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Willie Mays, widely considered baseball's best all-around player, dies at 93

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The man many consider the greatest all-around baseball player in history is dead. Willie Mays has died at the age of 93. His Hall-of-Fame career spanned more than two decades, from the 1950s to the 1970s. He spent nearly all those years with the Giants - first in New York, then in San Francisco. Well, tonight, fans are remembering the incomparable skill and infectious joy that Mays brought to ballparks across the country. Tom Goldman has this remembrance.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Somehow, the name Willie Mays never was enough. Talk to those who watched him play, those who heard about what he did, and it was always the great Willie Mays. What he did as a ballplayer was everything. In the trade, the best all-around players are called five-tool players. Mays mastered all five - No. 1, hitting.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Mays hits it into left field. There goes No. 3,000. Willie Mays...

GOLDMAN: That was his 3,000th hit - a hallowed number in baseball - on the way to a total of 3,283. His career batting average was a stellar .302. The second tool - hitting with power.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: One on - it's deep to left. That one is way back, way back, way back...

GOLDMAN: And gone - home run No. 600 on the way to a career total of 660, the sixth-most in history. And to think how many more home runs, more hits there would have been had Mays not spent nearly two full seasons away from the game in the early 1950s when he served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. The late Willie McCovey was Mays' longtime teammate in San Francisco.

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WILLIE MCCOVEY: His legacy - he'll go down as the greatest player of all time. I think we all know that already.

GOLDMAN: Mays' command of tools three through five - speed, fielding and throwing - is best illustrated in one epic play in 1954 - a play known as The Catch. It was Game 1 of the '54 World Series - Giants versus Cleveland Indians - in the Giants' enormous ballpark, the Polo Grounds. In the eighth inning, the score was tied, and Cleveland had men on first and second base. The Indians' Vic Wertz hit a line drive to deep center field, where Mays played. Mays turned and sprinted toward the center-field wall, his back to home plate. He made the catch over his head. Announcer Jack Brickhouse described the moment.

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JACK BRICKHOUSE: Willie Mays just brought this crowd to its feet with a catch which must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people.

GOLDMAN: Not to Mays - in a 2010 NPR interview, he explained there was no magic involved - just practical thinking the moment Wertz hit the ball.

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WILLIE MAYS: You make sure that everything is happening within sequence. That means I got to catch the ball. I got to stop. I got to make a 360. By the time I make the 360, the ball should be back into the infield. The key, to me, was the throw - getting it back into the infield so nobody could advance.

GOLDMAN: He got the ball back in. No one scored. The Giants won the game and the World Series four games to none. The catch, and throw, that saved the day was vintage Willie Mays for another reason. He wasn't just about skill, but flair, too. Mays loved being an entertainer on the field. Jim Hirsch wrote the authorized biography, "Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend."

JIM HIRSCH: Willie liked to say that, when fans left the ballpark, he wanted those fans to be talking about him on the field. What did he do?

GOLDMAN: He smiled and laughed. He caught fly balls with his glove at his waist - the famed basket catch. When he ran, his baseball cap came off - by design. Here he is in the NPR interview with host Robert Siegel.

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MAYS: I made the clubhouse guy fit me a cap that, when I ran, it flies right off. Well, people love that type of stuff, you know? And...

ROBERT SIEGEL: But you did have the cap designed in such a way so that, when you ran, it would fly off your head.

MAYS: Well, now, you have to tilt your head a little bit because you got to get the wind in there.

GOLDMAN: This showmanship was born on an Alabama Negro League team, the Birmingham Black Barons. That's where Mays first started playing professionally as a teenager. Fans would go to the games for entertainment, and the players delivered. But Jim Hirsch says the Mays effervescence and energy often disappeared away from the ballpark.

HIRSCH: Willie loved the spotlight of center field, but he hated the scrutiny of stardom.

GOLDMAN: Although Mays was endlessly loyal to close friends, he was an intensely private person who kept people at arm's length - partly, Hirsch says, because of how Mays was raised in the segregated South of the 1930s and '40s.

HIRSCH: He was told by his elders, if you want to survive in a white man's world, you had to keep your head down and your mouth shut. And he kept those words to heart his entire life.

GOLDMAN: His reticence led to criticism by another baseball icon. Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947, criticized Mays for being a prominent Black athlete during the volatile 1960s who didn't use his platform to speak out publicly on civil rights.

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MAYS: Jackie was a guy that would speak his mind very clearly.

GOLDMAN: This was Mays again in 2010.

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MAYS: I applaud him. I don't know if I could have done the things that he did when he came in. But, you know, what am I going to change? I can't change the world. I can live the way I live and hope that I can help people of all races all the time.

GOLDMAN: Barack Obama, America's first African American president, acknowledged Mays helped him. This was Obama in 2015 when he awarded Mays the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S.

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BARACK OBAMA: A few years ago, Willie rode with me on Air Force One. I told him then what I'll tell all of you now. It is because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for president.

(APPLAUSE)

GOLDMAN: Willie Mays played major-league baseball for 22 seasons and did it better than almost anyone else. He valued his longevity and durability, telling Hirsch he was proud he came into the league with a 32-inch waist and left the league with a 32-inch waist. But baseball fans today are honoring 24 - Willie Mays' uniform number - and not just 24 - the great 24.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Goldman
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.