#150 Willie Mays
One of the sacrifices I’ve had to make while building this set is the quality of the star cards I’ve acquired. This Willie Mays card is actually in fine shape in regards to some of the usual problem areas (like corners, edges, and centering). But then there’s the pretty obvious vertical crease right through Willie’s face that allowed this to be right in my price range. Sure, I’d love to have a sparkling PSA 8, but I don’t have $200 sitting around to buy one.
I like this particular card a lot because Mays isn’t posing for the photo. It looks like he was completely unaware of the camera when the picture was snapped, making this one of the most candid shots of Willie on a baseball card. Another thing I love about this card is the uniform, which is, more or less, exactly the same road jersey the Giants wear today (the Giants, of course, took a detour into the hideous for a while, jersey-wise, but righted the ship eventually).
I’m not going to sit here and dissect Willie’s career here, as there are thousands of pages written about it elsewhere. But 1964 was an interesting year for Mays. He started the season almost impossibly hot. Here are his stats after his first 22 games:
.478 BA, .495 OBP, 1.000 SLG, 1.495 OPS, 13 HR, 34 RBI, 27 R
While these numbers are almost cartoonish, despite the small sample size, the oddest thing about this is that he had a grand total of 4 walks and 3 strikeouts over that stretch of 95 plate appearances.
Mays was already a huge superstar at this point, but it looked as if he might be unleashing one of the great seasons of all time. Alas, it wasn’t to be, but he still led baseball with 47 homers and a .607 SLG. His .296 average was his lowest since 1956, when he also hit .296.
The Giants went, roughly, as Mays did that season, starting 15-5 and spending most of the first three months of the season in first place. They still sat on top of the standings on July 20, but that would be their last day in that spot. Eventually, the Giants finished fourth with a record of 90-72, though they ended up just three games back of the Cardinals.
As San Francisco faded, Mays did as well. He hit .244 over the last two months, though he did hit 18 homers in that span. The Giants led the NL in home runs with 165 (Jim Ray Hart and Orlando Cepeda each hit 31), but only batted .246 and got on base at .310.
Mays posted a 172 OPS+ in 1964, which (ridiculously) was just the sixth-best OPS+ of his career. In 1965, he would set a career high in OPS+ at 185, which included a career-best 52 home runs. Mays led the league in WAR a remarkable 10 times, including a 10.2 in 1964 (anything above an 8 is considered MVP-quality). He finished sixth in the MVP voting that season, with only one of the five players above him honestly having had a case to get more votes (Frank Robinson). Ken Boyer won the award that year, I assume mostly because St. Louis won the pennant. Boyer had a nice year, but .295/.365/.489 with 24 homers and 119 RBI doesn’t necessarily look like an MVP line. Even more inexplicably, Johnny Callison and his .316 OBP finished second in the voting.
Willie would make good, though, in 1965, winning the MVP for the first time since 1954. He only won the award twice, but finished in the top six another 10 times. In 1964, he made his 11th of 20 consecutive All-Star appearances (well, actually he played in 24 straight All-Star Games, because there were two in each season from 1959-62).
After 1966, Mays began a decline phase, but that decline was from “superhuman” to merely “very good.” He even found ways to reinvent himself late in his career. At age 40, with his average falling to .271, he walked a career-high 112 times and led the NL in OBP at .425. He even stole 23 bases that season. And while some people deride his final days with the Mets, he actually played quite well in his limited duty in 1972, getting on base at a .402 clip. Sure, 1973 didn’t go well, but at least he knew it was time to walk away.
The end of Mays’ career may have gone much differently had he not spent most of the 1952 season and all of the 1953 season in the military. One could reasonably have predicted that Mays would have hit at least 54 home runs over that span (about 272 games), which would have put him past Babe Ruth’s 714 (he hit 660 home runs). With Hank Aaron getting close to Ruth’s number by the end of the 1973 season himself, Mays might have been swept up in a head-to-head showdown with Aaron, though Hank was a much more viable home run hitter at the time.
Mays’ final plate appearance came on October 16, 1973 in Game 3 of the World Series at Shea Stadium, at the age of 42. He also played in the World Series as a rookie in 1951, also for New York’s NL team. Unfortunately, his team lost both series. His postseason career was rather unremarkable — he hit .247 in 99 PA with just one home run, which he hit as a 40-year-old in the 1971 NLCS (he won his only World Series ring in 1954).
As usual, a handful of voters declined to vote for him for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, but he still got 94.7% of the vote in 1979 and went to Cooperstown.
After spending time with the Mets as a hitting instructor, and then a few years banned from baseball for working as a casino greeter, Mays returned to the Giants organization in 1986, and he still holds a (largely ceremonial) position with the club. He’s currently 79 years old.