It’s really hard to imagine baseball without Willie Howard Mays Jr.

While he hadn’t roamed the outfield for over fifty years, the greatest five-tool player MLB will ever showcase left an indelible mark on anyone who ever watched him play an inning, all the while doing it with style and grace throughout a storied career and up until congestive heart failure took him from fans all over the globe on June 18 at the age of 93.

Unless you’re a baseball junkie or even a fossil like me who realizes the game was invented long before MLB and its television partners shamelessly placed microphones on players and managers during games, you’re probably reliant on YouTube and books in terms of understanding just how phenomenal Mays was.

While 3,293 hits with 660 home runs and 1909 runs batted in speaks volumes, it was his defensive prowess that really set him apart from his contemporaries and placed him in a baseball world that very few players ever reside in.

Mays left this world with a mind-boggling 7,095 put outs, which remains the most ever for an outfielder, despite losing two years of his career to military service.

Roaming center field in some of the largest and most classic baseball fields in the history of the game, he made it all look effortless and set a standard for outfield play that we will undoubtedly never see again.

While historians point to his unbelievable over the shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series against the Cleveland Indians which robbed Vic Wertz of extra bases and prevented runs from scoring, Mays routinely made difficult catches look simplistic, employing a patented “basket” catch technique. 

While baseball players were the most recognizable athletes in the United States during the 1950s, Mays’ greatest feat was balancing his wide-spread popularity during a time of unspeakable racism that was running rampant through the entire country, making it difficult for Black players to find clean hotels and good restaurants to eat meals.

Despite his enormous popularity, he remained a humble man and became a remarkable ambassador for the game of professional baseball representing the San Francisco Giants after his superb career had ended in California. 

He left an endearing impression on baseball fans throughout the world, including yours truly who nervously stood close to him (albeit briefly) when he approached the third base sidelines at Crosley Field in Cincinnati before a game against the Reds. That fleeting moment made the 240-mile round trip with my father in our gigantic Chrysler well worth it all, as for just a scant moment, an 8-year-old boy who had never met a person of color, let alone an iconic baseball player, would cherish that very brief encounter some 57 years later just as if it were yesterday.

A proud man and gifted player, Mays would rightfully go on to receive the Presidential Medal of Honor from then President Barack Obama, and he knew exactly how important it was to recognize a group of young kids who often pretended they were him as they played pickup baseball on an old diamond, far from the well-manicured fields on which Mays himself excelled regularly. 

His death not only closes the book on the golden era of the game, but it also serves as a stark reminder of just how fortunate the entire world was to witness his greatness as a man first, and then a gifted player.

Danny Bridges, who didn’t stop talking about seeing Willie Mays up close the entire trip home that day, can be reached at (317) 370-8447 or at