When Willie was growing up, his father worked in a steel mill, and played on a semi-professional team sponsored by the mill. He began teaching Willie to catch a ball even before he could walk. By 14, Willie joined his father on the mill team. His high school had no baseball team, so he played basketball and football, but before he finished high school, it became clear that baseball would be his career.
Willie Mays began his professional career at age 16, playing with the Birmingham Black Barons in the segregated Negro Southern League. While his father avidly supported Willie's ambition to be a professional ball player, he also insisted his son finish high school. In his first year with the Barons, Willie was restricted to playing home games so he wouldn't miss school. The day he graduated from high school, he was signed by the New York Giants. First, the Giants sent Mays to their Class B farm team in Trenton, New Jersey, but he quickly advanced to their AAA farm club, the Minneapolis Millers. He was only 20 in 1951, when he received the phone call to join the Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York City.
Mays got off to a rocky start in the majors, going hitless in his first 12 times at bat. Other managers might have panicked and sent the rookie back to the minors, but the Giants' Leo Durocher had faith in his young centerfielder, and Mays broke his hitless streak with a home run blasted over the left field roof.
It took another 13 at-bats for Mays to get his second major league hit, but he soon got the knack of hitting major league pitching and hit another 19 home runs before the season was out. His spectacular fielding was already making headlines. In this first season, he made one of his most spectacular catches. Playing against Pittsburgh, he raced across the field to stop a 475-foot drive with his bare hand. His performance drove the team for the rest of the season. The Giants won the National League pennant that year.
This promising career was briefly interrupted when Willie Mays was drafted into the Army. His team failed to win the pennant during the two seasons he was absent, but he returned to the Giants in 1954 to lead them into the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. The Giants won the Series in four straight games, the first of which turned on an extraordinary over-the-shoulder catch by Mays. Although this is still one of the most talked-about plays in baseball history, the own personal favorite of Mays himself is an incredible flying catch he made in the 1955 All-Star game.
Joe DiMaggio said Mays had the greatest throwing arm in baseball. Mays's 7095 putouts are the all-time record for an outfielder, but Mays excelled as a hitter as well. His career batting average was .302. For eight years running, he drove in more than 100 runs a year, and his 660 home runs put him in third place for the all-time home run record. He won the Gold Glove Award 12 times. He was voted Most Valuable Player in the National League in both 1954 and 1965. Small wonder one sportswriter remarked that "Willie Mays should play in handcuffs to even things up."
When the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958, Mays had to struggle to win over a new hometown crowd. In 1962, he led the Giants to another pennant victory and, in 1964, became team captain. In 1966, the Giants signed him to a new contract, making him, for a time, the highest-paid player in the history of the game. While in San Francisco, he also made a reputation as a peacemaker, breaking up a bat-swinging fight between two players, and calming a potentially explosive situation that arose when the team manager made racially insensitive remarks to a sportswriter.
In 1972, Willie Mays returned to New York to play for the Mets. During the baseball strike of that year, many players feared that veterans like Mays would not have the patience to see a long strike through. Even though he risked missing his last season, Mays was stalwart, and his solidarity with the younger players won him their renewed admiration. After hanging up his glove in 1973, Willie Mays remained for a time with the Mets organization, before becoming a public relations executive with Bally's Resorts and Colgate-Palmolive. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.
In 1986, Willie Mays returned to the San Francisco Giants organization, where he serves as special assistant to the president of the club. In 1993 the Giants made this a lifetime appointment. His position in the history of his sport will last even longer. In baseball, Willie Mays is one of the immortals.