Remembering Willie Mays (1931-2024)

Willie Mays‘ passing last month serves to remind baseball fans of his spectacular and singular career. Widely regarded as baseball’s most complete player, Mays excelled at all facets of the game, playing at a high level for almost the entirety of a career spanning 23 years. His passing also reduces to a very slender thread our connection with those still living who graced major league ballparks in the 1950s. More on Willie and 1950s baseball are after the jump.

In terms of star power, the 1950s very likely marks baseball’s pinnacle for everyday players. Consider that, of only 21 players in the 100 Batting WAR club, six played a significant portion of their careers in the decade of the 1950s. Here is that club, sorted by career end date, with the six stars of the 1950s highlighted.

100 Batting WAR Club
Rk Player WAR From To
Age
1 Albert Pujols 101.5 2001 2022 21-42
2 Álex Rodríguez 117.6 1994 2016 18-40
3 Barry Bonds 162.8 1986 2007 21-42
4 Rickey Henderson 111.1 1979 2003 20-44
5 Mike Schmidt 106.9 1972 1989 22-39
6 Joe Morgan 100.6 1963 1984 19-40
7 Henry Aaron 143.1 1954 1976 20-42
8 Frank Robinson 107.2 1956 1976 20-40
9 Willie Mays 156.2 1948 1973 17-42
10 Mickey Mantle 110.2 1951 1968 19-36
11 Stan Musial 128.5 1941 1963 20-42
12 Ted Williams 121.8 1939 1960 20-41
13 Mel Ott 110.9 1926 1947 17-38
14 Lou Gehrig 113.7 1923 1939 20-36
15 Rogers Hornsby 127.0 1915 1937 19-41
16 Babe Ruth 162.2 1914 1935 19-40
17 Eddie Collins 124.3 1906 1930 19-43
18 Ty Cobb 151.4 1905 1928 18-41
19 Tris Speaker 135.0 1907 1928 19-40
20 Honus Wagner 131.0 1897 1917 23-43
21 Nap Lajoie 106.9 1896 1916 21-41


Notably, three of those six players were African-Americans, as are five of the six players who followed them into this exclusive club. Long deprived of the opportunity to play on the game’s biggest stage, the emergence of a plethora black stars in the 1950s is the defining characteristic of the decade.

I mentioned our rapidly shrinking connection to the 1950s through players still living who played in that decade. Here is that shrinking connection visually.


That 75.5 WAR for the 1950s by players still living today is comprised of 76 WAR by the following seven players, and -0.5 WAR for the remaining 120 players.

1950s WAR by Players Still Living
Rk Player WAR From To Age
1 Rocky Colavito 17.5 1955 1959 21-25
2 Charlie Maxwell 16.0 1950 1959 23-32
3 Luis Aparicio 12.2 1956 1959 22-25
4 Bill Mazeroski 8.8 1956 1959 19-22
5 Bob Skinner 8.7 1954 1959 22-27
6 Tony Kubek 7.6 1957 1959 21-23
7 Bill White 5.5 1956 1959 22-25


I mentioned at the outset that Mays is widely regarded as the most complete player in the game’s history, meaning he excelled at all of the five skills most necessary for success in baseball, namely running, throwing, fielding, hitting for average and hitting for power. Let’s look at those skills as reflected in these all-time top 10 lists.

Career Runs Above Average
Rk Player Rbat Player Rfield Player Rbaser
1 Babe Ruth 1327 Brooks Robinson 294 Rickey Henderson 144
2 Barry Bonds 1128 Mark Belanger 241 Willie Wilson 121
3 Ted Williams 1050 Ozzie Smith 239 Tim Raines 115
4 Ty Cobb 995 Andruw Jones 235 Max Carey 96
5 Lou Gehrig 957 Adrian Beltre 216 Luis Aparicio 92
6 Henry Aaron 878 Roberto Clemente 205 Davey Lopes 83
7 Stan Musial 868 Andrelton Simmons 200 Barry Larkin 81
8 Rogers Hornsby 855 Willie Mays 185 Ozzie Smith 80
9 Tris Speaker 823 Carl Yastrzemski 184 Joe Morgan 80
10 Willie Mays 804 Jim Piersall 182 Kenny Lofton 79
          Willie Mays 79
Provided by Stathead.com: Found with Stathead. See Full Results.
Generated 6/26/2024.


