Willie Mays | Taking Baseball to New Heights

The Eternal Willie Mays

Date: Jun 13, 2024
Author: Dr. Pratt
Topics: 2024 Topps MLB at Rickwood Field, Alabama, Baseball, Birmingham, Black Barons, Dr. Pratt, Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson, Larry Doby, MLB, Monte Irvin, Negro Leagues, Rickwood
Length: 1083 Words
Reading Time: ~6 Minutes

Stacking superlative adjectives is not sufficient when describing the baseball career of Willie Howard Mays Jr. For more than half a century, his name has been synonymous with baseball superstardom. After winning Rookie of the Year in 1951, he missed much of the next two seasons due to military service. Baseball fans couldn’t imagine the career that would follow upon his return to the game.

If hyperbole can’t adequately summarize the Say Hey Kid’s eminence, examining his numbers might be helpful. In a career that spanned twenty-two years, Mays played in 3005 games. His totals are staggering in multiple columns: 3293 hits, 660 HR, 336 stolen bases, and a .301 batting average. Mays won two MVP awards, a batting title, a World Series championship, and a dozen Gold Glove awards.

But in the end, neither language nor statistics are up to the task of describing what it was that made Willie Mays so exciting. The perennial inclusion in highlight reels of his legendary over-the-shoulder grab in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series (known simply as “the Catch”) gives us a glimpse of his athletic power and genius. It is not an understatement to suggest that Willie Mays will forever be mentioned when baseball fans discuss who the greatest player to ever play the game was.

And as the MLB prepares to honor the Negro Leagues and Negro Leaguers with a nationally televised regular season game on FOX between the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, on 6/20, let’s all take a moment and appreciate the fact that Willie Mays is still here—and may be at Rickwood—and it’s necessary to celebrate one of the greatest baseball players of all time.

Willie Mays’ famous eighth-inning catch going away from home plate in the first game of the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians. (Photo by Frank Hurley/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Willie Mays’ Extensive Card History

Born in 1931, Mays was young enough that his MLB career would not be stultified at the outset by segregation. Jackie Robinson was 28 when he broke the color barrier. Josh Gibson never got to play in the majors. Satchel Paige was in his 40s. Mays, however, was just 19 years old when he signed with the New York Giants in 1950. After posting a ludicrous .477 in a stretch of 35 games with the AAA Minneapolis Millers in 1951, Mays debuted in the big leagues at age 20.

1951 Bowman #305 Willie Mays

1952 Topps Baseball #261 Willie Mays

For card collectors, the timing was fortuitous. Between 1951 and 1973, Willie Mays appeared on a string of iconic cards. The 1951 Bowman card (#305), oriented horizontally, is the earliest card produced with his likeness. His Topps rookie card is the 1952 offering (#261), which is generally considered his most important card.

Bowman cards in 1952, ’54, and ’55 are impressive but generally not as collectible as the Topps cards from the same years. Indeed, with Topps including Mays in every set between 1952 and 1973, it’s hard to find a player with better representation on baseball cards. As a rule, Mays cards are more valuable the older they are, but all the way to the 1973 card (#305), which features Mays in a New York Mets jersey, his cards are worthy of inclusion in any collection. Notably, the ’54, ’55, and ’56 cards all use the same portrait of Mays.

1973 Topps Baseball #305 Willie Mays

21st Century Willie Mays Cards

Demand for Willie Mays collectibles remains high in the 21st century. Among recent cards, the 2021 Topps Chrome Platinum Gold Refractor, with its 1952-design homage, is a standout. The limited edition card features an impressive color photo, a reproduction signature, and a card back in the same design as the 1952 set.

The Topps Project70 offering included a Mays card designed by pop surrealist artist Alex Pardee, which features Willie Mays as a werewolf. Another limited edition, Mays’ 2024 Topps Update Series 2 Gold card, hearkens back to the now-classic 1989 Topps design. Also noteworthy among modern Mays cards are the 2023 Topps Chrome Platinum Orange Refractor card and a 2024 Topps Grand Gamers card.

2023 Topps Chrome Platinum Orange Refractor #475 Willie Mays 19/25

Now, as part of the six-card 2024 Topps MLB at Rickwood Field collection, Mays is featured alongside Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Josh Gibson, and Monte Irvin. The inclusion of Mays in the set is especially important because Mays played with the Birmingham Black Barons at Rickwood Field in 1948 when he was 17 years old.

This year’s tribute to the Negro Leagues is overdue, but it is fortuitous that Willie Mays, at age 93, has lived long enough to see it happen. If things work out, Mays will attend the June 20th game at Rickwood Field featuring the Giants and Cardinals.

Willie Mays: Retrospective and Homecoming

It was almost certainly with a gleaming grin on his face that Willie Mays once said, “I think I was the best baseball player I ever saw.” It’s the kind of thing that would be embarrassing if it were not so plausible. Whatever Mays said about his own talent was spoken more emphatically by those who played against him. Ted Williams joked that the All-Star game was invented for Willie Mays. Juan Marichial, Don Zimmer, and Buck O’Neil all described Mays as the best they ever saw play the game.

Rickwood Field, Birmingham, Alabama (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

Willie Mays knew how good he was, but he never forgot where he came from. Adding a humorous edge to his recollection of his baseball origin story, Mays said, “Every time I look at my pocketbook, I think of Jackie Robinson.” Rickwood Field memories have stuck with Mays through the decades. He remembers facing Satchel Paige in 1948 when he was 17 and played for the Birmingham Barons. In Mays’ telling of the story, Satchel told him he’d be seeing three fastballs, and, as the third one was still on its way to home plate, Paige announced, “Go sit down.”

Willie Mays grew up just a few miles from Rickwood Field. It must have seemed like a quick and thrilling journey between that teenage season in 1948 and his World Series championship with the New York Giants in 1954. This summer’s return to Rickwood Stadium is a well-deserved homecoming, and as Willie Mays is honored, he will likely be thinking of Paige, Robinson, and the many others who knew Rickwood Field as home.

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