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Willie Mays obituary

<span>Willie Mays in 1955. </span><span>Photograph: Granger/Shutterstock</span>
Willie Mays in 1955. Photograph: Granger/Shutterstock

In America’s golden age, the 1950s, when baseball was still the national pastime and New York was the unofficial centre of the world, the city had three baseball teams that were each blessed with an outstanding centre-fielder. Brooklyn’s Dodgers, for decades loveable losers until Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s apartheid, had Duke Snider. The dynastic Yankees, the team of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio, boasted Mickey Mantle. And just across the Bronx River from Yankee Stadium, the Giants had Willie Mays.

Mays, who has died aged 93, was the first black superstar of the post-Robinson era of integration, and though arguments persist as to whether he or Mantle was the greatest of the three, or indeed greater than the legendary Ty Cobb, he was inarguably baseball’s most exciting player.

In the first game of the 1954 World Series, at New York’s Polo Grounds, his over the shoulder catch of a 425 ft Vic Wertz drive, in which he sprinted the last ten yards without tracking the ball, then spun and returned the ball to the infield before a run could score, is still remembered as “The Catch”.

His skills transcended partisan support. In the film Manhattan, the quintessential New Yorker, Woody Allen, lies on his couch considering why life is worth living. “Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of the Jupiter symphony,” he begins. In Play It Again Sam, Diane Keaton asks what Allen was thinking about while they made love. “Willie Mays,” he replies. “Do you always think about baseball players?” “It keeps me going.” “Yeah, I wondered why you kept yelling ‘slide!’” Allen once said the greatest moment in his life was when he caught a ball hit by Mays during a celebrity softball game. Frank Sinatra told Mays: “If I played baseball like you, I’d be the happiest guy in the world.”

Mays, who got nicknamed the “Say Hey Kid” because he greeted everyone with “hey”, played the game with exuberance that belied the more serious nature of his path to the big leagues, which required more than just “natural talent”. Earlier in the year of The Catch, the Guardian’s Denis Brogan, in the wake of a US Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation, compared Mays to two other Robinsons, the dancer Bill “Bojangles” and the boxer Sugar Ray, in that they all displayed “tangible and undeniable proof of proficiency in the hard worlds of sport and entertainment where no holds are barred and merit alone counts”.

Willie Mays was born in Westfield, Alabama, a segregated company town, alongside the Fairfield steel works outside Birmingham. His father, William, was known as “Cat” when he played for the works baseball team in the Birmingham industrial league. Mays’ mother, Annie Satterwhite, left when Willie was three, and he was raised by two women, Sarah and Earnestine, whom he described as his “aunts”. The future Say Hey Kid, called “Buck” by those who knew him, was a three-sport star at Fairfield Industrial high school, while already playing professionally for the Negro minor league side Chattanooga Choo-Choos. At 17 he signed with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League, with whom he went on to win the Negro World Series in 1948.

In 1950 the Giants signed him with a $4,000 bonus and sent him to their farm team in Trenton, New Jersey. He started the 1951 season with their top minor league team, the Minneapolis Millers, but after 35 games hitting a remarkable .477 he was promoted to New York. Mays worried that he was not ready for the big leagues, until the Giants’ manager Leo “the Lip” Durocher told him to “quit costing the team money with long distance calls”. He started slowly, getting only one hit in his first 25 at bats (a home run off future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn). But the hard-nosed Durocher, whom Mays called “Mr Leo”, recognised that Mays needed encouragement and stuck with him.

He was named the National League’s rookie of the year, despite playing only part of the season. The Giants won the pennant in a playoff against the Dodgers; Mays was on deck when Glasgow-born Bobby Thomson’s home run sent them to the World Series. They lost the resulting “Subway Series” to the Yankees.

Mays played most of the next two years for Army teams after being drafted during the Korean War. Returning in 1954, he hit 41 home runs, batted .345 and won the league’s Most Valuable Player trophy as the Giants defeated the favoured Indians in the World Series. In 1955 he briefly chased Ruth’s record 60 homers in a season, finishing with 51. After the season, Durocher announced his retirement. Mays asked what he would do without “Mr Leo’s” help. “Willie Mays doesn’t need anyone’s help,” Durocher replied.

In Harlem, Mays was revered. After day games he would show up to play stickball with kids on the street. Runs were scored based on how far you hit a small rubber ball with a broomstick, measured by the gratings in the street. Mays regularly covered six sewers.

That was lost when owner Horace Stoneham moved the Giants after the 1957 season, accompanying the Dodgers to Los Angeles. For the next decade they were perpetual contenders but never winners.

In 1965 Mays won his second MVP award; he also hit his 500th home run. Although he continued to play as hard as ever, his career began to be measured more in milestones: his 600th home run in 1968, his 3,000th hit in 1970. He was chosen for the All-Star game for 20 consecutive seasons.

Before the 1972 season he asked Stoneham for a 10-year contract to keep him with the team after his playing career. Instead he got a two year deal and, after a slow start to his season, was traded to the Mets, the new National League team in New York. In August 1973 he hit his 660th home run, but went the rest of the year without one; he announced his retirement in September before playing his final game in the Mets’ loss to Oakland in the last game of the World Series. He would stay with the Mets as a hitting coach.

In 1979, his first of eligibility, Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame, selected on 95% of the ballots. Snider, who finished second in the voting, noted that “Willie really deserves to be in by himself”. That year Mays took a job as a greeter at a casino in Atlantic City, after which the commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, banned him from the game on the grounds that the authorities did not approve of any connections with gambling. When Peter Ueberroth succeeded Kuhn in 1985 he reinstated Mays, who by then was a special assistant to the Giants. In 1993 he signed a lifetime contract with the team.

Mays died of heart failure in Palo Alto, California, a day after cancelling an appearance at MLB’s annual tribute to Negro League baseball at Rickwood Field, in Birmingham. He is survived by his son, Michael from his first marriage, to Margherite Chapman, which ended in divorce. His second wife, Mae Allen, predeceased him in 2013.

• Willie Howard Mays, baseball player, born 6 May 1931; died 18 June 2024