By Any Standard of Judging Ballplayers, Willie Mays Tags Out Mickey Mantle


Washington -- I love baseball, and like all true fans, I mourned the passing last week of Mickey Mantle, the great Yankee center fielder. But I found something missing in the nation's reaction to Mantle's death. It almost seemed as if I were in one of those futuristic Hollywood thrillers in which a time traveler makes some alteration in the environment -- and changes the future.

Amid the odes-to-the-Mick and laments of Lost Innocence by the bow-tied, baseball-is-Americana crowd, I kept listening for two lyrical words that would reassure me that I was in the real world, that the nation's past had not somehow been altered.

Those two words are Willie Mays, the name that has been strangely missing from the sweet ruminations about the Mick's impact on the game and the kids who followed baseball in the 1950s and '60s. It would be like eulogizing Larry Bird without mentioning Magic Johnson.

Like the two basketball stars of the 1980s, the careers of Mantle and Mays were always intertwined. In their many accomplishments -- and even their few failures -- they seemed to mirror each other.

Both initially suffered -- and later flourished -- by being in the shadow of the great DiMaggio.

After they retired, both were temporarily rendered persona non grata by the commissioner's office when they got jobs doing public relations for Atlantic City casinos.

It was Mays who hit the ball in the World Series that Mantle was tracking when he stepped in a drain pipe, wrecking his knee. In the 1954 Series, Mays made his legendary over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz's towering fly in the Polo Grounds.

In the World Series two years later, Mantle sprinted into the gap to make a tough catch that preserved Don Larsen's perfect game.

Twice they played against each other in the World Series, but Mantle went 10 other times -- and always shined.

Meanwhile, the annual All-Star games became Mays' personal showcase. Both men homered in the 1956 game; in 1963, Mantle was honored beforehand by the American League players as their best center fielder even though he was hurt.

In the game, Mays scored two runs, knocked in two runs, stole two bases and made a catch against the center field fence to lead his team to victory.

Yet for a solid week, the New York media and the New York-based baseball establishment reminisced about the era in which Mantle played as though Mays didn't exist.

Willful oversight

The oversight seems almost willful when you consider that Mays was the same age as Mantle, broke into the majors the same year, played the same position, at the same time and in the same city.

Moreover, and maybe this is the point, by any recognized standard of judging ballplayers, Mays was better.

At 19, Mantle hit tape measure home runs from both sides of the plate, used his uncommon speed to beat out routine grounders to shortstop -- and swung so hard he would excite the crowd even when he struck out.

His carousing, his country-boy smile and his raw good looks were construed by fans as charm, but to those who played with him, it wasn't far from the truth.

Mantle displayed a self-deprecating sense of humor in the clubhouse, played hurt without complaint and, as a consequence, was idolized by his teammates.

Mays at 19 established himself as the first great power hitter who was also a base stealer. In the late 1950s, he led the league in stolen bases four years in a row, while averaging nearly 34 homers a year.

It was said, as a play on words -- and a contrast to the great DiMaggio -- that he made the easy plays look hard, but Mays was also considered one of the greatest defensive center fielders of all time.

His innocence was legendary, too. Mays hailed from Alabama, where his father had been a sandlot star -- like Mantle's -- and one of the apocryphal stories told about the young Willie was that he asked the Giants' scouts if you actually got paid for playing baseball.

And play baseball he did. In 1951, the year Mantle and Mays were brought up to the majors, Mantle with the Yanks and Mays with the New York Giants, Mays was the National League's Rookie of the Year.

In 1954 and 1965, Mays was the National League's Most Valuable Player, an award Mantle won three times over in the American League.

Other than walks, that was about the only lifetime stat Mantle had over Mays.

In 22 seasons, Willie Mays hit .302, collecting nearly 3,300 hits, knocking in 1,900 runs, scoring another 2,000. He hit 660 homers, third on the all-time list, and played in a record 24 All-Star games. All of these numbers surpass Mantle's.

Mays was a better fielder, too.

Playing the same position, Mays caught more balls and threw out more runners than Mantle year after year. Mantle won a single Gold Glove award as the American League's best center fielder. By contrast, from 1958, when the league's award started, Mays won 11 consecutive Gold Glove awards.

All this information is available to the men who have semantically airbrushed Mays out of the week's eulogies of Mickey Mantle, and so they have resorted to anecdotes, poetic descriptions and intangibles to make their case that Mantle was unique.

He was a blur from home to first, they say. "The Mick" was a flawed heartthrob who represented America's lost innocence. He had "an aura" other great stars lacked.

