Leaguer of the Month
Born: May 6, 1931 in Westfield, AL
Ht: 5'-10”, Wt: 175
Years Played: 1946-1973
Teams: Motgomery Gray Sox, Chatanooga Choo Choos, Birmingham Black Barons, Trenton NJ (minors), Minneapolis Millers (minors), New York Giants, San Francisco Giants, New York Mets
Every baseball fan knows that Willie Mays is on the short list as "the greatest player ever." HIs resume is ridiculous in its excellence: 660 homers, .302 average, 338 stolen bases, 24 All-Star Games, 2 MVP Awards, Rookie of the Year in '51, 12 Gold Gloves, and a 4-homer game. But less is known about Mays before he made "The Show."
Mays grew up in Alabama, and started playing with grown men with the Fairfeild Stars before being signed by the Montgomery Gray Sox. The young Mays was a defensive whiz, making one great catch after another, and with a throwing arm that belied his youth, and he could hit with surprising authority for his size.
In 1948, Mays was "discovered" by the Negro Southern Leagues' Chatanooga Choo Choos. It's hard to describe Mays as being discovered by anyone as his talent was abvious to all.
Because of his youth, some veteran players were jealous of Mays and didn't want him to play, but the Choo Choos owner stopped the dissention when he warned the team that he'd fire every player and finish the season with just Willie!
After a few months with Chatanooga, Mays was signed by the Birmingham Black Barons, a step up, where he was tutored by player-manager Piper Davis. Mays, only 17, was considered the fourth outfielder, but when Norman Robinson (brother of former NLOM Frasier Robinson) was injured, Mays stepped in and was on his way to greatness.
In limited time, Mays batted .262 with a single homerun, but he played better in the Negro League World Series, despite the Barons losing to the Homestead Grays.
In 1949 Mays batted .311, followed by .330 with power in '50 before he was signed by the New York Giants and assigned to their farm club in Trenton, New Jersey.
With Trenton, Mays, now 19, batted .353, and in 1951 Mays batted .477 in 35 games with the Minneapolis Millers before being called up to the Giants. To this day, there are old men in coffee shops in the Twin Cities who fondly recall Mays' short stay with the Millers--the Giants took out a full-page ad in the Minneapolis Tribune, apologizing to the Twin Cities for taking away their favorite player.
The scouting report on Mays while with Minneapolis is possibly the most glowing of any player ever. The report read: "Mays is the greateast player I've ever seen in my life. Everything that he does is sensational. He has made the most spectacular catches and runs and throws with the best of them. Sensational Negro boy is the outstanding player in Minneapolis club and probably in all minor leagues for that matter. He is now in one of the best hitting streaks imaginable. He hits to all fields and hits all pitches."
Mays struggled early in '51, experiencing the first long slump of his young career, but after homering off Warren Spahn he got back on track, and went on to blast 20 homers and lead the Giants to the penant.
After two years in the army, Mays returned in 1954 and led the Giants to the World Championship, batting .345 with 41 homers and 110 RBIs in the regular season, and making his famous over-the-shoulder catch in the World Series to turn the momentum the Giants' way.
After retiring, Mays made the Hall of Fame, receiving 409 of 432 votes for a .947 percentage. The only question is, what were those other 23 writers thinking?