|Friday, May 4
Updated: May 5, 2:16 PM ET
Mays was Mr. Everything
By Joe Morgan
Special to ESPN.com
I played against some of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. I got to bat against Sandy Koufax. I got to watch and play against Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente in their primes. That's what playing the game is all about -- competing against the best. But there was no one better than Willie Mays.
Saying Mays is the greatest is not a slight against the other players, who also deserve praise for their greatness. Everyone has a different opinion about which player was better, whether it was Babe Ruth or Aaron or someone else. I only know what I saw, and Mays was the best.
When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1959, I was a high school baseball player in Oakland and went to Seals Stadium to watch them play. As a fan, Mays commanded all of your attention, whether he was trotting to the outfield, making a basket catch or standing in the batter's box. I could not take my eyes off Mays.
Great athletes have an aura about how they walk and go about their business. When Michael Jordan was on the basketball court, he seemed to walk differently and with more confidence than the other players. Mays was the same way on the baseball field; he walked better than everyone else.
At 5-foot-10 and only around 185 or 190 pounds, Mays was not a huge man, but he was a perfect baseball specimen. He wasn't so big that he wasn't fast or quick, and he wasn't so small that he wasn't strong. He had all the attributes you would want from a player.
Mays stood above the rest in every facet of the game -- hitting, fielding, running and throwing. Plus, he had one of the all-time highest baseball IQs. There was nothing about the game he didn't understand. Every time I watched him play, I learned something. Running the bases he always seemed to know the location of the ball and the fielders. He knew who had a good arm and when or when not to try for an extra base.
He looked like a flamboyant player, but everything Mays did was calculated; he knew whether the risk was worth the reward. He would try to throw out a runner if he had a shot. If he didn't have a shot, he didn't just throw the ball. Mays always seemed to be in the right position.
After I became a major-leaguer, I was amazed at how he made so many great plays. One time I wondered how he caught a ball I hit to left-center field when I was basically a pull hitter. He later told me he knew the pitcher would eventually throw the ball away and that I wouldn't pull the ball. It was tougher to play defense 30 years ago than it is today. Teams now have scouting reports that tell players where someone tends to hit the ball. When Mays played, players had to gather their own information, and he knew all the hitters.
In 1963, two years after graduating from high school, I got called up to the majors at the end of the season, and we played the Giants. As a Giants fan growing up, it was a great thrill to be on the same field with all the Giants, but especially with Mays. Watching him in center field, I still couldn't take my eyes off him.
Mays had such a flair for the moment, knowing exactly what was required. In 1965, when he was the National League's MVP for the second time, I remember talking to Felipe Alou, who was playing for the Giants. He said no one could ever have a better season than the one Mays was having. Every time the Giants needed a hit, Mays got the hit. When they needed a walk, Mays got the walk. When they needed to throw a runner out, Mays threw him out.
One time we were playing the Giants in the Astrodome. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, we were leading 2-1, and Mays was the last hitter. The pitcher, Claude Raymond, was one of the best relievers at the time. He threw hard and had a good slider. When Mays walked to the plate, I remember thinking, "Surely, he can't hit a home run and tie this ballgame."
But when I saw his first swing, I knew that the only thing on his mind was hitting a home run. Mays knew what he had to do. He worked Raymond to a full count, fouling pitches backs. Raymond, a tough pitcher with a lot of guts, wasn't about to give in and walk Mays. He kept throwing the ball harder and harder, and Mays kept swinging harder and harder. He fouled off about six pitches.
On about the seventh pitch, Mays hit a home run to straight-away center field. I stood petrified at second base because I had never seen a player just walk to the plate with two outs and the game on the line and hit the ball out of the park. I have seen players hit game-tying home runs in the ninth inning, but they never looked like hitting a home run was their goal. They were only trying to get on base.
It was the greatest at-bat and batter-pitcher confrontation I have ever seen. I saw Don Wilson get Hank Aaron out with two outs in the ninth inning to secure a no-hitter. But the Mays at-bat was the best because it is harder to hit a ball than it is to throw it. I always had such a high regard for Mays, but that feat was unbelievable.
On numerous occasions he has told me his catch in the '54 World Series wasn't even close to the best play he ever made. He talked about other plays he thought were better. My rookie year I hit a ball toward left-center field that I thought was headed for the gap. But Mays made a diving catch on the Astroturf. He hurt himself a bit and laid on the ground. I yelled a him from second base because he came up with the ball, and he just kind of smiled.
Sometimes, his great plays were less spectacular, like cutting balls off, holding a player to a single, keeping a runner from scoring, hitting the cutoff man, throwing the ball to the right base, getting the ball back to the infield quickly, and keeping someone from going from first to third -- which is tough to do from center field because the throws are always longer. What impressed me the most was he always seemed to charge the ball on a base hit. He charged so hard and so fast that runners wouldn't challenge.
I was in awe of him -- and I still am, even though he may be 70. When I walk into a room and Willie is there, I still get goose pimples. I will always have a bigger-than-life image of him.
He and I became close friends. After my first year in the big leagues, he invited me to his house over the winter. I was kind of intimidated. But when I got to his house, he treated me like I was one of the guys. We had a great time.
Willie is the most generous person you could ever meet. The day I went to his house, he knew I was into jazz records. From his jazz collection, he said, "Take whatever you want." Even though he is a bigger man than I am, he opened his closet and said I could take any sweaters I wanted. They wouldn't fit me, but because it was Willie Mays, I took some sweaters and a lot of recordings.
After the first visit, I would spend time at his house every year. We played golf together. I still see him a lot because he comes to the ballpark. He used to play in my golf tournaments, but he doesn't play golf much anymore. When he came to my tournaments, though, Willie would be the star of the show.
I was watching "When It Was A Game II" recently on TV. Seeing a young Willie Mays running in the outfield, making throws and hitting the ball took me back to my childhood. Willie had a distinctive style. On the baseball field, he always looked like he was having fun because you could see the joy on his face.
I wouldn't trade my baseball era for anything. I played the game to be around players like Mays. Very few people can say they played with the greatest baseball players ever. But no one looked like Willie Mays. And no one ever will.
Hall of Famer Joe Morgan works as an analyst for ESPN.