The Say Hey Kid: Willie Mays is Really Good

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.

1965 Topps

Mays65Front   Mays65Back

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.

Mays65HRLeadersFront   Mays65HRLeadersBack

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.

Mays65RBILeadersFrontMays65RBILeadersBack

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.

1966 Topps

Mays66Front   Mays66Back

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.

Mays66BattingLeadersFront   Mays66BattingLeadersBack

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?”

Mays66HRLeadersFront   Mays66HRLeadersBack

The American League version: Tony Conigliaro, Norm Cash, Willie Horton. Hey, I am just reporting the news here don’t get mad at me.

Mays66RBILeadersFrontMays66RBILeadersBack

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.)

1967 Topps

Mays67Front   Mays67Back

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?

Mays67HRLeadersFront   Mays67HRLeadersBack

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.

Mays67FenceBustersFront   Mays67FenceBustersBack

Mays’ final “group card,” which Topps phased out two years later. This was sad, as I have lamented before.

1968 Topps

Mays68Front   Mays68Back

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.

1969 Topps

Mays69Front   Mays69Back

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.

1970 Topps

Mays70Front   Mays70Back

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.

1971 Topps

Mays71Front   Mays71Back

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.

1972 Topps

Mays72Front   Mays72Back

His last Giants card, and he got card #49. 49? What is this crap? What the heck is going on Topps?

Mays72InActionFront   Mays72InActionBack

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.

Mays73Front   Mays73Back

Willie Mays is on the Mets. Give me more time, I have not quite processed this yet.

Mays73AllTimeFront   Mays73AllTimeBack

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.

1974 Topps

Mays74WorldSeriesG2Front   Mays74WorldSeriesG2Back

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.

 

Author: Mark Armour

Long-time SABR member, co-chair of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.

7 thoughts on “The Say Hey Kid: Willie Mays is Really Good”

  1. Although the post was up to your normal high standards, dissing Vic Davalillo, Chico Salmon and Jim Pagliaroni was beneath you. Especially since Pags was a Pilot and Salmon was drafted by Seattle, before being traded for Brabender.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I was ~10 all I wanted for Christmas was a “real” (as in vintage not TCMA et al) Willie Mays card. Santa duly responded with that 1972. I’ve since gotten a few others (67 and 68 as well as some of the Leaders cards) and every time I do it’s still a thrill.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. On the 1964 Home Run Leaders and the 1965 Batting Leaders Willie Mays is looking down with his eyes closed. I was at the Giant card show in 1990 in Valley Forge, PA and Willie Mays was signing autographs looking down. He signed the autographs without looking at the people. Gaylord Perry, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda were also at the show signing autographs.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is the type of post I would like to see more. I still haven’t done one myself. These would be posts with star player stats and leader cards from particular teams over a few year period or for specific accomplishments during a certain year.

    Like

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