He was THE center fielder of his era, perhaps of any era. And when you combine 12 Gold Gloves with 660 home runs -- the home runs from an era of far greater pitching dominance than the contemporary game -- you have an incomparable talent.
Intangibly, the excitement he created was also one-of-a-kind. He seemed to play the game at a pace beyond the reach of mere mortals. The old films including clips of Mays churning around the bases sometimes seem to be played at a faster speed than the rest of memory allows. But that was him, the cap flying off his head, the slide in a cloud of dust, the umpire signaling safe, because Willie Mays had, improbably but certainly, outrun another play.
You hate to even focus on one moment, because what set Willie Mays apart was a career that was full of amazing moments, two decades worth of a non-stop highlights reel. No, not at the end when he came back to New York, and stayed in the game longer than time allowed. But that was a human failing, trying to prolong the time in the sunshine when the storm clouds have already arrived. But the rest of this career was a singular accomplishment.
If you had to distill the Mays magic into one play there was "The Catch." It came on baseball's biggest stage, in the World Series, and probably profoundly affected the outcome. Mays and the New York Giants were in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series against the Cleveland Indians. In context, it must be noted that the Indians had gone 111-43, had broken the Yankees' stranglehold atop the American League, and, as such, were heavy favorites.
With the score tied, 2-2, in the eighth, with two on and one out, Cleveland's Vic Wertz hit a blast to the vast expanse of center field at the Polo Grounds. Mays covered an amazing amount of ground in a very short period of time, and then, just before reaching the wall, made an incredible over-the-shoulder catch. His work not yet done, Mays in one motion whirled and threw back into the infield. On what might have been a 460-foot drive, the Indians achieved a total of one base advanced. It may not have been at all coincidental that the underdog Giants went on from that point to a four-game Series sweep.
This may have been the greatest defensive play in World Series history, before or since. It also opened the door for an epic one-liner. Giants pitcher Don Liddle, who was brought in to face Wertz and removed after that at-bat, said as he left the mound: "Well, I got my man."
The greatness of Mays is all there on film, 57 years later. Every time you see it, "The Catch" remains at the outside edge of human possibilities. But that was Willie Mays' game.
He stretched our baseball imaginations. He played the game with the kind of joy and zest and ability that made more things possible on a diamond than we had previously imagined. He gave us a hint that human possibilities could be expanded. And then he would make a play that would prove that contention, catching a ball that nobody else could seemingly even approach, or stretching what seemed like the most routine single into a double. You could not escape the excitement that Mays provided or the joy he created, for everybody other than the opposition.
And that is why, when the conversation turns to the greatest baseball player who ever lived, the conversation cannot be complete without Willie Howard Mays.