This is Willie Mays' birthday. Yes, the "Say Hey" Kid turns 89 today. During the current lockdown, everybody has things they miss, maybe activities they once took for granted: going to school or the office, having a drink at your favorite saloon, hugging children or grandchildren. I miss all those things. And I miss baseball.
Last week the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced that it was canceling its 2020 induction weekend in Cooperstown. A class of Hall of Famers led by Derek Jeter will have to wait until the following summer, I suppose. But time isn't always fungible. I hope Willie Mays and his fellow stars from baseball's second Golden Era will be able to attend in 2021, although there are no guarantees. Yet, I must tell you that however old he gets, in my mind's eye Willie Mays will forever be tearing around the bases at Candlestick Park, his cap flying off his head and a cloud of dust trailing behind him like the Road Runner's as he performs his patented pop-up slide into second base.
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I've written about Willie Mays over the years, usually making the point that he was the best baseball player I ever saw, and perhaps of all time. This is not an uncommon view. The Sporting News ranked him No. 2 (behind Babe Ruth); Sandy Koufax said he thought Mays was a better all-around player than Ruth; and sportswriter Mike Lupica wrote on the occasion of Willie's birthday last year that he was simply "the greatest all-around player who ever lived." Mays' fellow Hall of Famer Larry Doby once told me that at the All-Star Game other players just stopped to watch Mays -- his talent was that conspicuous.
Yet, when I write things like this, I invariably receive a raft of letters -- I suspect they're from the same guy, but maybe not -- listing Willie Mays' lifetime stats alongside Mickey Mantle's. My correspondent isn't necessarily a New York Yankees' fan. He's a disciple of "advanced metrics" (also called "analytics," or, originally, "sabermetrics") but whatever you call them, they are a series of more sophisticated ways of gauging baseball excellence than traditional measurements.
They encompass solid criteria such as on-base percentage, how many runs a hitter "created," and "range factor" in the outfield -- how much ground a centerfielder, for instance, actually covers -- as well as more dubious stats such "wins above replacement," which I consider meaningless.
The point of all this is that my anonymous correspondent uses these numbers to say that Willie Mays wasn't the greatest ballplayer I ever saw, or even the greatest centerfielder of his generation. The new numbers favor Mantle.
Here's my answer: I won't disparage the Mick in any way. I grew up on the West Coast as a San Francisco Giants fan long before interleague play and only saw the Yankees on television. And I do believe, analytics or no, that seeing a baseball player perform in person must be part of the equation. That's why this lockdown -- and talk of playing baseball in empty stadiums during the pandemic -- is so unsatisfying. I'm not alone in this regard, even in the era of modern metrics. Here, for example, is Leo Durocher's testimonial on Mays' plaque in Cooperstown:
"If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases and performed a miracle in the field every day I'd still look you in the eye and say Willie was better. He could do the five things you have to do to be a superstar: hit, hit with power, run, throw, and field. And he had that other magic ingredient that turns a superstar into a super superstar. He lit up the room. He was a joy to be around."
Another way to say this is that some things are unknowable because, in the end, not everything in life can be measured -- or viewed objectively. Ty Cobb's stats were amazing, but hardly conveyed the raging passion with which he played the game of baseball. Hall of Famer George Sisler put it this way: "The greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen. And to see him was to remember him forever."
And when it came to Mantle or Mays (or Joe DiMaggio), Bill James, the father of sabermetrics wasn't sure: "If push comes to shove, I will concede that, having thought about these things for 40 years, I still do not know whether Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle was a greater ballplayer."
Anyway, happy birthday, Willie.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.