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Survey tabs Mays as greatest living baseball player
Posted: Tuesday April 20, 1999 01:13 AM
DENVER (AP) -- When Joe DiMaggio died on March 8, he vacated the title of baseball's greatest living player, an honor bestowed on him by a vote of media and baseball personnel in 1969.
So who will take his place?
The Denver Post sought an answer this spring, surveying 73 players, ex-players, managers, general managers and baseball media for their three greatest living players.
It was not an easy question. But, according to the survey, one special player transcends eras. He provides a bridge between DiMaggio's elegant era in the '40s and Mark McGwire's muscle age in the '90s. From the time he hit a line drive that made a hole in the fence of Milwaukee's Borchert Field as a 20-year-old Minneapolis Miller in 1951, to when he stole 23 of 26 bases as a 40-year-old San Francisco Giant in '71, Willie Mays thrilled fans, amazed teammates and baffled opponents.
That's why Mays was the near runaway winner of a poll that's far from scientific but stretched from San Diego to Boston and Seattle to Miami. Awarding three points for a first, two for second and three for third, Mays received 136 points, including 29 first-place votes. Henry Aaron was second at 103 (18 first-place votes), Ted Williams third at 76 1/2 (12) and Sandy Koufax fourth at 23 1/2 (three).
Mays finished first among managers and media, tied for first with Williams by general managers and was second to Williams by players. Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. was the highest-ranked active player overall with 18 points (two first-place votes).
Voters said what separated Mays from Aaron, the all-time home-run king with 755, and Williams, the last man to hit .400, was versatility. Aaron, while a five-time Gold Glover, lost some points to Mays because he played right and left field instead of Mays' center. Williams, voters said, didn't run like Mays.
While hitting 660 homers and leading the league three times, Mays also led the league in stolen bases four straight years. DiMaggio, handicapped by the New York Yankees' power-slanted philosophy, never stole more than six. Who knows how many times Mays would have led the league in steals if he wasn't batting in front of Willie McCovey?
When asked who's the greatest living player now that DiMaggio has passed away, Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson said, "You're assuming DiMaggio was the greatest living ballplayer?"
Valid point. Some Mays backers went so far as to say he has been the greatest all along.
"Mays was the best all-around baseball player I ever saw," said Vin Scully, the Dodgers' announcer for 50 years. "I really think Willie could've been an All-Star at almost any position on the field. He played center field like he was a shortstop."
Florida Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski agrees even without seeing Mays in his prime.
"One thing I do that's fun for me in my job is I like to ask people in baseball who the best players they've ever seen," Dombrowski said. "Almost anyone who played in that era of the late '50s and '60s, every one of them says Willie Mays."
This kind of talk affects Mays like the hot-dog wrappers that used to blow out to him at center field in San Francisco's Candlestick Park. When told of the vote by Giants vice president of communications Bob Rose, Mays "sounded interested," Rose said, but never called after an interview request. DiMaggio insisted on being introduced at Yankee Stadium as the greatest living ballplayer.
Mays would just as soon play golf.
"I think it's important to Willie," said Lon Simmons, in his third term and 29th year broadcasting Giants games. "I don't think it's important for the same reason it was important to Williams and DiMaggio."
Mays would not have agreed with Gibson. Mays idolized DiMaggio and when he died, Mays surfaced to express gratitude to a man who served as his inspiration. Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., Mays said every kid on the sandlot pretended he was a big-league player. Mays was always DiMaggio.
"I read about Ted Williams and Stan Musial, but DiMaggio was my hero because he was an all-around player," Mays said in a rare interview earlier this year. "I had to develop my own style, but he was still my hero."
When an aging DiMaggio homered against Mays' New York Giants in the 1951 World Series, Mays stood in center and quietly clapped into his glove.
"Good thing nobody got that picture," Mays said.
On that day in '51, the torch may have already been passed. DiMaggio would retire at season's end and Mays would be named rookie of the year.
Even then, Williams saw Mays as DiMaggio's likely successor.
"I never ever compared myself to [DiMaggio]," Williams said. "There's only one guy you could mention in the same breath and that was Willie Mays. I never thought I was ever as good."
It wasn't Mays' numbers that people talk about. It wasn't the batting title in 1954 or 1,903 RBI, the 338 stolen bases or the .557 slugging percentage. It wasn't even his over-the-shoulder Series catch against Vic Wertz that propelled the Giants to the 1954 upset of Cleveland.
Alvin Dark, who played with Mays in New York from 1951-56 and managed him in San Francisco from 1961-64, said last week from his home in Easley, S.C., "I've seen him make 20 catches better than that one."
What really impressed voters was Mays' intelligence. His baseball instincts produced stories that have filtered down to today's rookies, about how he would occasionally miss a cutoff man intentionally, allowing a batter who singled to reach second, so that team's most dangerous hitter, who was up next, could be walked to get to a weaker hitter who followed.
Or about how in a game against the Braves, with Aaron on first, Mays went deep to catch a fly ball. Aaron had already run past second base and was heading back toward first. Instead of doubling him off first, Mays threw to second baseman Tito Fuentes. The perplexed Fuentes didn't know why. Mays simply pointed down. Fuentes stepped on second base on an appeal play and Aaron was called out. How did Mays know, with his back to the infield, Aaron didn't touch second?
"I know the way he runs," Mays said.
Mays would sometimes intentionally miss a pitch early in the game, figuring the pitcher would throw the same one later with the game on the line. The Cardinals' Curt Simmons once struck him out in the first inning on a certain pitch, but Mays hit a two-run homer in the eighth on the same pitch for a 2-1 victory.
"There's no way you can coach instincts like that," Simmons said. "He would break for home from third before a wild pitch even reached the catcher. He'd run from first to third while looking over his shoulder at the outfielder so he could draw the throw so the guy who hit the ball could move to second."
Giants catcher Wes Westrum estimated Mays' throws from center field would reach him going "85 mph. At least." You've heard of hitting for the cycle? Mays once almost threw for the cycle. Against the Dodgers in 1966, he threw out runners at home, third and first and would have at second if Fuentes hadn't dropped the ball.
"We talk about five-tool players," Phillies general manager Ed Wade said. "He was a five-tool player at the top of his game in every area."
When Giants pitchers and catchers huddled before games and go over hitters, the one holding court was Mays. He would tell the pitchers how to pitch each hitter. That's because he knew where to play each hitter.
Milwaukee Braves manager Charley Grimm said Mays "is the only ballplayer I ever saw who could helped a club just by riding on the bus with it."
How long will Mays carry this handle? Many voters say it depends on how consistent Griffey remains or if Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez merely stays healthy and active for another 15 years. Maybe if the Giants win their first World Series since 1954, Barry Bonds would be the man.
But for now, at least among these 73 voters, Mays is the best alive.
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