Willie Mays 1952 #261
by William Szczepanek
Like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays' rookie card was actually the 1951 Bowman edition, but Mays' 1952 Topps was his highest ranked card and placed him third in the rankings for the Baseball Card Hall of Fame. Mays moved up to the majors from Minneapolis in 1951 where he was hitting .477. He started his major league career by going 1 for 26, but manager Leo Durocher had no thoughts of ever sitting him down. Mays responded by winning the Rookie of the Year Award. Mays lost most of 1952 and all of 1953 to the military, but responded in great fashion in 1954 by winning the batting title with a .345 average and the MVP Award. In 1955 he put up great numbers and led the majors with 51 home runs.
He won 12 consecutive Golden Gloves for centerfielders from 1957 to 1968 which legitimizes his status as the best fielding centerfielder of all time. When his hitting and fielding prowess were combined the "Say Hey" kid tops the list as the greatest centerfielder of all time. While Leo Durocher extolled Mays' virtues as a ball player, Mays just went through the motions, rarely getting excited, finding ways to single-handedly beat every other team in the league with his fielding, base running and, oh yes, he could hit too. He was the first five tool player.
At 5' 11" and 160 pounds he did not look like a power hitter. There was nothing subtle about his swing. He lashed at the ball with a ferocious intensity, providing power from every muscle in his body. When not in a game situation, he would move about slowly most of the time and often acted like he was in pain. His second most popular card was from 1954, illustrating his swing.
If he were hit by a pitch, he would limp to first base with a grimace on his face like he could barely play on, then steal second base on the first pitch. He ran like his hair was on fire with so much speed as he rounded bases that it seemed like he was in a battle against centrifugal force. He would often look over his shoulder as he ran to see where the ball and the outfielder were and take extra bases with ease.
His basket catches made him look like a showboat, but he contended that it put him into better position to throw. He was the most relaxed outfielder to ever play the game and made tremendous catches look easy and impossible catches somehow ended up in his glove. With respect to his greatest catch Mays responded, "I don't compare 'em, I just catch 'em."
It is interesting to note that since this is a Website dedicated to baseball cards, that the person responsible for the modern day baseball card, Sy Berger of Topps, was also Willie Mays' representative. Sy Berger explained in Sports Collectors Digest, “Willie was just a nervous kid, and since it was my first trip to a big-league locker room, I was nervous, too. As Willie says, he was scared and looking for a friendly face, and I walked in. I am probably one of his best and oldest friends, and I am his representative. Not by choice, but because he said, ‘Please do this.”’
Mays' career coincided with the civil right movement. For all his good work he was scorned as an "Uncle Tom" for refusing to verbally support the movement. He led by example, something not often seen then or now. He didn't smoke or drink. He helped kids and was a role model who encouraged discipline and good preparation. "In order to excel, you must be completely dedicated to your chosen sport. You must also be prepared to work hard and be willing to accept constructive criticism. Without one-hundred percent dedication, you won't be able to do this." - Willie Mays.
We like the 1955 Topps Willie Mays #194.
You can check out Willie Mays' statistics at Baseball Reference.