Willie Mays Turns 80, and He's STILL Not the Greatest Player Ever

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Willie Mays turned 80 on Friday, and, as happens every few years, there was another shower of praise for Willie and testimonials to his having been the greatest player in baseball history.

With every year Willie's stature grows, partly because he was fabulous and very well could have been the best ever, but partly also, I suspect, because everyone is so disgusted with his godson, Barry Bonds, that Willie, in retrospect, seems like a paragon of the pre-performance enhancing drug era.

Last year, MSG ran a show built around a panel picking the best ballplayers in New York baseball at each position. If such a poll had been taken when I was a kid - or even in the early 1990s when he was still alive - Joe DiMaggio would surely have been the number one in center field with Willie second. Mickey Mantle wouldn't have even been in the running. Joe, after all, demanded to be introduced at all public appearances as "the greatest living ballplayer."

With DiMaggio gone, it's as if everyone suddenly has a license to view Willie Mays as the best. What exactly happened to turn that around? Did Joe's death make Willie the best? Well, never mind. I think that if you found a way to compare the best players of each era based on the factors and conditions of the time they played in Willie does deserve to be rated higher than Joe - not by much, but at least by a little.

What's surprising is the player who gets lost in the shuffle of such comparisons. First, let's look at the case for Mays being the greatest ever from Dave Schoenfield of ESPN.com, which is the longest and also the most fatuous of the recent Willie-is-the-greatest tributes.

One of Schoenfield's reasons for calling Willie the best is "Because he was better than Aaron, and Aaron was pretty freakin' awesome." (Yes, he used the word "freakin.'") Schoenfield relies on Bill James' Runs Created stat, by which measurement Willie was indeed better in most seasons - again, not a great deal better but better.

Another is "Because he won two MVP Awards - but should have won eight." Actually, Schoenfield underrates Willie. In the Total Player Rating method developed by John Thorn and Pete Palmer of Total Baseball - which takes in all of a player's contributions at-bat, in the field, and on the bases -- Mays was, from 1954 though 1965, the best player in the National League for an incredible ten times (though tied with Henry Aaron in 1956).

Another is "Because I don't want to hear about Barry Bonds." I'm with Schoenfield on this one. Bonds only became better than Mays after age 35 - in other words, after his association with BALCO. (Let's save the Bonds-Mays debate for another time and move on.)

Let's also pass over players from before the dead ball era. I'm not dismissing the case for Ty Cobb or Honus Wagner, whom I suspect might be the best player ever if measured against everyone else on an even playing surface against the same opposition.

Let's simply address the question of whether or not, as Schoenfield states, "He's better than Babe Ruth." I can resolve that debate in a single sentence: Willie Mays was not better than Babe Ruth. That is to say, if they had competed against the same opposition in the same era, it may well have been proven that Willie was better than the Babe, but we don't have that chance, and the paper argument simply says that Ruth was better than anyone. So if you're going to argue the superiority of Mays, you're going to have to make a much more significant argument than Schoenfield makes. (And this is even if you only want to consider them as outfielders and leave Ruth's pitching for another time.)

Anyway, what seems to have been forgotten is that during Willie's best season there was another player who was his equal or superior. Collectively, we seem to have forgotten that Mickey Mantle, at his peak, was better than Mays or Duke Snider or Joe DiMaggio. I stress "at his peak" because it's obvious that if you take them at their career stats, Mays was better than Mantle. Mickey's osteomyelitis-ravaged legs couldn't sustain a career much beyond 1962, but up to that point he was, by any objective standards, as good or better than Willie.

In the nine seasons between 1954-1962, when they were both at their physical best, Mays was the leading player in the NL seven times while Mantle was the leading player in the AL eight times. In 1956, 1957, and again in '61 and '62, Mickey had four seasons that were better than any of Willie's. (One can argue 1962 for Mays but only because Mantle missed 39 games that year to injury.) Mantle, who won the AL MVP that year, had an OPS slightly ahead of Willie, 1.091 to 0.999.

In Bill James' complex Win Shares system, the most sophisticated method of player rating that I know, Mickey, for those nine seasons, averaged 40.3 Win Shares to Willie's 36.2.

Mickey was a better hitter, if by hitter one means the ability to produce runs while making fewer outs. Willie was a better fielder, but not by so wide a margin as many think. Mantle, before 1963, covered an impressive amount of ground in center field. By many accounts he was the fastest man in baseball, even faster than Willie, and he grounded into far fewer double plays, just 113 in his career to Willie's 251.

On the bases, Mantle was as good as he had to be considering that the Yankees didn't steal that often, but it ought to be noted that Mantle's stolen base success rate of 80 percent was slight higher than Mays' 77 percent.

Finally, Mickey never made a catch as great as Willie did in the 1954 World Series, but he made one in 1956 that certainly ranks with "The Catch" in importance.

In the sixth inning, racing into left center field on the full run, Mantle speared Gil Hodges' long liner to preserve Don Larsen's perfect game - which comes under the definition of grace under pressure as much as any World Series play I've ever seen. It wasn't as pretty as Mays' catch - Willie always made the tough plays look easy while Mickey made the tough plays look tough - but think of it his way. If Mantle was the fastest player in baseball in 1956 - and most people who saw him say that he was - and he simply ran that ball down, would any other outfielder, including Willie Mays, have made that catch? Well, what the hell - I'm going to say that Willie would have made it, too.

But let's not make any more greatest ever comparisons that don't include Mickey Mantle as well as Willie Mays.


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2 comments
jamesnic
jamesnic

The case should be made that Willie was probably the healthiest great player who ever played. All those seasons of playing nearly every single game...and he played until he was literally falling down. With Mantle and Ruth, you get the wistful speculation of what might have been if they had taken care of themselves. Then there is that part about winning championships. In the sixties, the Giants had five Hall of Famers on the team - Mays, Cepeda, McCovey, Gaylord Perry, Marichal, PLUS Harvey Kuenn and the Alou brothers, and could not win even one World Series.

atlantaspike
atlantaspike

I think you may be the only sportswriter alive who can find some way that Mickey Mantle is underrated. I personally don't go for "best ever" arguments - they run counter to what I perceive to be the democratic ideals of the game. But hand-waving away other contenders (Wagner, Cobb) doesn't seem right. Win Shares (and all the other stats you bring up) do not take into account quality of competition, BTW, and for much if not all of Mantle's career, the NL was considered the superior league (although it goes without saying the Yanks were the best team on many occasions). Mentioning SB% without mentioning the huge SB advantage of Mays, and that he led his league 4 times during the peak you have selected doesn't seem fair either. In short, an argument in the classical sense is meant to be a search for the truth, not a bill of particulars to support a single viewpoint. I would be very interested if, just as a thought experiment, you tried to rebut your own arguments and present the findings. Critical examination of one's own position often yields provocative results, in my limited experience

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