On May 4, 1966, San Francisco Giants outfielder Willie Mays hits his 512th career home run to break Mel Ott’s National League record for home runs. Mays would finish his career with 660 home runs, good for third on the all-time list at the time of his retirement.
Willie Howard Mays was born May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama. The “Say Hey Kid” learned baseball from his father, who played semi-professionally with a team from his steel mill. Willie joined the steel mill team at age 14, and then began his professional career at 16 with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Southern League. He played home games for the Barons from 1948 to 1950, skipping road trips during the school year so he could attend high school. Upon graduation he was signed by the New York Giants, and made his debut at the Polo Grounds on May 25, 1951. Mays went hitless in his first 12 at-bats, hitting his first big league homer in his 13th. That season, he was named Rookie of the Year and helped the Giants to the National League pennant.
In 1952, Mays was drafted into the Army. The Mays-less Giants barely missed the pennant in 1952, then felt his absence more acutely in 1953, when they finished the season with a 70-84 record. Upon his return in 1954, the Giants defeated the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series, during which Mays made what many fans consider to be the greatest catch in history. In Game 1, Indian first baseman Vic Wertz hit a fly ball to deep center field. Mays turned and ran, then caught the ball over his shoulder with his back to the infield, spinning and firing the ball back into the infield to keep the runners from advancing. When he was later asked about the play, Mays famously replied, “I don’t rank ‘em, I just catch ‘em.”
After more than 20 years with the Giants, first in New York and then in San Francisco (the team relocated), Mays was acquired by the New York Mets on May 11, 1972. He spent the next two seasons as a Met under former Yankee catcher Yogi Berra as manager. The team won the National League pennant in 1973, though by then, Mays’ skills had eroded, and he could not catch up to the fastballs he once deposited into bleachers on both coasts.
In addition to winning the National League MVP in 1954 and 1965, Mays played in 24 All-Star games, winning the All-Star MVP in 1963 and 1968. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979. His base running, power, fielding, ability to hit for average and outstanding arm in the outfield made him the prototype “five-tool” player for whom baseball scouts search. Any argument over who deserves the title “greatest baseball player in history” has to include Willie Mays.