A few days ago, the New York Times ran an article that claimed the Yankees bypassed several golden opportunities to sign a young Willie Mays in the months before he officially became a member of the New York Giants’ organization. Like the Red Sox and numerous other franchises that populated the Jim Crow landscape in 1950, the Yankees gave Mays less than lukewarm attention because they felt little motivation to fully integrate their organization. On their way to a 98-win season and a World Series sweep over the Phillies, the Yankees were content to leave Mays in the Negro Leagues—or let him sign with some other major league team, one that was needier and perhaps even a bit desperate.
So let’s speculate a bit how much Yankee history would have changed if they had taken a more aggressive approach with regard to the young Mays. Even without Mays, the Yankees did their fair share of winning throughout the 1950s and the early years of the 1960s. But could they have won more? Though never particularly outstanding in postseason play, Mays could have made a difference in the outcomes of the 1955, ’57, ’60, and ’64 World Series, when the Yankees fell short to the Brooklyn Dodgers, Milwaukee Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates, and St. Louis Cardinals, respectively. The Yankees lost all four of those Series in the maximum seven games; perhaps Mays’ presence would have been sufficient to turn World Series defeat into the alternate reality of a world championship. Who knows?
Putting aside the harsh realities of the bottom line of world championships, I am certain that Mays would have made a huge difference in terms of baseball aesthetics. With Mays on board patrolling the monuments at the original Yankee Stadium, the Bombers, at least by 1960, would have been capable of boasting the greatest outfield in the history of the game. Let’s imagine the wonders of an outfield featuring Mays in center, flanked by the phenomenal Mickey Mantle in left field and the meteoric Roger Maris in right field, with all three men in the prime of their mid-to-late twenties. I mean, what more could you have wanted from three major league outfielders? High on base percentages, check. Gold Glove defensive ability, double check. Speed, check. And upper deck power, triple check.
The addition of Mays to the Yankee stable would have provided another lasting benefit to fans of the franchise, especially those who regularly attended games at the old Stadium. For fans of baseball in the 1960s, in particular, one of the most lasting images involved the sight of Mays rounding the bases. We can make all sorts of arguments about Mays being the greatest all-around player of all-time—I’m tempted to make that call, but know it will be met with rounds of debate and skepticism—but there should be little doubt that Mays was the most memorable baserunner of the television era. (And he just might have been the greatest baserunner of any era, with apologies to Ty Cobb.)
By the time this author began following baseball in the early 1970s, Mays was no longer in his overall prime, but remained a vibrant and dangerous baserunner. When Topps decided to include a series of “action” cards in its massive 1972 set, the company wisely chose to include a card depicting Mays in the act of completing one of his memorably dynamic and frantic runs around the bases. Specifically, his 1972 Topps card shows the “Say Hey Kid” sliding into home plate, his right arm extended, piling a cloud of dust onto the helpless catcher with his unseen but nonetheless powerful legs. And then there’s the Mays trademark on the basepaths—the cap. By the early 1970s, most major league baserunners wore helmets on the bases, but not Mays. He had always run the bases while wearing only his cap on his head, and he saw no reason to change in an era when player safety became more prevalent. There was just something right about Mays wearing that cap, which often flew out from underneath him because of the sheer force and torque with which he ran the basepaths. By the time that Mays reached home, his lonely cap was often sitting between third and home, or resting between second and third, waiting to be retrieved by a diligent coach or a batboy. I can see that picture on my old black-and-white Sony as if it were the day before yesterday.
As much as baseball statistics shed light on the quality of its players, they do little to convey the aesthetic landscape of the game, including the simple beauty of a runner making his way from first base to home plate. Thankfully, with its 1972 action card, Topps captured a small sample of what it was like to watch the artistic and comforting image of Willie Mays running the bases. And for those who love the visual dynamics of the game, there was nothing quite like it.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.