Professional Baseball Strength & Conditioning

Willie Mays’ Journey to the Hall of Fame

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Willie Mays’ Journey to the Hall of Fame

By Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E

William Howard Mays, Jr., the son of athletic parents was born on May 6, 1931 in Westfield Alabama. His father, a steelworker, played center field for the local Birmingham Industrial semi-pro team. His mother, Ann, had been a high school track star, and it was clear from a very early age that Willie had inherited his parents’ athletic gifts.

His parents divorced when he was three, but he lived with his father and they played catch and talked baseball almost every day. It was not long before he realized that baseball offered him a way out of the steel mills, and he later admitted that when given the choice, he always preferred playing ball to doing school-work. Not only did he play ball constantly, he would sit in the dugout with his father’s Industrial League teammates and listen to baseball strategy and technique, absorbing the game’s finer points and learning to be at his ease in a competitive environment. By the age of thirteen, he was playing on a semi-professional team called the Gray Sox.

Willie Mays started his professional baseball career in 1948 as the left fielder for the Negro American League Champion Birmingham Black Barons for $250 per month. He was 16, a high school student between his sophomore and junior years, but his talent allowed him to compete against men who had been in the league for years. He played three seasons (1948-50) for the Birmingham Black Barons before signing with the New York Giants. He signed with the Giants on the day he graduated from high school in 1950. Ed Montague, the scout that signed him, was the father of Eddie Montague, a MLB umpire for 35 years and the only umpire to serve as crew chief for the World Series four times. Willie Mays received a $4,000 signing bonus and $250 per month minor league contract.

The Giants sent him to the B-league team in Trenton and he hit .353 in 81 games. He started in AAA Minneapolis in 1951 and was called up to the Giants on May 25, 1951 after 35 games in AAA where he had 71 hits, 18 2B, 3 3B, 8 HR and a .477 batting average. At age 20, he was the starting center fielder and number three hitter in the Big Leagues.

Mays struggled at the start of his MLB career, going 0-for-12 before homering off future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn at the Polo Grounds. Later Spahn would humorously say. “We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if only I’d struck him out.” He went hitless for another 13 at-bats after that homer; a lackluster 1-for-25 to start his MLB career. Leo Durocher told a despondent Mays – “As long as I’m the manager of the Giants, you are my center fielder”. He got on track shortly the pep talk from Durocher hitting .288 with 19 HR over the last 114 games of the season.

The slow starting Giants riding Mays’ coat tails tied the Dodgers on the last day of the regular season to force a 3-game play-off that would decide the NL championship. In one of the most famous series in baseball history, the Giants won the third and deciding game of the play-off. They faced their crosstown rivals, the New York Yankees, and lost in seven games. In recognition of his 20 home runs and .274 batting average during the season Mays was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year for 1951.

The 1951 season was his last full season until 1954. After two years in the Army, he returned to lead the Giants to another NL Championship and World Series victory over the Cleveland Indians in a Series most remembered for “the catch.” He also led the league in batting in 1954 with a .345 average, 13 triples, 41 home runs and 110 RBIs.

SIDE STORY TO “THE CATCH”. THE SET-UP: It’s the top of the 8th inning with the score tied 2–2. Giants starting pitcher Sal Maglie walks Indians lead-off hitter Larry Doby. Al Rosen then singles, putting runners on first and second. Leo Durocher goes to the bull pen and brings in left-handed relief pitcher Don Little to pitch to left-handed power hitter, Vic Wertz. With a 2-1 count, Wertz hits Liddle’s fourth pitch approximately 420 feet to deep center field. In most stadiums the ball would have been a HR and would have given the Indians a 5–2 lead, but the center field fence in the Polo Grounds was 483 feet from home plate. Mays, who is playing in shallow center field, makes an on-the-run, over-the-shoulder catch at the warning track for the out. He then immediately spins and throws to second base to hold Cleveland’s runners on first and third with one out. Right-hander Marv Grisson relieves Liddle, who supposedly walked into the dugout, threw down his glove and said “Well, I got my man.” Grissom walks pinch hitter Dale Mitchel to load the bases and then strikes out Dave Pope and get Jim Hegan to fly out, ending the inning with no runs scored. The Giants win the game 5-2 in extra innings and the series in 4 games.

The say hey kid. In his early years in the Polo Grounds Mays was meeting so many people that he often could not remember if he had met someone before so he would just great everyone with “Hey, how you doing?” or “Hey, where you been?” The beat writers took note and started calling him the Say Hey Kid.

On May 11, 1972, Mays was traded to the Mets after more than two decades in the Giants organization. At the time of the trade, Willie was 41 years old, and his career was nearing its end. Wanting to ensure him of his baseball future, the Giants traded him to the Mets for a minor league pitcher, Charlie Williams and $50,000. He remained with the Mets for two seasons, batting .238 in 135 games and retired at the end of the 1973 season. The Giants retired his number 24 in 1972 and the Mets retired his number in 2022.

The rest of his career is well chronicled. He finished his 22-year MLB career as a First Ballot Hall of Famer in 1979 and:

Like Henry Aaron, Mays started his pro baseball career as a teenager in the Negro Leagues, and finished with election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Ironically, Mays and Aaron were almost teammates. Aaron and Mays were being scouted by the Giants. Aaron said, “I had the Giants’ contract in my hand. But the Boston Braves offered 50 dollars a month more. That’s the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates – $50.”

 Willie Mays is 91 and special assistant to the president and general manager of the Giants. He is also the god father of Barry Bonds.

Below is a copy of a scouting report on Willie Mays.


Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E, FACSM has over four decades as a head strength and conditioning coach (Astros) and strength and conditioning consultant (Rangers). He is Professor Emeritus in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake and Website Education Manager

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