You can argue about who is the best all around center fielder of all-time. Willie Mays, from the San Francisco Giants, or Mickey Mantle from the New York Yankees. And there wouldn’t be anyone else that I would consider for that. But Willie Mays, certainly is the best center fielder in the history of the National Baseball League. And perhaps the best all around player in the National League in his era. The 1950s and 1960s. And I don’t know of a great ballplayer who had more fun playing the game of baseball than Willie Mays. He was truly one of those players who made going to the ballpark worth it on his own. If for no other reason, because of how much he loved baseball.
The terms the total package and great players, are overused and overused catch phrases in America. But the total package when it comes to baseball, I’m not sure fits anyone better than Willy Mays. Here’s a player, with a 302 career batting average, 3200 hits, who hit 660 home runs, drove in over 1900 runs and struck out less than seventy times a year. In today’s game, if you hit 285-290 and are a power hitter, 25-30 home runs a season and drive in 90 plus a season and strike out less than a hundred time a year, that is considered good. In Willie Mays time, striking out 90 times a season, with power numbers like that, would be considered a lot.
But you can’t be total package as a baseball player, if you’re just great at the plate. There isn’t a better defensive center fielder than Willie Mays, ever. As far as range, speed, throwing arm, making plays in the field that look impossible to anyone else. Every center fielder since who looks great in the field and makes an incredible catch, or throws someone out deep in center field, gets compared to Willie. Because Willie made so many plays like that. Like catching the ball over his shoulder in the 1954 World Series against the New York Yankees. The biggest catch of the season on the biggest stage, made by Willie Mays.
I don’t believe we’ve seen a better outfielder at the plate, or on the field since Willie Mays retired in 1973. Willie and Mickey Mantle, retired in 1967 and 73 respectfully and we haven’t had two better players in the outfield and at the plate as outfielders since those two great players. One of the tests of greatness, is not just how you look compared to your peers. Which is obviously important to determine the best players of that era. But more important is how you compared with the players who came before you and after. Willie has been retired since 1974, over forty-years ago. And he still looks like the best player ever post-Babe Ruth. The only other players I would consider would be Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio. Willie, was not just a once in a generation ballplayer, but perhaps once in a century as well. And is truly one of the best ever.
Classic MLB 11: ABC Sports Portrait of Willie Mays