Willie Mays, a baseball giant, dies at age 93

The nation says goodbye to the "Say Hey Kid."

Willie Mays was a baseball-loving kid from Alabama who became a sports icon. In his 22 years with the New York and San Francisco Giants, Mays hit 660 home runs and had 3,283 hits in total. 

The “Say Hey Kid” displayed strong ability in the five “tools” of the game — hitting for power and average, running, fielding and throwing — thanks to a winning combination of power, speed and intelligence. Mays, considered by many to be the best all-around player in the history of baseball, died Tuesday, June 18, of heart failure, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. He was 93. 

“My father has passed away peacefully and among loved ones,” Mays’ son, Michael Mays told the Chronicle “I want to thank you all from the bottom of my broken heart for the unwavering love you have shown him over the years. You have been his life’s blood.”

Mays once said his parents knew that their young son, born May 6, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama, would become a star athlete. “My father said to me, ‘You’re not going into a cotton field, that’s No. 1’,” Mays reflected in a 1996 interview with the Academy of Achievement in Washington, D.C. “That means picking cotton down there, putting it in a sack, carrying it on your shoulder. ‘You’re not going to do that. You’re going to play baseball … You’re going to be the best in baseball’.” 

Durocher Tells Jokes
American professional baseball player, manager and coach Leo Durocher (1905–1991), Giant manager (fourth from right), puts smiles on the faces of visiting Polo Grounds celebrities and two of his Giants players Willie Mays (right), Judge Francis Rivers (second from right), Monte Irvin (third from left), Wesley Williams, fire department captain (second from left), Paul T Haley, Harlem YMCA health director (left), New York, August 1951. (Photo by Curt Gunther/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mays’ father and grandfather had both played baseball on the all-Black teams in the segregated South. His mother was a high school champion sprinter. Before Mays could walk, his father — a steelworker — taught him how to catch. By age 14, Mays was playing on his father’s team at the steel mill.  

At 16, Mays began playing professionally with the Birmingham Black Barons in the segregated Negro Southern League. His father wouldn’t let him drop out of high school to pursue his dream, limiting Mays to playing in home games. After he graduated from high school in 1950, the New York Giants purchased his contract from the Barons and he spent two seasons in the minor leagues. And then he got the phone call to join the Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York. 

Mays acknowledged that playing in the big leagues wasn’t something he ever expected to achieve. “I didn’t think I would have a chance, because of segregation. I didn’t think I would ever get out of Birmingham,” he said. 


He credited Jackie Robinson — who in 1947 became the first Black major league player — with paving the way for him and other Black players. “Robinson was important to all Blacks. To make it into the majors and to take all the name-calling, he had to be something special,” Mays said. “He had to take all this for years, not just for Jackie Robinson, but for the nation.”

Initially, Mays struggled in the league. He was hitless in his first 12 times at bat — which could have sent him back to the farm leagues. But Giants Manager Leo Durocher stuck by his young center fielder, who eventually broke through the barrier. Mays hit a home run over the left-field roof and ultimately hit 19 home runs for the season. He also became known for his enthusiasm for the game and his work on the field, leaping and diving for catches. The Giants won the National League pennant that season. 

President Obama Presents The Presidential Medal Of Freedom Awards
U.S. President Barack Obama presents Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House Nov. 24, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Obama presented the medal to 13 living and four posthumous pioneers in science, sports, public service, human rights, politics and arts. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Amid his early successes, Mays was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1952. In 1954, the year he returned to the game, his Giants won the pennant and later the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. Mays led the league in hitting and had 41 home runs that year and his team dominated in the series in four consecutive games. In the first game, he made a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch of a 462-foot drive, forever known as “The Catch.” 

Joe DiMaggio said Mays, who won the Rawlings Gold Glove Award 12 times, had the greatest throwing arm in baseball. He was named Most Valuable Player twice and appeared in 24 All-Star Games. At bat, he drove in more than 100 runs a year for eight straight years and his record of 660 home runs is still the third highest in the record books

Mays continued to play with the Giants when the team moved to San Francisco in 1958. By 1966, he was the highest-paid player in the history of the game. He returned to New York in 1972 when he was traded to the Mets, retiring after the 1973 season. He continued working in baseball as a part-time coach and public relations executive for the Mets. In 1986, he became a special assistant to the Giants president.

He was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in 1979, his first year of eligibility. Ironically, that same year he became embroiled in a controversy involving the gambling industry. Shortly after his induction, he took a job at an Atlantic City casino as special assistant to the president and as a greeter. Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle was also a greeter at the time. Then-baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn barred both men from taking part in organized baseball for violating the league’s rules on gambling. Peter Ueberroth, the next commissioner, lifted the ban in 1985.

Mays received honorary degrees from numerous schools, including Yale University, Ohio State University, Dartmouth College and San Francisco State University. The Sporting News ranks him second only to Babe Ruth among the 100 greatest baseball players of the past century. ESPN lists him eighth in its ranking of the 20th century’s Top 100 North American athletes. Former President Barack Obama awarded Mays with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. 

Rockies v Giants
A statue of baseball legend Willie Mays stands in Willie Mays Plaza before the game between the Colorado Rockies and the San Francisco Giants on Sept. 2, 2004, at SBC Park in San Francisco. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The San Francisco Giants retired his No. 24 and a larger-than-life statue of him sits at the main entrance of AT&T Park, the team’s stadium. The Giants also included Mays in the inaugural class of greatest players for the team’s Wall of Fame, which was unveiled in 2008. 

In 2017, Major League Baseball renamed the World Series MVP Award the Willie Mays World Series MVP Award. 

Mays is survived by his son Michael, who was adopted in 1959 with his former wife, Marghuerite Wendell Chapman. (The couple divorced in 1963.) In 1971, Mays married Mae Louise Allen, who died in 2013.  

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