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Was Willie Mays the Greatest Player in Major League Baseball History?

Margaret Lipman
Published Jul 04, 2024
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Sports fans love to argue about who deserves to be called the “GOAT” (Greatest of All Time) of various sports. Of course, greatness is subjective, which is why the debate is endless. Are we just talking about official stats, or do we consider other things like style, personality, appeal among fans, contributions to the sport's popularity, and philanthropic or activism efforts? Do we consider the era that a particular sportsperson competed in and the success of their team or national squad? It gets pretty complicated.

You’ve probably heard Usain Bolt called the GOAT of sprinters and Michael Phelps called the GOAT of swimmers. Wayne Gretzky is often called the GOAT of the NHL, and Tiger Woods could be the GOAT of golf (or is it Jack Nicklaus?). Simone Biles has an excellent case as the GOAT of gymnastics. Muhammad Ali could be the GOAT of boxing. There’s a strong case for calling Michael Jordan the GOAT of NBA players (or is it LeBron James?), Tom Brady is often called the GOAT of the NFL, and Lionel Messi is often described as the GOAT of soccer (football). Serena Williams could be the GOAT of tennis, or is it Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer?

Although GOAT discussions can get intense in every sport, baseball often provokes some of the most heated debates. While many people would call Babe Ruth the GOAT of baseball, there’s a strong case to give that accolade to Willie Mays, who died last month (June 18, 2024) at age 93. In the days following the announcement of Mays’ death, numerous sportswriters reminded everyone that when it comes to all-around great ballplayers, it’s hard to find anyone better than the “Say Hey Kid.”

Few would argue against Mays being described as “one of the greatest," yet was he really baseball's GOAT? You’ll have to decide for yourself, but here’s some evidence in his favor.

Mays began playing baseball (as well as football and basketball) at an early age, and he was already playing for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League while still in high school. He signed with the New York Giants and appeared in his first Major League game on May 25, 1951, having so much success that season that he was named National League Rookie of the Year for 1951. Though he lost most of the 1952 and 1953 seasons to military service during the Korean War, he earned a National League MVP award in 1954, a notable season in which he helped the Giants win the World Series. He would also be named the NL MVP in 1965.

Mays, who mainly played center field, enjoyed an MLB career spanning 23 seasons, taking him from New York to San Francisco (where the Giants moved in 1958) and briefly back to New York again when he was traded to the Mets in 1972, retiring the following year at age 42.

Often described as the epitome of a “five-tool player,” Mays excelled at fielding, throwing, base running, and hitting for both average and power. He was the first player to hit 300 home runs and steal 300 bases, finishing his career with a total of 339 steals and 660 homers. Many baseball historians note that his home run count would likely have been higher if he had not spent so many years playing at San Francisco’s windy Candlestick Park.

Willie Mays was elected in his first year of eligibility to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was a 24-time MLB All-Star and a 12-time winner of the Gold Glove Award. Both the San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets have retired his jersey number, 24. He was chosen for both the MLB All-Time Team (selected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America) in 1997 and the MLB All-Century Team (selected by fans) in 1999. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015.

So long to the Say Hey Kid:

  • Some other notable career stats: 3,293 hits, a .301 batting average, and 156.2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR).

  • One of the most memorable moments of Mays’ career came during the 1954 World Series, when he sprinted around 460 feet (140 m) to grab an over-the-shoulder fly ball and throw it back to the infield in a play known simply as “The Catch.” On the 63rd anniversary of “The Catch,” Major League Baseball renamed the World Series MVP Award the Willie Mays World Series Most Valuable Player Award, despite Mays never having won the award (which was first given in 1955) himself.

  • According to New York Times sports columnist Arthur Daley, “(Mays) could do everything and do it better than anyone else, (and) with a joyous grace.”

  • Other widely-mentioned contenders for the title of baseball’s GOAT include Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, and Josh Gibson.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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