Introduction: Willie Mays: Five Tools

This article was written by Glen Sparks

This article was published in Willie Mays: Five Tools

Willie Mays: Five Tools, edited by Bill Nowlin and Glen SparksThe actress and noted Giants baseball fan Tallulah Bankhead once said, “There have only been two geniuses in the world – Willie Mays and Will Shakespeare.”1 This book, Willie Mays: Five Tools, focuses on the first of those two great men.

Willie Howard Mays Jr. could do it all. To many, he is the greatest baseball player of all time, greater even than Babe Ruth. He was, as scouts and other baseball people like to say, a five-tool player and the best five-tool player at that. He could hit for average, hit for power, run, field, and throw.

Buck, as some called Mays, batted .301 lifetime over his 23 big-league seasons and topped the .300 mark 10 times. He led the National League with a .345 average in 1954, the first of his two MVP campaigns. On July 18, 1970, he bounced a single through the left side of the infield at Candlestick Park for his 3,000th career hit. Mays retired with 3,293 hits. “I was able to hit to all fields,” he said. “I learned to get a lot of hits to right and right-center. You can’t pull everything or you’re in trouble.”2

Mays blasted 660 home runs for the Giants and Mets and led the National League in this category four times. He hit a career-high 52 in 1965, his second MVP season. Willie knocked at least 30 home runs in a season 11 times. When he retired, only Ruth and Henry Aaron had more homers. Through 2022, he was sixth on the all-time list.

He stole 338 bases, finished atop the leaderboard four straight years (1956-59), and reached the 30-homer, 30-stolen-base milestone in 1956 and 1957. He swiped at least 20 bags seven times, including in 1971, his age-40 season. As another indication of his great speed, Mays topped the circuit in triples three times and hit 20 in 1957.

Baseball’s “Say Hey Kid” may be most famous for his defense. He won a Gold Glove for 12 straight seasons. He assuredly would have won more, but the award was not given out before 1957. Fans and baseball people tell stories of the amazing way that Mays patrolled center field and his famous basket catches. What was his greatest catch? Many say it was his grab against Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series. Yes, that was a good one. Mays, though, said he made an even better catch off a Bobby Morgan line drive in early 1952. “Defense was my thing,” Mays wrote in his book 24, published in 2020 and co-written with John Shea. “You might go on a streak at the plate and have some down days. But defense, you have to bring it every day.”3

The 24-time All-Star has said many times that the throw he made on the Wertz liner was better than the catch. In one game against the rival Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966, Mays recalled that he “almost threw for the cycle.” He doubled pitcher Don Drysdale off first base, threw out the speedy Willie Davis trying to sprint from first to third on Ron Fairly’s double, and nailed Maury Wills at home. “I had another guy at second, but Tito (Fuentes) dropped the ball. He felt bad about it, but I told him, ‘Don’t worry, that’s baseball.’”4

Mays grew up outside Birmingham, Alabama, the son of Willie Mays Sr. or “Cat,” a top ballplayer in the local industrial league. Willie attended Fairfield Industrial School and took classes for a career in the laundry business. He also joined his dad on the ballfield. Willie signed to play professional baseball with the Chattanooga Choo Choos, a minor-league club in the Negro Leagues, and soon earned a promotion to the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League. The New York Giants signed him in 1949. Giants scout Ed Montague said, “This was the greatest young player I had ever seen in my life or my scouting career.”

Willie Mays was part of that early wave of African American players who fought through bigotry following decades of segregation. He made his big-league debut just a few years after the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s shameful color line. Mays, along with Robinson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, and others changed baseball forever with their talent and determination. Willie Howard Mays Jr. elicited smiles and awe from fans at ballparks across the country.

It seems amazing that Mays won just the two MVP Awards. He deserved many more. Willie led the National League in Wins Above Replacement (WAR, admittedly a statistic created after Mays retired) nine times. Five times he posted an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) above 1.000, a superstar-level performance. So, why did the writers ignore Mays in the MVP voting? One reason is the final standings. The Giants won three pennants during Mays’ time with the team and that includes his rookie campaign of 1951, when he was promoted to the big club in late May and began his career in a 1-for-26 slump. (He still won Rookie of the Year honors.)

So often, the Giants played second fiddle in the National League pennant race to the Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals. Mays’ club did beat out the Dodgers for the 1962 pennant, but that was the year Maury Wills set a major-league record by stealing 104 bases. Even so, Mays led the NL with a 10.5 WAR, while Wills finished at 6.0, an admirable figure but one not really as good as Wille’s. The statistically inclined sportswriter Rob Neyer says, “Mays was terribly neglected in the MVP voting” and adds, “Mays was probably the best player in the league six, seven, or eight times and just wasn’t going to win because the Giants weren’t winning the league.” Neyer also says, “It’s not difficult to make the case that Mays is even better than his WAR.”5 Durocher said it this way: “If somebody came and hit .450, stole 100 bases, and performed miracles in the field every day, I’d still look you in the eye and say Willie was better.”6

This book will add to the many already written about Mays, who remains an icon nearly 50 years after his retirement. Five Tools features dozens of articles that are original to the book. These include game stories that describe how Mays could take over a baseball game through both his talent and his baseball genius. Other pieces focus on Mays’ relationship with his managers, his days as a minor leaguer in Minneapolis, and more. Members of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) contributed all the articles as a way to both highlight and bring new perspectives on one of baseball’s most legendary players.

GLEN SPARKS is a lifelong Dodgers fan and also a fan of Giants great Willie Mays. He has worked on many books for SABR and wrote “Pee Wee Reese: The Life of a Brooklyn Dodger,” published in 2022 by McFarland. Sparks has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. His wife, Pam, is a professional horticulturist. They live with their three cats (Lucy, Buster, and Kasper) and an assortment of tropical fish.




2  Willie Mays and John Shea, 24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid (New York: St. Martin’s, 2020), 246-47.

3  Mays and Shea, 240.

4  Mays and Shea, 243.

5  Mays and Shea, 270.

6  Bruce Herman, Hall of Fame Players: Cooperstown (Lincolnwood, Illinois: Publications International, 2007), 121.