The late Willie Mays was such a great player, it made him underrated. Wait a second. Underrated? Yes, underrated. This is what I believe.

I know Mays was chosen to play in a gazillion MLB All-Star Games, and he won a dozen Gold Glove awards for his extraordinary defense in center field. He won two National League MVP awards. He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1951. I could go on … but for as much as Mays was honored it wasn’t enough.

Those two National League MVP awards: only two? Are you kidding? To that I say, hey, it should have been more than that. Many really good players won two MVPs. I take nothing away from them, but there’s something absurd about Willie Mays having the same number of MVPs as Juan Gonzalez, Hank Greenberg, Bryce Harper, Roger Maris, Frank Thomas, Robin Yount, Joe Morgan and Dale Murphy. It’s ridiculous to scroll through the list and see that Alex Rodriguez won more MVP awards than Willie Mays.

As Jayson Stark of The Athletic noted, Mays did some things that have never been done before or after … and I doubt will ever be done again.

My favorite wonder-of-Mays collection is this one, and thanks to Stark for coming up with this. At one time or many times in a MLB career that spanned from 1951 through 1973, Mays led the league in 10 different major categories:

Hits
Runs scored
Home runs
Triples
Stolen bases
Batting average
Onbase percentage
Slugging percentage
Total Bases
Walks

I’m not trying to be mister smarty pants, but I’ll add three more: OPS, extra-base hits and OPS+

So that’s 13 categories with the name “Mays” on the top line of the league leaders list for at least one of his seasons. Or, for several seasons. Or more than several seasons.

But I say we must include defense in this – and why not? Mays was just as celebrated for his defensive skills as much as he was heralded for his offense. To that end …

Mays and Roberto Clemente are tied for the most Gold Gloves awarded to an outfielder (12.) But Mays covered the vast spaces in center, and Clemente was a brilliant right fielder who threw a baseball with the exit velocity of a rocket. That said, a great center fielder is more important than a great right fielder.

But there’s no need to snub the late Clemente; let’s just say that Mays won more Gold Gloves than any CF in big-league history. And that declaration covers it … just as he covered center fields from coast to coast. Mays would have won several additional gold gloves, but the award wasn’t created until 1957. Mays was an amazing center fielder as soon as he played his first MLB game in 1951, so he didn’t get a chance to collect the gold gloves that would have come his way.

Mays is also the all-time leader in most double plays turned by a major-league outfielder, most assists by an outfielder, most putouts as an outfielder. He led the league in all of those things multiple times. His combination of range and arm was unmatched. Still is.

No one else did all of this. Not in major-league history. No one. Nobody. No other player has finished atop the leaderboard in all 10 offensive categories – or 13 categories if we include OPS, extra-base hits and OPS+ … and is also generally viewed as the top defensive outfielder in the game’s rich history. And think of where Mays played most of his games: the Polo Grounds in New York, and Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The Polo Grounds was a massive venue with the center field wall positioned 460 feet from home plate. Mays ran miles there, tracking deep fly balls and line drives. He turned heads and made fans scream “did you just see that?” thousands of times.

At the Polo Grounds, Mays made the most outrageously unbelievable defensive play in major league history, sprinting like an Olympic gold medal winner to haul in a monstrous fly ball crushed by Cleveland’s Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. And can you imagine the difficulty of having to gauge fly balls in the swirling, unpredictable winds of Candlestick Park? Mays could run with the wind – and read the wind as an expert navigator.

OK, Willie Mays never led the league in RBIs or doubles. But if it’s OK with you I’ll decline to downgrade him because of it. During his career he hit 525 doubles and knocked in 1,909 runs. I think we can give him a break here.

In a related note, Mays never led the league in a few other entries on the statistical menu. He never led the league for making the most errors or making the most strikeouts, or making the most outs as a hitter or getting picked off base. There were no holes in his game. None.

Mays led the league in stolen bases four times and finished with 339 in his career. Mays was just spectacular in every way. That magnificent speed and defensive coverage and stolen bases, and gap power, and 660 career home runs – including six seasons of swatting 40+ homers. He led the league in homers four times – which, as Stark pointed out, is as many as Barry Bonds and Willie McCovey combined.

Mays’ all-encompassing value was so complete and superior, he led the league in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) 10 times and finished second two other times. Through one 13-year stretch of his galactic career, Mays averaged 9.5 WAR per season. Only one other big-leaguer ever matched that: a fellow named George Herman Ruth. You may know him as “Babe.”

How many players impacted the game in so many ways over such a long period of time? And who did this against the finest competition in the world during a career that began after baseball ended segregation in 1947? Answer: no one else comes close. He played on natural grass, played on Astroturf, played in flannel uniforms, played in cooler and more comfortable double knits. He played when teams traveled by train, and he played when teams boarded giant jumbo jets to soar across the country during road trips.

Mays was a five-tool player: hit for average, hit for power, run, field, throw. But he had other tools as well. He was known to call pitches from center field and had permission to do so. His managers granted Mays the freedom to set the defense and put his teammates in the best position depending on what his pitcher planned to throw. And if energy and charisma and entertainment value are tools, he had them too.

Willie Mays had another tool that few baseball superstars could match: Availability. Durability. Being there for his team. He started at least 148 games in a season 14 times. He loved to play baseball so he played and played and played baseball.

In 1969, veteran baseball writers selected a “Greatest Living Team” and came up with a doozy. Their choice for the greatest-living center fielder was Joe DiMaggio. Joe always campaigned for these things and had a network of New York scribes doing his bidding for votes. But no one – living or retired or in baseball heaven – ever outdid Willie Mays in center field. Yeah, I’ll say it again: he was underrated.

Mays passed away Tuesday at age 93. It is straight-up cliche to say there will never be another one like him. And it’s true. Seventy three years after his big-league debut, 51 years after his retirement, Willie Mays still draws a crowd. We’ll see that tonight at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, when the Giants and Cardinals play a ballgame at the place where the teenage Willie Mays began his pro career in the Negro Leagues with the Birmingham Black Barons. Mays will live forever in our imaginations. That grainy black-and-white footage of his miraculous catch of the Wertz missile is all that you have to see, and only once, to grasp the full extent of Mays’ incomparable greatness. Look at that play, and it will be embedded in your mind as the perfect example of what a perfect baseball player should look like.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. Friday. Stream live or access the podcast on 590thefan.com or the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

Please follow Bernie on Threads @miklaszb

For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.

Stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions, Spotrac and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.