Forgive my delay, but I have been distracted by actual baseball games and the accompanying folderol. In my previous two posts (Part 1, Part 2) I took a trip through Willie Mays’s baseball cards (flagship sets, for the most part) through 1964. I am going to push that story forward here, but you can start by reading how we got here.
A beautiful card in a beautiful set. After looking quite young on many of his cards in the 1950s, his face has begun to age rapidly. Not his body or his game, though — Topps calls him an “all time great” but he was still the best player in the game at the time this card hit store shelves.
Forty-seven home runs at Candlestick will do just fine, thanks. Too bad about Henry Aaron dropping down to 24 home runs; it looks like his years as a top power hitter are over at age 30.
Ken Boyer was the Most Valuable Player in 1964, thanks largely to his RBI title. Mays finished third, although a quick reading of the back of the card would suggest he finished second. Topps loved Mays (baseball card chief Sy Berger became a close friend) and apparently could not bring themselves to listing him behind Ron Santo.
One of the delightful treats of collecting Topps cards was how they distributed the players to the checklist numbers. Good players generally had a number than ended in “5”, All-Stars ended in “0”, and the very best players were assigned multiples of “50”. This was never announced, it just happened and kids took it on faith. In fact, if you learned the game as I did — from the cards — Topps assignments helped you figure out who the best players were. Willie Mays had a multiple of 50 every years between 1959 and 1965 (before I came on board).
In 1966 he got #1, one of the few times Topps used that number to anoint a superstar. In 1962 they gave the first card to Roger Maris, fresh off his 61 home run season, but in the intervening four years Topps had put its leaders cards at the front of the set. But in 1966, they gave it Mays who had just had one of his greatest seasons.
Try topping this card. The American League version of this card was Tony Oliva, Carl Yastrzemski and Vic Davalillo. “Daddy, why does the National League always win the All-Star game?”
The American League version: Tony Conigliaro, Norm Cash, Willie Horton. Hey, I am just reporting the news here don’t get mad at me.
I am fairly certain the the major league baseball offices conspired to let Johnson win this title so that kids of America would stop laughing at the American League. The AL’s RBI leader was Chico Salmon. (Ed note: Lie, it was Rocky Colavito.)
My favorite Mays card, and probably my favorite baseball card ever.
Although I come from generations of Bostonians and grew up in New England, I did spend parts of two years near San Francisco. The last of these was in 1967, which was first grade. This was when I fell in love with baseball cards, and baseball, in that order. When I got the cards I had basically no idea what any of it meant — the teams, the cities, the numbers, nothing. I liked the Giants because they played nearby, and I liked Mays because my father told me he was really good. My father was and still is a baseball fan, but a much more measured and sensible one than me.
“Willie Mays is really good” is basically how it all started for me. Is there a better way?
I know what you’re thinking: “Jim Pagliaroni hit 11 home runs in 1966, well I’ll be.” But focus on the three great hitters on the front just for a second. Richie Allen was good.
Mays’ final “group card,” which Topps phased out two years later. This was sad, as I have lamented before.
Tricky question there Topps, faking kids all over America into guessing “Willie Mays” only to yank the rug out from under us.
This was the time when Mays took a step down from his place as the game’s very best player to being a merely excellent player. Although his days on the front of Topps “leaders cards” were over, he was much more than just an aging icon.
From 1967-1971, Willie’s final five full seasons with the Giants, he accumulated 25.2 WAR, which are star player totals. This is the 13th highest in baseball among position players. He made the All-Star team every year, and he deserved it.
If you’ve been paying attention, you will notice that this photo is a cropped version of his 1966 photo. This was part of a large scale player boycott that weakened the 1968 and 1969 Topps sets.
Topps is running out of space to brag about Willie at this point, but he did warrant a rare exclamation point in his only sentence.
What a beautiful photo this is.
Although they had removed his minor league numbers in 1969, they were restored this time around. And finally, Topps has run out of space. The numbers will have to speak for themselves.
BREAKING: Willie Mays has moved to Atherton! By the way, if you don’t think 10 year old me looked at an atlas to figure out where Atherton was than we have never met.
I seriously love that Topps hauls out his putouts record and his hitting 20 home runs 17 times. Honestly, the 1955 batting title had grown stale.
His last Giants card, and he got card #49. 49? What is this crap? What the heck is going on Topps?
A-ha, here it is. In 1972, included “In Action” cards of many of their players, and they placed them in consecutive numbers in the checklist. In this case, Mays special card got the #50. This is a nice card of Willie sliding with the artificial surface of Candlestick Park on display. Sigh.
For the back of the card I used the O-Pee-Chee version, partly to see if you were paying attention but mostly because the French text is wonderful.
Willie Mays is on the Mets. Give me more time, I have not quite processed this yet.
This looks like a misprint today, as Aaron and Mays both had a few more home runs to add to their totals. I will add that there were few things more fun as a kid that getting the paper in 1973 to see if Aaron hit another home run. He hit 40, to get within one of Ruth.
Mays is famous for “hanging on too long”, but he really only had one bad year — 1973. What people forget is that Mays retired late in the season, and had no intention of playing again. Hitting .211 in early September, they had a ceremony on the field and that was that.
By some miracle or other, the Mets surged to a weird division title (82 wins!), and all the players credited Mays with his leadership and his willing them all to be great. The Mets put him on the playoff roster, but no one expected him to actually play. Unfortunately, the Mets actual starting center fielder was Don Hahn, and the more manager Yogi Berra looked at Hahn play the more 42-year-old broken-down Willie Mays started to look better.
In the final game of the NLCS, having literally not played in a month, Mays was sent up to pinch hit in a tie game. And he got an infield single to start a five-run rally. And the Mets won the game and the National League pennant over a vastly superior Reds team.
So now they are playing Oakland in the World Series, and, well, they had to play him again didn’t they? In fact, he played parts of the first three games (going 2-for-7 but falling down in the outfield once), and did not appear again. At this point the story began to form that Old Willie should not have been playing, and he hung on too long and was embarrassing himself. But I remind you: he tried to quit, and everyone begged him to return. And it must be said: a mediocre team made it to the final game of the 1973 World Series. How much could he have hurt them really?
Willie Mays has appeared on hundreds (thousands?) of baseball cards, and I have only highlighted the ones from the big annual base sets. Perhaps I will visit others at a later date.
I became a fan at a time when Mays was an excellent player though perhaps no longer on the throne. But he was the greatest to me, and he remains the greatest all these years later. Long may he live.