Pots & pans: Baseball’s stars shine brightest in the All-Star Game and in our memories
Willie Mays still lives in my mind as the greatest of all baseball’s players
The Major League Baseball All-Star Game is scheduled to be played Tuesday night in Miami. Because of injury, Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout won’t play. Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox will start in Trout’s place.
Trout has been a star of stars during his All-Star Game appearances, just as Willie Mays was when I was a child and in love with baseball and enchanted by the San Francisco Giants center fielder.
Although Mays retired after the 1973 season, the Hall of Famer remains the best baseball player I ever saw. And if somebody wants to argue about the best of all time, I’ll take Mays too.
The All-Star Game was his glittering showcase. The 20-time All-Star hit more than .300 in the games and didn’t make an error, an expected performance from a player whose outstanding fielding earned him 12 Gold Gloves. But statistics stand as mere smudges on the canvas upon which the artist of the unexpected painted his brilliant career, one dazzling play after another.
To put things another way, Stan Musial’s greatness was captured during his St. Louis Cardinals career by his record six All-Star Game home runs and his .331 lifetime regular-season batting average.
But if you want to understand and appreciate Mays, his record 23 All-Star Game hits and .302 lifetime regular-season batting average will fall far short of capturing the whirlwind that was Mays; you’d have to see his over-the shoulder catch of Vic Wertz’s long drive in the 1954 World Series, a catch that wasn’t possible before Mays made it.
You had to see Mays play to fully appreciate him, just as you had to see Roberto Clemente, Dr. J. and Michael Jordan, just as you have to see Steph Curry, P.K. Subban and Cam Newton.
Mays brought the performance aesthetic and the intelligence of center fielder Oscar Charleston (who died a week after Mays’ Vic Wertz catch) of the Negro Leagues to major league baseball. Mays exuded power, grace and joy. Even today, more than 40 years after he retired, just saying his name makes me smile.
The Willie Mays of the 1950s through the early ’60s exemplified the growing presence and influence of black entertainers and intellectuals in American culture, Miles Davis to Martin Luther King Jr., Sammy Davis Jr. to Malcolm X, Dorothy Dandridge to Lorraine Hansberry.
And those black artists and intellectuals were a part of a great and underappreciated American era of vision and imagination that saw everything from painter Jackson Pollock reimagine art as an exploration of inner and outer space to the opening of Disneyland, which hailed a reimagining of American childhood and play.
Ted Williams, an all-time great baseball player for the Boston Red Sox, once said that the Major League Baseball All-Star Game had been invented for Willie Mays. But that was only metaphorically true. The “Midsummer Classic” was the brainchild of a Chicago newspaper editor and first played in the Windy City in 1933, two years after Mays was born.
But whatever the All-Star Game’s origins, Mays’ presence made the games between National League stars and American League stars magic, just as Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth had before him.
Like those New York Yankees, Mays has been acclaimed by many as the best player of his time and perhaps the best ever.
Perhaps with time travel, the debate will be settled once and for all. Fans of a future time and dimension might be able to assemble teams made up of greats across the eras, Cap Anson to Jose Altuve. Perhaps those future fans will be able to program themselves as avatars and play alongside baseball’s all-time bests, playing in a field of dreams in a virtual reality. What better way to assess the other players’ greatness?
But, for now, that future seems as improbable as Mays’ catch in the 1954 World Series, as improbable as Mays himself, a young man born during the Great Depression in rural Alabama who starred for the Giants in New York and San Francisco.
During his 22-year career, Mays turned the All-Star Game into a showcase for his brilliance. Tuesday’s game will be played without him on the field, just as the 1967 game was played without Musial, 1957’s game was played without DiMaggio and 1947’s game was played without Ruth.
The 10-year-old boy in me can’t imagine a greater baseball player than Mays, just as 50 years from now today’s 10 year-olds might not be able to imagine a better player than Trout or Altuve.
Indeed, the eternal debate about the best of all time in baseball is often argued from the perspective of wide-eyed children, the sophisticated sports analytics not withstanding: Fans often seek to venerate the players from their childhoods above all others, and venerate their childhoods above all others too.
Mays dominated the summers of my boyhood, especially at the All-Star Game. Just saying his name makes me smile. Just saying his name reminds me of all the other magical baseball names that have made baseball fans smile through the years: Anson to Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb to DiMaggio, Ruth to Clemente, Trout to Altuve.
Consequently, I look to Tuesday’s All-Star Game with a smile on my face. I smile for Mays and me. And I smile for the 10-year-olds of the past, present and future, all locked in baseball’s embrace and their adoration of their favorite players.