Willie Howard Mays was born May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama. The “Say Hey Kid” learned baseball from his father, who played semi-professionally with a team from his steel mill. Willie joined the steel mill team at age 14 and then began his professional career at 16 with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Southern League. He played home games for the Barons from 1948 to 1950, skipping road trips during the school year so he could attend high school. Upon graduation, he was signed by the New York Giants and made his debut at the Polo Grounds on May 25, 1951. Mays went hitless in his first 12 at-bats, hitting his first big league homer in his 13th. That season, he was named Rookie of the Year and helped the Giants to the National League pennant.
Upon his return in 1954, the Giants won the National League by five games over their archrivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and then met the Indians in the World Series. In the eighth inning of Game 1, with the score tied 2-2 and two runners on base, Indians first baseman Vic Wertz hit a fly ball 440 feet deep into center field. Mays turned, ran and then caught the ball over his shoulder with his back to the infield, before spinning and firing the ball back into the infield to keep the runners from advancing. The catch preserved the tie, and the Giants won the game on a home run by Dusty Rhodes in the 10th inning. When he was asked later about the catch, Mays famously replied, “I don’t rank ‘em, I just catch ‘em.” The Giants went on to sweep the 1954 World Series.
Mays was named the National League MVP in 1954, and again in 1965. He played in a record 24 All-Star games, winning the All-Star MVP in 1963 and 1968. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979. His baserunning, power, fielding, ability to hit for average and outstanding arm in the outfield made him the prototype “five-tool” player for whom baseball scouts search. Any argument over who deserves the title “greatest baseball player in history” has to include Willie Mays.