Homer Happy: Willie Mays
Perhaps the most convincing testament to the depth of talent that pervaded 1960s baseball was the fact that, even with his jaw-dropping abilities, Willie Mays proved to be only the third-best home run hitter during the 1960s.
And of course, by the end of the 1960s, only Babe Ruth had accumulated more career home runs than Mays. (Mays still had four years and 60 home runs left in his career.)
In the 1950s, the “Say Hey” kid had been the blur playing center field in the Polo Grounds who ran down the Vic Wertz line drive that only a winged god would have caught. He was to the National League what Mickey Mantle was to the Junior Circuit: the center field darling whose fame was almost bigger than the game, a pair baseball players whose parallel careers were built not only on power but on a degree of speed and agility that put them on par with the world’s best athletes in any sport.
Mays was a scoring machine, whether those runs were generated with his bat or his legs … or both. Starting in 1954 – his first full season in the majors – Mays scored at least 100 runs each season through 1965. In the six full seasons he played during the 1950s, he led the National League in triples three times and in stolen bases four times. He was the National League’s batting champion in 1954 (batting .345) and the league’s home run leader in 1955 (with 51). Between 1954 and 1959, he averaged 38 home runs and 103 RBIs per season. Twice he was 30-30 in home runs and stolen bases.
No one gets faster as they get older, not even winged gods. Mays was 29 at the opening of the 1960s, and that decade saw his stolen-base totals decline significantly. That decline in speed didn’t compromise his play in center field (he won the Gold Glove for each season from 1957 through 1968). But it did necessitate a change in how he generated runs.
What Mays gave up in base path speed he more than compensated with his slugging. He hit 29 home runs in 1960, and wouldn’t hit less than 30 in any of the next six seasons — averaging 44 home runs per season over that period. He ripped 49 home runs with 141 RBIs during the Giants’ pennant-winning 1962 campaign. He hit a career-high 52 home runs in 1965 (with 112 RBIs), and led the league in both on-base percentage (.398) and slugging percentage (.645) in 1965. He won his second Most Valuable Player award that season.
Altogether, Mays led the National League in home runs three times during the 1960s, and was tops in slugging percentage twice. He also reached two major milestones as a home run hitter in the 1960s. He hit his 500th career home run in 1965, and four years later, at the close of the decade, he became the second player (after Babe Ruth) to reach 600 home runs.
At 660 career home runs, Mays still ranks fourth all time, and his 1,903 runs batted in place him eleventh all time – fourth best among National League hitters.
There is no crime in surrendering to time and exchanging speed for power. That was the strategy for two decades of success for what may have been the game’s most naturally gifted player. It was also his route to Cooperstown.
Willie Mays is one of the sluggers featured in Legends of Swing: The Home Run Hitters of the 1960s.