Rbat encapsulates hitting for average and for power. Rfield combines fielding and throwing (and, indirectly, running). Rbaser measures baserunning, principally through base stealing. All of the metrics are represented as Runs Above Average. Mays ranks 10th, 8th and T-10th in the three metrics and is the only player making the top 10 on all three lists. In fact, only one other player (Ozzie Smith) makes it onto two of the lists. Are there players who are lurking just below the top 10 on all of these lists? The answer is an emphatic no. In fact, if we cut Mays’s totals in half, these are the only players who reach all of those halved marks.

Career 400+ Rbat, 90+ Rfield, 40+ Rbaser
Rk Player WAR Rbat Rfield Rbaser
1 Barry Bonds 162.8 1128 175 44
2 Willie Mays 156.2 804 185 79
3 Henry Aaron 143.1 878 98 44
4 Larry Walker 72.7 420 94 40
Provided by Stathead.com: Found with Stathead. See Full Results.
Generated 6/26/2024.


Just think about that for a moment: cutting Mays’s career totals in half brings only three other players into the mix, one who just creeps over the halved standard for one metric (Bonds), one who creeps over for two (Aaron), and one who creeps over for all three (Walker). Talk about a unique ballplayer.

Another basis of comparison is the similarity scores calculated by Baseball-Reference.com using Bill James’s methodology. Here are the same totals for the top 5 most similar players to Mays.

Top 5 Most Similar Players to Mays
Rk Player WAR Rbat Rfield Rbaser
  Willie Mays 156.2 804 185 79
1 Frank Robinson 107.2 729 22 35
2 Alex Rodriguez 117.6 640 23 56
3 Ken Griffey Jr. 83.8 440 3 16
4 Albert Pujols 101.5 684 138 4
5 Henry Aaron 143.1 878 98 44
Provided by Stathead.com: Found with Stathead. See Full Results.
Generated 6/26/2024.

Similarity scores are not adjusted for context, so are most useful for comparing contemporary players. Thus Robinson and Aaron, as Mays’s contemporaries, might actually be the most similar to him. Regardless, none of the R scores (which are context adjusted) for these players are very similar for all three metrics, with only Pujols somewhat similar in Rbat and Rfield, and only A-Rod in Rbat and Rbaser.

Another measure of a complete player is one who leads his league in both Offensive and Defensive WAR. Here are those players.

Players Leading League in oWAR and dWAR
Rk Player dWAR oWAR WAR
Season
1 Cal Ripken Jr. 3.5 9.2 11.5 1991
2 Willie Mays 2.0 8.4 10.5 1954
3 Lou Boudreau 3.0 8.3 10.4 1948
4 Cal Ripken Jr. 3.6 7.7 10.0 1984
5 Snuffy Stirnweiss 2.8 6.7 8.8 1945
6 Hughie Jennings 1.8 7.2 8.3 1896
7 George Davis 2.8 5.5 7.2 1905
8 Zoilo Versalles 3.0 5.3 7.2 1965
Provided by Stathead.com: Found with Stathead. See Full Results.
Generated 6/26/2024.


The list includes six shortstop seasons, one by a wartime second baseman and Mays’s MVP campaign for the world champion Giants. The preponderance of middle infielders is indicative of positional scarcity, a component of WAR not directly correlated with any of the 5 essential baseball skills. Positional scarcity is measured by Rpos, which typically awards 9 to 11 runs above average for a full-time shortstop season, as compared to the -1 Rpos runs that Mays received for each of his full-time CF seasons.

Mays’ prowess defensively helped him to compile 10 seasons leading his league in WAR, including 8 times leading the majors, the latter mark second only to Babe Ruth’s 9 seasons. Among those 8 seasons were a record 5 consecutive campaigns (1962-66) leading both leagues in WAR, and doing so aged 31 to 35 (Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds are the only players older than 35 to lead the majors in WAR).

Mays debuted as a 20 year-old in the 1951 season and claimed the NL RoY award for the pennant-winning Giants. In the World Series against the Yankees, Mays was matched against another 1951 rookie, Mickey Mantle. The two center-fielders would meet again in the Fall Classic eleven years later, and would be compared against one another throughout their careers and long after, as two of the best to ever play that marquee position.

