanted to hit right now," Torre said. "We always tried to keep him waiting, [thinking] it would disturb him. One time I asked Willie a question, and as he was answering, he hit the ball out of the ballpark."
Never was Mays more powerful than on the afternoon of April 30, 1961, at Milwaukee, where he became the ninth player in history to hit four home runs in a game. Oddly, the night before, Mays endured an upset stomach after dining on ribs.
"He wasn't deathly sick, but I was afraid," said Willie McCovey, another Hall of Fame Giant, who roomed with Mays at the time. "I had to wake up our trainer in the middle of the night to get him up to the room."
Scant hours later, Mays' insides had calmed, but the paid crowd of 13,114 at Milwaukee County Stadium was riled up after Jim Davenport grounded out to end the ninth inning with the Giants leading, 14-4. With Mays on deck, the fans booed because they wanted to see him go for homer No. 5.
Though others clamored to see Mays excel, winning was his top priority.
"If I had hit four home runs like I did in Milwaukee, and we lose, what good are those four home runs?" Mays asked. "But you have a happier clubhouse if you [win]. That, to me, makes me feel good. I wasn't there just to hit home runs. I guess I never was like that, even when I was playing high school ball. I really liked for the other guys to do well."
A true mentor
So Mays spent much of his career striving to further the Giants' success, not only through his efforts but by guiding other players. Ask any vintage Giant to relate something about Mays that average fans might not realize, and leadership inevitably becomes the topic.
"He kept everything lively," Bolin said. "If anybody was down, [he'd say], 'We're going to get 'em next time.' "
When infielder Hal Lanier was promoted to San Francisco in June 1964, he found Mays ready to help him.
"He took me by the hand and showed me the ins and outs of the Major Leagues," Lanier said. "During a game, he'd position me with different hitters. I'd look over my right shoulder and see him motioning me one way or another."
Seven years later, Speier succeeded Lanier at shortstop and received similar treatment from Mays.
"If you asked him anything, he was always there to help you," Speier said. "He'd always talk about hitters and pitchers and how they'd try to intimidate you. He was always very, very supportive."
As Mays grew older, younger players regarded him with sheer idolatry.
"He was baseball," said third baseman Al Gallagher, who in 1970 became the first native San Franciscan to play for the Giants. "To me, Willie was the greatest guy ever."
Away from the spotlight, Mays answered to the nickname "Buck" and was more one of the guys than an aloof superstar.
"He was a very funny guy. He was always laughing," said Ken Henderson, a Giants outfielder from 1965 to 1972.
But as gametime approached, laughter yielded to business. Mays often conducted what Hall of Fame right-hander Juan Marichal called "three-minute meetings" with that day's starting pitcher to analyze opposing hitters and discuss how each one would be approached. For example, if Mays knew a fastball was being thrown on a certain count or in a particular situation, he could position himself and his fellow outfielders accordingly.
And woe to pitchers who strayed from the plan.
"When you were on that mound, you tried not to make any kind of mistake. Otherwise you were going to hear from Willie," Marichal said.
"I tell people this all the time: The pitcher is your key to playing outfield," Mays said. "If you know what he's going to do, I feel it's very easy to play. But you have to be on the same page. You know those balls hit in the gap? I'd catch a lot of those. Because I'd know how he's going to pitch."
Only a fool would suggest that Mays might have been boasting.
"There'd be a line drive in the gap between right-center or left-center and you're thinking, 'Ohhhh, there goes the ballgame,' and there goes Mays up against the wall," Bolin said.
Simmons dismissed the few skeptics.
"People said that he made plays look difficult," he said. "He made difficult catches, because he was the only one who was going to get to them."
Mays' baserunning confirmed his status as a singular ballplayer. Aaron and Mickey Mantle could slug with him, and Roberto Clemente might match his defensive brilliance, but on the bases, Mays was peerless.
"He's the best I've ever seen -- I haven't seen anybody close -- at scoring from third base on a short wild pitch or passed ball," said Alou, who has spent more than a half-century in professional baseball. "This guy would score standing up. What an incredible sense of baserunning."
Simmons recalled watching Mays score from first base on a one-hop line-drive single to left field against Philadelphia.
"He rounded second base, trying to tempt the outfielder to throw it to third," Simmons said. "He threw the ball to second, and Mays just kept on going."
Mays derived special pleasure from this particular facet of his performance.
"Just show me a game where you can create things for yourself, like running the bases," he said.
Basics learned early
Mays attributed his mastery to his father, Willie Howard "Kitty Kat" Mays, who taught him the sport's rudiments as he grew up near Birmingham, Ala. Kitty Kat, who played on the company team representing the steel mill where he worked, unlocked the secrets of baseball's basics for his son, who was born on May 6, 1931.
"My father and I would do things at home and he would explain to me, 'Why am I sliding, why am I throwing this way, why am I throwing that way,' " Mays said.
A precocious athlete, Mays played baseball with his father on an industrial league team in Birmingham. By age 15 he had already joined the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro League. Barons manager Piper Davis served as a mentor for Mays and is widely credited for helping him develop his talent.
After a few years, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees scouted Mays but, reluctant to sign black players, passed on him, though Jackie Robinson already had broken baseball's color barrier. The New York Giants had no such reservations in June 1950, and scouts Eddie Montague and Billy Harris signed Mays. Mays received a $5,000 bonus, with $10,000 more going to the Black Barons.
The Yankees' and Red Sox's loss was the Giants' gain -- for a long time. Mays played 151 games or more for 13 consecutive seasons (1954 to 1966) and maintained his 180-pound playing weight over his 5-foot-11 frame until he retired.
"I never really got hurt," Mays said matter-of-factly.
Physically unencumbered, Mays thrived, especially in All-Star Games. Enhancing his image as the consummate ballplayer, he still holds or shares All-Star records for appearances (24), at-bats (75), runs (20), hits (23), triples (three), extra-base hits (eight) and total bases (40).
While playing in Midsummer Classics, McCovey noticed the degree to which Mays would elevate his already lofty skill level.
"We didn't play Interleague Games, and we didn't have the television exposure that they have now, so most of the people in the American League didn't get a chance to see the National League stars until the All-Star Game," McCovey said. "That's why Ted Williams made the statement that the All-Star Game was made for Willie Mays. He got to showcase his talents to the world."
Mays' last few All-Star Games were largely ceremonial appearances. Giants owner Horace Stoneham, struggling to afford Mays' $160,000 salary and give his star the long-term financial security he deserved, traded him to the New York Mets on May 11, 1972, for right-hander Charlie Williams and $50,000. Back where he began his career, Mays hit only .238 in 135 games during his season and a half with the Mets -- although, clutch to the end, he contributed the go-ahead single in a four-run, 12th-inning rally that gave New York a 10-7 victory in Game 2 of the 1973 World Series against Oakland.
Mays' ascent to baseball's Hall of Fame was a mere formality. Inducted in 1979, he received 94.7 percent of the vote, the fourth-highest total to that point behind Cobb, Ruth and Honus Wagner. In his 1994 book "The Politics of Glory," which challenged Hall of Fame qualifications, renowned expert Bill James put forth a system of statistical and performance standards that would determine a candidate's fitness for election to the shrine. Mays scored higher than anyone.
But Mays didn't play for such accolades. He played because he loved being inventive and competitive. Add that to his achievement and popularity, and you have a true American original, a man whose face belongs on baseball's Mount Rushmore.
"It was fun," Mays said of his career. "It was fun until the day I quit."