Willie Mays Was The Greatest Living Baseball Player

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Greatness is a term that is thrown around far too loosely. I am guilty of it myself. We are too  quick as a society to bestow that term on anything from dinner to a job done moderately well. But, we rarely ask ourselves what it means to be great. Even beyond that, to be inarguably great. 

Willie Mays was a great baseball player.

We may argue where he stacks up on a list of other men who are also inarguably great but we will undoubtedly come to the same conclusion that Willie Mays was great at playing baseball. This greatness was also not for a short time. Mays played in the Major Leagues for 22 seasons. What must that feel like to be that wonderful at something for so long?

The actress Tallulah Bankhead once said that there are only two geniuses who have ever lived: William Shakespeare and Willie Mays. Mays has been lauded as the greatest living ballplayer since Ted Williams died. That timeline is wrong because Mays was better all along. He was also better than Joe DiMaggio who held that title before Teddy Ballgame. Mays was better than Mickey Mantle too. This isn't recency bias because Mays just passed. The cold, hard numbers agree as well. 

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Finding anyone better than Mays isn't easy. If you do find someone better, they come with asterisks.

Let's use WAR. It's not a perfect stat but it does a pretty good job especially with great players. Here's the top 5:

Barry Bonds 162.8

Babe Ruth 162.2

Willie Mays 156.2

Ty Cobb 151.4

Hank Aaron 143.1

Bonds was a fantastic player who also used PED's. Thanks to the book Game Of Shadows, we know Bonds started using PED's after the 1998 season when he was 33 years old. His total WAR at that point was 99.9. Would he have caught Mays? I'd guess no. Bonds up until that point had never had a WAR of 10 in any season. He exceeded that three times from that point on. You can think Barry Bonds did nothing wrong by taking PED's but it's tough to argue he was a better player than Willie Mays?

Ruth and Cobb played in a segregated league. I am not blaming them (especially Ruth) for being born in the wrong year but it remains true. It's hard to say they were better than Mays when they literally would not have been allowed to play against him Before 1921, fans would also throw balls back to the umpires when it went foul. They would often use the same ball for over 100 pitches. It was a sport trying to figure itself out. It wasn't the same game.

Willie Mays was beyond great. You could make a case he was the greatest.

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Where does that leave us as baseball fans? Mays was 93 when he died. He last played in 1973. Unless you are nearly 60 years old, you probably don't remember Mays playing at all. He's been this looming legend for most of us. I'll hear younger people in the office speak of Nolan Ryan and it's obvious they never sat through those 4 1/3 inning starts where he'd walk a bunch of guys. Maybe legends only can exist when those who saw their flaws no longer walk the earth.

Because I never saw Willie Mays play, am I fawning over him too much? I really don't think so. He was so obviously the greatest living ballplayer that it can be said with so much as even an odd look in your direction. But now what? Who fills that hole?  I wrote this blog last year but now that we are living in it, I don't know if I can stand by it. Reality can be a cold splash in the face.

I had Pedro Martinez number 2 on that list. Can the greatest living baseball player be a pitcher? Can it be Barry Bonds with the PED's? Can it be Ken Griffey Jr. despite the injuries in Cincinnati? I thought I knew but it ends up when it comes time to pay the bill, I'm left staring at my shoes with my wallet firmly in my pocket

Willie Mays is the just about the last of his group to go. Sandy Koufax is still around but there aren't many legends left who played in the 1950's. Willie, Mickey and The Duke are all gone. Most of the people who saw them and loved them are gone too. I adore baseball history and feel a little fraudulent even writing this. He was retired for six years before I was even born.

I only know Willie Mays as the legend, not the ballplayer. That is a title he wore for over 50 years with only grace and class. I can't imagine it's easy wearing a crown that heavy. Willie Mays almost is beyond a human in my eyes. He's an ideal. To be that gifted for such a long time. To play in the same orbit as guys like Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Duke Snider and Frank Robinson and still somehow rise above them is pretty incredible.

The greatest living baseball player is gone. I don't know who now takes that crown. The players left who could take that title all had flaws I saw first hand. I don't look at them the same.

if you're around my age, we didn't just lose Willie Mays. We just lost our last legend.