Mays missed most of the 1952 season and all of the 1953 campaign to military service, but made up for it with his MVP season in 1954, leading the majors in BA, SLG and WAR, and leading the Giants to their first World Series title in 21 years. Thus began a record 13 consecutive seasons with 300 TB and 145 OPS+. The first twelve of those seasons also included 100+ runs, tied with Lou Gehrig for the most such seasons and the most consecutively.

In 1955, Mays led the majors in HR, SLG, OPS and TB, blasting a franchise record 51 long balls and also adding 24 stolen bases. That marked the majors’ first 40 HR/20 SB season, and only the eleventh 20/20 season. The next year, Mays’s 36 HR and majors-leading 40 SB marked the first ever 20 HR/40 SB season and just the second 25/25 campaign. Mays would reel off 25/25 seasons the next four years, those five consecutive seasons still a record, tied with Bobby Bonds (Mays’s godson Barry Bonds would almost certainly have recorded 7 such seasons consecutively if not for the 1994 player strike).

Mays led the majors a record 8 times in Power/Speed number (harmonic mean of season HR and SB totals), and passed Babe Ruth for the career record in 1960 when aged only 29; he would not relinquish that record until 1999, twenty-six years after his career ended. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Mays “invented” the Power/Speed game, as suggested by the chart below.


As the 1960s began, attention was focused on which (if any) of the game’s leading power hitters might reach Babe Ruth‘s record home run total of 714, at that time 180 more than Ruth’s closest pursuer Jimmie Foxx. Foxx was (now second to A-Rod) the fastest to reach 500 HR, cresting that plateau at age 32, compared to age 34 for Ruth. But, Foxx would add only 34 more HR after that point, as a messy personal life and a drinking problem (the two likely not unrelated) contributed to a premature end to his career.

Here is a visual look at Ruth’s pursuers.


The first four data series in the legend at the bottom of the chart are Mays and his contemporaries. Mays, Mantle and Mathews were all born in 1931, and Aaron in 1934, and their season-ending career HR totals are shown for each of the seasons on the horizontal axis. Thus, Mays reached his career total of 660 HR at the end of the 1973 season, the same year that Aaron almost caught Ruth, with 713 HR at the end of that season.

The last three data series, for Ruth, Foxx and Bonds, are plotted by age as shown above the horizontal axis line. For example, Foxx reached 500 HR (exactly) in his age 32 season, shown above 1963, Mays’s age 32 season.

At the end of the 1960 season, Mantle and Mathews were just shy of their 29th birthdays and running neck and neck, comfortably ahead of both Mays and Ruth’s pace, and far ahead of the 26 year-old Aaron. Mays passed Mantle and Mathews in 1964, but started falling off of Ruth’s pace in 1966, and was overtaken by Aaron five years after that. Ruth (708), Aaron (713) and Bonds (703) all reached virtually the same totals at age 39, with the latter two forging ahead with three more seasons in their careers, compared to just one for Ruth.

Mays and Aaron also tracked each other closely in other categories, as both reached 3000 hits and 1750 RBI in 1970, before finishing their careers with very similar stat lines, including almost identical rate stats.

Rk Player WAR From To Age G PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
1 Willie Mays 156.2 1951 1973 20-42 2992 12497 2062 3283 523 140 660 1903 338 1464 1526 .302 .384 .557 .941 156
2 Henry Aaron 143.1 1954 1976 20-42 3298 13941 2174 3771 624 98 755 2297 240 1402 1383 .305 .374 .555 .928 155


It was also a saw-off in their 335 head-to-head matchups (a bit more than two seasons worth of games), again producing almost the same totals.

Willie Mays vs. Henry Aaron in Games Played Against Each Other
Rk Player From To Age G PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Willie Mays 1954 1973 23-42 335 1362 217 361 54 8 77 210 30 151 154 .303 .380 .555 .935
2 Henry Aaron 1954 1973 20-39 335 1449 242 403 64 10 74 229 35 140 141 .312 .378 .549 .927


This head-to-head game late in their careers is perhaps a fitting tribute to their rivalry. On April 27, 1971, Aaron hit career home run no. 600, drawing ever closer to Mays, then with 633. But the 40 year-old Mays showed he wasn’t done yet, with a 4-hit game, including a game-winning RBI single in the 10th inning.

Trivia time.

