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Happy 90th birthday Willie Mays


Willie Mays turns 90 this week. A few semi-random notes about arguably the greatest baseball player of all time:

(1) Mays played his first major league game just four years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line. Think about that: there are literally tens of millions of living Americans (including the last two presidents) who lived in an America where someone like Willie Mays wasn’t eligible to play in the major leagues. We’re not talking about 1619 in other words, although maybe we are, or should be.

(2) As measured by advanced metrics (rWAR) Mays was the best position player in the National League in each one of the 13 seasons from 1954 through 1966, with the exception of 1961, when he was second to Henry Aaron’s greatest season, and 1959, when he was fourth behind Banks, Aaron, and Matthews. That is probably the greatest stretch of sustained excellence in the game’s history.

(3) One great thing about sports is that, even though they are far from pure meritocracies — see (1) above — they are far fairer than society as a whole. For example, Mays was consistently the highest-paid player in the game during his prime: his 1963 salary of $105,000 ($909,000 in 2021$) broke Joe DiMaggio’s more than decade-old record for the highest salary any player had received, at least in nominal terms (Adjusted for inflation, Babe Ruth retained the single season record for highest salary, until Mike Schmidt signed his first free-agent era contract in 1977). And although Mays won only two MVP awards, most of the awards he deserved in pure WAR terms ended up going to other Black players (Aaron and Banks twice each, Campanella, Newcombe, Frank Robinson, and Maury Wills).

(4) Because Mays had a bad final season at the age of 42, he became something of a byword for a great player who stays in the game for too long. In fact Mays was still a terrific player in his baseball old age: his age 40 season in 1971, when he was the 8th best player in the league, is probably the best season ever for such an old player.

(5) The wonders of the Internet: I’m just old enough to remember seeing Mays at the end of his career, and this morning I remembered that I saw a televised game in which he crashed into Bobby Bonds — Mays is the godfather of Bonds’s son Barry, who is one of about five players who can vie with Mays for the title of greatest ever — while making a spectacular catch. (He was laid out for a couple of scary minutes afterwards.) 30 seconds of googling later, and here it is. Indeed I’m almost certain this was the very first major league baseball game I ever saw.

(6) One rhetorical gesture that has always bemused me is when a fan argues against putting a particular candidate in the Hall of Fame by saying “my idea of a Hall of Fame player is Willie Mays.” Well that’s fine but if that’s your standard there would be like five players in the HOF. Relatedly, the Giants spent much of the 1960s trading away their best young players when it turned out that they weren’t as good as Mays.

(7) For obvious reasons Mays and Mickey Mantle have always been a pair in the minds of baseball fans of a certain age, and it’s striking how advanced stats are basically unable to determine which one of the two was the better player at his peak — their best seasons are essentially identical to each other in overall quality. Mays of course was a great player for a much longer time, so he is undoubtedly the greater player in career terms. I remember Bill James arguing in his first historical abstract that Mantle clearly had the higher peak value, but more advanced analysis has knocked that argument down.

(8) Mays had quite a bit of bad luck in terms of breaking Ruth’s career home run record. First, it’s little remembered today that he lost almost two full seasons to military service at the beginning of his career. Second, he played his entire career in leagues that ranged from historically average in terms of runs scored, to the most extreme pitcher-friendly leagues of the last 100 years. None of his career overlapped with a hitter’s era: if he had been born in 1971, he probably would have hit 800 home runs. Third, he never played in a hitter-friendly park. (Candlestick Park was a good illustration of Mark Twain’s quip that the coldest winter he ever experienced was a summer in San Francisco). Anyway, if things had broken just a little differently in terms of any of these factors, Mays would have certainly gotten to 715 before his contemporary, the late Henry Aaron.

Happy birthday to the greatest of the great.

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