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  • Lincoln Mitchell

Willie Mays and Baseball History

by Lincoln Mitchell

June 2024

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NOTE - This article comes from Lincoln Mitchell's Substack page, Kibitzing with Lincoln . Please click HERE to follow Lincoln on Substack. (This was originally published on April 7, 2024.)

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I never saw Willie Mays play. That is not exactly true because I saw him at a few Old Timers Days at Candlestick Park in the late 1970s or early 1980s-and saw him make at least one basket catch, but that is obviously not the same as seeing him play in a real game. Nonetheless, Mays has been part of my life as a baseball fan since I became aware of the game a few years after he retired. Mays is also deeply tied to San Francisco, the city where he played for most of his career and where I discovered baseball.


Mays lived for half a century after he finished playing-his last season and a half were spent with the Mets. While he never took formal positions managing or in the front office, he was a revered member of the baseball world, and of the San Francisco Giants family, for most of that time. The only exception was from 1979-1985 when Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, a man who was completely overmatched by the challenges of his job, banned Mays, and a few years later fellow great Mickey Mantle, from baseball for working at casinos in a capacity that amounted to little more than playing golf with wealthy guests.


For me, and I suspect a lot of baseball fans too young to have seen him play, Mays is simultaneously one of the game’s immortals, like Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb and very much of the modern era. We see him both as a legend and almost mythical figure, but also have seen enough of the videos of his base running, wonderful defense and slugging, to know how good he was. Because he lived so long, Mays spent the last decades of his life both as a revered elder statesman of the game and as a link to a different era for baseball, and indeed for America.


The greatest of baseball players, particularly those who, like Mays, are associated with unforgettable baseball moments, cross the line from real to mythic. Yankee great Don Mattingly once said that when he was growing up he thought “Babe Ruth was a cartoon character.” That is, on the one hand, absurd, but on the other kind of reasonable. Ruth’s feats on the diamond, from his called shot in the 1932 World Series, to frequently hitting more home runs in a season tha most other teams, seem unreal. Additionally what video we have of Ruth is grainy and does not exactly scream elite athlete.


Mays was different. Nobody would ever think of him as a cartoon character, but there was something superhuman about him. Watch that catch from the 1954 World Series a few times and you will still wonder how any mortal was able to do that. Look more closely at his baseball reference page and see all that black ink (meaning he led the league) in different categories over so many years. Then, remember that he did most of it in a pitcher’s park and without the assistance of any PEDs or even modern baseball medicine. But Mays’s legend is more than that.


A major source of the almost mythical status around Willie Mays is that he played, and became a hero, in a different America, and lived long enough to seemingly always be here in the present. Mays hit his first home run when Harry Truman was in the White House, competed in his first World Series that same year against Joe DiMaggio’s Yankees, played stickball in the streets of Harlem while a rookie with the New York Giants, was on deck when Bobby Thomson hit the most famous home run in baseball history and was one of the last living people to have played in the Negro Leagues.


In his later years whenever Mays would give an interview or appear at the Giants spring training camp, he was our portal into a long ago baseball world-and a long ago America.


One of the ways that America when Mays was playing was so different from today is baseball itself. Since Mays retired, free agency, the designated hitter, huge amounts of money, new technologies, new strategies and globalization have changed the game dramatically. During Mays’s final season, his Mets team threw 47 complete games and never used a designated hitter. Of the forty players who played for the Mets that year, fully 37 were born in the US. Mays’s $165,000, about $1.2 million in today’s dollars, was the highest salary on the team.


Beyond the numbers, baseball was much more central to American culture and daily life during Mays’s time than it is today. That meant that a player as great, entertaining, dynamic and photogenic as Mays achieved a level of stardom and cultural impact that is very different than the best players of today. During the time Mays was playing baseball mattered deeply to the American story and psyche. That has not been true for decades and with Mays’s passing, baseball has become even further removed from that role and that status.

8 Comments


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2 days ago

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jjw49
Jun 20

Thanks, I like your take on his impact .... I remember as a kid, trading baseball cards and having heated debates about who was better.... Mays, Mantle or Snyder? In his passing, it would be safe to say the golden era of baseball has lost the last legend! 😪

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sfs1944
Jun 20
Replying to

Born in Brooklyn played baseball cards Dodger fan so Duke Snider was my man

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