  • Mays, Aaron and Ruth all finished their careers playing in the same city where those careers began, but for a different franchise.
  • Mays played in 4 World Series, with 71 AB in 20 World Series games, but nary a home run. But, his namesake, Willie Mays Aikens (born two weeks after the Giants’ triumph in the 1954 World Series) launched a record four dingers over the first four games of the 1980 Fall Classic. Quiz: which other player born proximate to a World Series is similarly named for a star player on that world championship team? Hint: he was a pitcher, but the player he is named for wasn’t; he holds the record as the youngest pitcher with a 9-inning complete game (during which he faced Mays’s 1952 outfield mate Bob Elliott, holding him hitless)
  • Mays played in the World Series in his first and last seasons, but was on the losing side both times, a feat just duplicated by Evan Longoria (assuming Longoria’s career has ended). Quiz: which player played in the World Series for the winning team in the first and last years of his career, in seasons at least 10 years apart? Hint: he is most famous for a post-season HBP in extra innings.
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Richard Chester
Richard Chester
7 days ago

Quiz answer: The youngest pitcher to pitch a 9-inning complete game is Roger Hornsby McKee who was born on 9/16/1926. It was his only complete game.

Paul E
Paul E
7 days ago
Doug
Doug
7 days ago

Hornsby’s Cardinals claimed their first World Series title in 1926, besting the Yanks in 7 games in the only World Series that ended with a caught stealing (of Ruth). Hornsby and Frankie Frisch traded uniforms the next year in what Bill James termed a “challenge” trade, where the two principals are about the same age and play the same position. Hornsby (37) and Frisch (34) posted similar WAR for the remainder of their careers, though Frisch made it to four more World Series, winning two, while Hornsby made it to just one more, a loss with the Cubs in 1929.… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
6 days ago
Reply to  Doug

Somehow Bill James tries to make the argument that Hornsby was the largest horse’s rear-end in the history of baseball (along with Hal Chase and Dick Allen) and (somehow, further, therefore?) Eddie Collins and Joe Morgan were his superior. From 1927-1929, Hornsby led the NL in oWAR and WAR (in addition to OPS+) each and every season while setting a Braves franchise record (IIRC) in 1928 with a .387 BA James, perhaps like the rest of us, loses his objectivity while preaching the sanctity of the “bare” numbers…. apparently, he annoyed enough people in the course of his career to… Read more »

Doug
Doug
6 days ago
Reply to  Paul E

Interesting the similarities between Hornsby and Dick Allen, another famed malcontent. Both get moved in a blockbuster trade from the team where they’ve become established stars. Then, despite solid numbers, get traded a second and third time in the following two seasons for lesser players, before sticking for a few seasons with the two Chicago teams, and then finishing their careers back in the city (Hornsby*) and with the team (Allen) where they started. While Hornsby got snubbed on the first ballot, Allen has been snubbed, period. *Hornsby actually did go back to the Cardinals, briefly, before being released and… Read more »

Last edited 6 days ago by Doug
John S
John S
4 days ago
Reply to  Doug

Um, the Rahah was 30 at when he went to the Giants in 1926, and Frankie Frisch was 29. Hornsby was born 4/27/1896, and The Fordham Flash on 9/9/1897.

Doug
Doug
8 hours ago
Reply to  John S

So, they were about the same age, which was my point.

Am I missing something in your comment?

Paul E
Paul E
7 days ago

Doug:
“Notably, three of those six players were African-Americans (Mays, Aaron, Robinson among Williams, Musial, and Mantle), as are five of the six players who followed them into this exclusive club…..”
I’m not able to quite follow the “as are five of the six players who followed them into this exclusive club” portion of this statement.
Are you referring to Morgan, Henderson, Bonds and ? Arod? Pujols? Schmidt? Please advise

Doug
Doug
7 days ago
Reply to  Paul E

A-Rod and Pujols.

While their ancestry may be only partly of African origin, suffice to say that had they been born 75 years earlier, they would not have played in the major leagues. Pujols, of course, was born in the DR, but has since become an American citizen.

Last edited 7 days ago by Doug
Paul E
Paul E
6 days ago
Reply to  Doug

A little trivia (since you brought it up):
In 1969 in the National League, the highest sixteen ( 1 thru 16) power speed numbers were compiled by one Latin (Cepeda) and 15 African Americans. Who was ranked #17 in power speed number in the Nl for 1969 but first for Caucasoids?

