|Mantle vs. Mays. It's one of the enduring debates of the last half-century, and a considered study is likely to come down on both sides. At Mantle's best, he was the better player, but Mays was the more durable player and lasted longer. Which was greater? It depends on how you frame the question.
But what did people think when Mantle and Mays were playing? In The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James asked,
The opinion of contemporaries? Between 1955 and 1964 Mantle finished first or second in the MVP voting six times; Mays in his career [italics mine] was first or second four times over a less concentrated period of time. It was only after the fact, when the final statistics were in the book, that people began to say that Mays was the greater player.
I often use MVP voting as evidence, but in this case MVP voting doesn't tell us the whole story.
The National League, in the late 1950s and early '60s, featured not only Willie Mays, but also Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn, and Sandy Koufax. Aaron, Mays and Robinson hold, respectively, the Nos. 1, 3 and 4 spots on the all-time home-run list. Banks won a couple of MVP Awards, Spahn is baseball's all-time winningest left-hander, Mathews was one of the two or three best third basemen in history, and of course Koufax was Koufax. When you think baseball in the 1950s and '60s, you tend to think of National League players.
And the American League? Well, you've got Mantle, and you've got ... well, you've got Mantle. From 1956 through 1965, the A.L.'s MVP awards went to Mantle twice, Jackie Jensen, Nellie Fox, Roger Maris twice, Elston Howard, Brooks Robinson, and Zoilo Versalles. All of these men were good ballplayers in their time, but the fact is that only Mantle ranks with the aforementioned National Leaguers.
As author Allen Barra notes, "Mantle and Mays weren't competing [for MVP awards] with each other." Yes, Mantle fared brilliantly in MVP balloting. From 1956 through '64, he won the award three times and finished second three times. But he simply wasn't facing the same sort of competition that Mays was.
In 1960, the Associated Press chose its All-Decade Team for the 1950s. And though Mays spent most of 1952 and all of 1953 in the U.S. Army (he spent the great majority of those two years playing baseball and doing push-ups), he still managed to beat out Mantle for a spot on the team, joining Ted Williams and Stan Musial.
Arnold Hano wrote some of the best baseball books of the 1950s and '60s, including a fine biography of Mays in 1966. Hano is one of my professional heroes, and I was thrilled to discover that, at 79, he still speaks of events half a century old with great vividness. I asked him what people thought about Mantle and Mays at the time. Predictably, Hano focused on Mays, saying, "He was thought to be special, very special. Almost immediately, he became a special ballplayer. When you think of natural ballplayers, only two come into mind, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. He probably could have played in the major leagues when he was 16."
"Most people thought that Mays was the better ... something or other. I don't know exactly what the numbers said, but there was something about Mays that always went beyond that. Even today, you don't hear about Mantle doing anything except hitting tape-measure home runs."
And there was something, to Hano at least, fundamental about Mays' and Mantle's characters that set them apart.
"Mantle played ball almost under a shroud of depression, because he always thought he was going to die an early death. But Mays probably thinks he's going to live forever. Mantle acted like a man who was doomed. Mays never did, even though he played long beyond his ability. I talked to Willie after the 1973 World Series, in which he looked terrible.
"I said, 'What were you doing out there, Willie?'
"'Oh, I was having fun!' he told me.
"Mantle never had fun. Mays, on the other hand, seemed to be inoculated from all the pressure. He simply went beyond the usual frames of reference. If I were writing this, I'd say that he went beyond the usual frames of reverence.
"That's the way we all felt," Hano remembers, "and I think it was true for not only the press, but also for managers and other players. And this bled into the other pages of the newspaper."
Speaking of those other pages of the newspaper, here's something that Hano wrote 40 years ago in Sport magazine:
|The young Willie Mays, pictured just before he played his first game with the Giants on May 26, 1951.|
The aura about Mays was best reflected by his impact on society. Recently I went through some old New York Times Sunday Magazine sections and came across the following:
In the issue of July 11, 1954, there was an article by Gilbert Millstein about Willie Mays. Millstein compared Mays to the Natural Man of Jean Jacques Rousseau. The following month, in the issue of August 15, 1954, the Sunday Times magazine had further references to Mays. There, on page 25, was an article about Ethel Barrymore in which Miss Barrymore irreverently says: "Isn't Willie Mays wonderful?" On page 34, same date, same magazine, in an article satirizing the how-to-do craze, there is a sentence which lumps current topics for conversation as: "the weather, Faulkner, Willie Mays and children's summer camps."
On page 61, same date, same sedate old magazine, there is a brief piece on baseball superstitions; we see a picture of Willie Mays touching second base on his way to the outfield. And two weeks later, the same magazine did an article about the Copyright Office in Washington; the second paragraph of the piece has to do with two songs just written about Willie Mays.
Rousseau, Ethel Barrymore, how-to-do fads, superstitions, copyrighted songs and the New York Times.
So you see, I hope, what Willie Mays has been: a great ballplayer, not only according to all the rules of the game and within the confines of the sport and the field, but one who overflows normal boundaries and escapes into the life and world about us, any shape, any form.
Of course, Hano might not have been completely objective about Willie Mays in 1961, and might not be in 2001. But then, that's the point. Mays was the favorite of baseball's cognoscenti. Arnold Hano, one of the great baseball writers, chose to write about Mays, and not Mantle. Charles Einstein, another great baseball writer, wrote two books about Willie Mays. One of them, the brilliant Willie's Time, nearly won a Pulitzer Prize. To this day, nobody's written a good book, let alone a great book, about Mickey Mantle. And why? Because Mantle simply did not inspire great writers. Mays did.
Not long after Hano's article appeared, Sport published, in 1962, a special issue devoted to Mays and Mantle. An anonymous editor wrote, by way of introduction, "Who's better? Since 1951, the question has been argued long and loud in dugouts, in clubhouses, newspapers and magazines. Since 1951 the winner most often has been Willie Mays ... Mays remains the choice today. For the same reasons he has been picked so often through the years: he can do more things better ..."
Mays may, or may not have been, the greatest ballplayer of his time. But there's little doubt in my mind that most contemporary observers thought that Mays was the greatest ballplayer of his time.
Rob Neyer is a Senior Writer for ESPN.com. His column runs Monday through Thursday. You can e-mail Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org.