Happy Birthday Willie Mays: Celebrating the Baseball Icon

by Suzanne Halliburton

Say hey, Willie Mays. How’s your 90th treating you? No matter your age, you always will define sports legend.

So let’s celebrate Willie Mays, the New York/San Francisco Giant center fielder who flips another decade today. At 90, Mays is the oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Tim McCarver, the long-time baseball analyst and former catcher, described Willie Mays as the “magic man.” The two would face each other in the regular season. As a catcher, McCarver had a very up-close view of Mays’ sweet, powerful swing.

“As his opponent, you had to make sure you didn’t fall under his spell,” McCarver said. “Because that was the trap you could fall into being on the same field with him. You could be spellbound at the things he could do and the way he could do them.”

Willie Mays Cast His Spell Over Baseball

Baseball truly was spellbound by Willie Mays, aka, the “Say Hey Kid.” A sportswriter for the New York Journal American gave Mays the Say Hey nickname during Mays rookie season. It seemed that Mays liked to start a phrase with “say.”

Mays started playing pro baseball while he was in high school. He signed with the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro American League. One of his teammates also played ball with Mays’ father. Mays’ dad made sure his son also could still play high school football.

The New York Giants signed Mays and gave him a $4,000 minor league contract once he graduated high school. This was three years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Mays success was both immediate and curtailed. He won rookie of the year in 1951 after manager Leo Durocher called him up to the parent club. Mays wasn’t the star of the team, but he was near to it. He was on deck when teammate Bobby Thomson won the pennant with a three-run swat in the ninth inning off Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca. The play was one of the sport’s all-time classics.

Mays played a few games of the 1952 season but then was drafted by the Army to fight in the Korean War. Although he never saw combat, Mays served his country for two years, putting his baseball career on hold. But, he still maintained the on-field magic.

Mays Hit For Both Power and Getting on Base

By 1954, Mays was thrilling fans with his homers. He notched 30 of them by the All-Star game, becoming the first player to hit that benchmark before the mid-season break. And through all this, he had a manager in his ear telling him to focus most on getting on base, as opposed to swinging for the fences.

But Mays wasn’t known only for hitting. His first major play in a World Series was when he made an over-the-shoulder grab in center field.

The video is grainy, but here’s what’s known as “The Catch” in baseball history. With his back to the infield, Mays sprinted the last 20 feet to catch up to the ball. His blind relay throw was so strong that it kept two runners from moving up on the bases. This was the ninth inning. By the 10th, Mays scored the winning run.

What was so good about Willie Mays is he could do it all. Hit for power? Check. Hit for a high average? Check that box, too. Steal bases? Of course. Fielding? Check the catch.

One Former Great Said Mays Was Mix of Sports Top Stars

Reggie Jackson, another Hall of Famer, described Mays using more modern-day references in an interview with ESPN:

“You’d sit on the bench and watch Willie Mays,” Jackson said. “It was so exciting just to watch him. People did that with Jim Brown. They did that with the acrobatics and greatness of [Michael] Jordan. It’s like players today going to watch the pregame warm-ups of Steph Curry. To watch Willie warm up, to throw the ball underhand, to make a basket catch. The beauty and the grace.

“For the kids today, it was like watching Simone Biles. It was like watching [Mikhail] Baryshnikov (and) it was poetry in motion. It was so beautiful, so pretty, to watch this athlete just run on the field, catch a ball. I loved to play against Willie Mays because it meant that I got to watch Willie Mays.”

Mays was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979, the first year he was eligible. To swap sports cliches, he was a slam dunk selection.

Willie Mays even carved a spot in the country’s pop culture. He was mentioned in songs from John Fogerty to Run DMC to Wu Tang Clan. Baseball historian Ken Burns used Say Hey (The Willie Mays song) as part of the soundtrack for his documentary on America’s favorite past time.

Dusty Baker, the Houston Astros manager and former outfielder, said of Mays:

“He was the first player to have genuine swag.”

So, Say Hey Willie, have yourself a day.