Doug
Doug
6 days ago
Reply to  Paul E

Freddie Patek? With 5 HR and 15 SB.

Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
6 days ago
Reply to  Paul E

How about Johnny Bench with 26 HR and 6 SB?

Paul E
Paul E
6 days ago
Reply to  Scary Tuna

Tunahhhhh,
Young Johnny Bench would be correct!!!

Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
6 days ago
Reply to  Paul E

Bench is a surprising answer.

My immediate reaction – before realizing you specified the NL – was to suggest one of this highly unlikely trio: Harmon Killebrew, Boog Powell, or Frank Howard. Turns out Killer, with 49 HR and 8 SB in his MVP year, had a power-speed number almost 50% higher than Bench (though both trailed Yaz and his 40 HR / 15 SB).

Paul E
Paul E
5 days ago
Reply to  Scary Tuna

If you go to the “Seasons” tab on Baseball-Reference, you can hover over “Batting” and then hit “Sabermetric” and “Power Speed #” should be to the far right. Pete Rose follows Bench (IIRC) for 1969

Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
3 days ago
Reply to  Paul E

Thanks, Paul. I’m not sure I ever knew the Sabermetric Batting table was there. If so, I had certainly forgotten.

no statistician but
no statistician but
1 day ago

Regarding Willie Mays, when you add his fielding and base-running to the mix, there seems fair evidence that he was, in Doug’s words, “the most complete player in the game’s history,” although one might quibble that since Babe Ruth was not only a fine fielder but for several years an outstanding pitcher, “complete position player” would be a more precise wording to describe Willie. The following comments and interpretations of stats are aimed at presenting Mays’s career offensive production—minus base running—as it compares to his peers, the other great hitters of the live ball era, which I define as the period… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
1 day ago

As far as the 1950’s-60’s contemporaries, they all batted between .305 and .294 – roughly a difference of 6-7 hits per season. However, Mantle took about 35-45 more walks per season in those same ~650 plate appearances and, therefore, is making fewer outs and creating more runs per 27 outs made. Despite his lack of 30-30 seasons or 40 SB seasons, Mantle creates more runs than the other guys. Which is the whole idea, right? But, yeah, Mays was the better fielder and base stealer (than all of them). If you need a stolen base in the late innings in… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
1 day ago
Reply to  Paul E

As far as Rbat, Mantle had three seasons >/= 80. The other three guys had one season between them greater than 70 (Robinson 71 in 1966 MVP season)

Paul E
Paul E
15 hours ago

RC/27 outs/AIR for their careers:
9.79 Mantle
8.06 Mays
7.84 Robinson
7.81 Aaron

Doug
Doug
8 hours ago

Mantle does better than the others on a per PA basis, because he was a great hitter but also because of his abbreviated decline phase. And, it wasn’t much of a decline, from 177 OPS+ thru age 32 to 149 OPS+ for age 33-36 (for Mays, it was 161 and an almost identical 159). Mantle was done at age 36, but Mays still had over 2500 PA to go after that, with 23 WAR and 138 OPS+, so still providing value well above league average. That’s more than 20% of Mays’s career PA, so definitely a drag on his overall… Read more »

no statistician but
no statistician but
6 hours ago
Reply to  Doug

Doug: I can’t agree with that reasoning, unless you are saying that, if Mantle had continued playing, he would have created a huge number of negative results. These are cumulative stats, remember. Mays, even in his decline continued to add numerically to his various stats. Example: Batting Wins: Mays’s career total was 84.1, Mantle’s 85.2. Mantle would have had to be as pathetic as Willie was in 1973 (when Mays posted -0.5 BW), starting immediately in 1969 to fall below Mays, an extremely unlikely scenario considering that he put up 10.4 BW 1966-68 while Mays produced 9.4. Sticking with batting… Read more »

Doug
Doug
4 hours ago

My observation is only about career rate stats, including counting stats expressed on a per PA basis, as you had shown in your comment, and which you turned to. logically enough, to normalize the career counting stats of players with different career lengths. That type of normalization works just find on a quantitative basis, but could be extended further to also normalize by age or career trajectory (i.e. peak seasons, or best n consecutive years, or what have you), as Paul offered in his comment. My observation was merely to point out that comparing career rate stats may distort the… Read more »