Yankee manager Buck Showalter said last week that when Mantle played every Little Leaguer wanted No. 7 -- Mantle's number.

Broadcaster Bob Costas, who should know better, told those at Mantle's funeral in Dallas that Mantle was "the most compelling baseball hero of our lifetime. . . . "

Newsweek's Jack Kroll actually dismissed Mays -- and Joe DiMaggio too, believe it or not -- in an artful bit of revisionism: "You say Mays was better?" he wrote. "Maybe. DiMaggio? Could be. . . . But that doesn't account for the impact, the aura of Mickey Mantle."

The biggest reach may have been George Vecsey, writing in the New York Times.

"He would limp in from the outfield and just before he would duck into the dugout he would spot the prettiest woman in the box seats and he would wink or grin or leer at her," Vecsey wrote in a piece that began on the front page.

"He would get away with it. He was the Mick. The greatest black players in the first wave had to keep their psychic lids on. Jackie Robinson nearly had a nervous breakdown containing his anger at the racial slurs. Frank Robinson and Henry Aaron and Roberto Clemente had to worry about offending white America with their achievements and their competitive personalities. . . . "

When heroes die, people wax eloquent about them, maybe even exaggerate their glory, gloss over their flaws. We all hope it happens to us, even if we aren't heroes.

But there is a line that was crossed last week: You aren't allowed to rewrite history; if so, we all lose a little something.

So let's provide a historical context for Mantle, one that doesn't diminish him but one that is richer and evokes the childhoods of all of us.

First, let's recall that outside New York, the Yankees were hated by millions of baseball fans, primarily because they were so good.

If you rooted for St. Louis, for instance -- and that meant most of the boys in the Southern United States in those days -- the number you wanted in Little League was 6. That was Stan Musial.

In certain neighborhoods, there was another issue.

Black kids knew full well the Yankees were slow to integrate, knew they were probably the last white dynasty in organized baseball -- and that their whiteness was one reason for their popularity among a certain kind of fan.

These black youngsters generally had nothing against Mickey Mantle, but it was not No. 7 most of them wanted to wear, it was No. 24, Willie's number. Or perhaps they coveted 44, a number worn by Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey -- and later by Reggie Jackson.

And while there is no doubt that Mantle's foot speed was breathtaking, was he faster than, say, Lou Brock? In fact, could he really have been faster than Mays, who hit twice as many triples in his career and stole twice as many bases?

The intangibles are harder to argue against; the Mick was certainly loved and admired, although in my neighborhood no one could imagine anything more exciting than a Mays steal of second, his deliberately too-small cap flying off his head as he seemed to start his slide halfway to second, tearing up more dust than the Roadrunner.

As far as that business about black stars sublimating their competitive fires or exuberance, well, Mays' trademark basket catch was not exactly an example of a jock repressing his individuality.

Nor, for that matter, was Bob Gibson's custom of knocking down any hitter, white or black, who crowded the plate.

What accounts for this orgy of revisionism? A subtle form of racism? Certainly that's part of it, although a bigger culprit is probably New York provincialism.

The Giants left New York after the 1957 season for San Francisco. It was hardly Mays' idea, but New Yorkers felt an understandable sense of betrayal. The Dodgers had left Brooklyn as well, and suddenly being a Yankee fan no longer meant being a front-runner, it was also meant being loyal to the Big Town.

The Mick rarely let down the hometown fans, starring in 12 World Series for the Yanks, breaking most of the slugging records, including home runs, which had been held by Babe Ruth.

And so, Mickey Mantle made his way into the record books and the hearts of Yankee fans and the hearts of kids from Oklahoma where Mick grew up, and millions of others as well, especially in later years when he publicly confronted his demons.

The racism aspect is a trickier question.

Certainly, many black Americans must wince when they read Mays-less descriptions of the Mantle era in eulogies that make so much of Mantle's boyish good looks, blond hair and country boy attitudes.

Beauty and panache are subjective qualities, I realize, but for my money, nobody had an aura quite like Willie Mays -- and nobody was better looking, either. I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Once, when someone used the word "genius" too loosely in her presence, actress Tallulah Bankhead quipped, "There have been only two geniuses in the world. Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare."

And in John Fogarty's classic pop tune, "Centerfield," one verse goes like this:

Rounding third, headed for home,

It's a brown-eyed handsome man . . .

Anyone can understand the way I feel . . . "

Fogarty is a San Francisco guy, and those of us who grew up there recognized the "brown-eyed handsome man" as our own hero from that bygone time, a time of two incomparable center fielders.

Carl M. Cannon covers the White House for The Baltimore Sun.

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