"You always knew when Willie was around. Love of life just flowed out of him."
– Monte Irvin, Giants teammate
For those of us that didn't grow up in '50s or '60s, it's hard to imagine that Willie Mays was once so carefree.
In recent years, The Say Hey Kid has become The Say Nay Kid when it comes to signing autographs.
"The random fan who approaches Mays expecting The Say Hey Kid might very well be surprised to find more of an edge to him," wrote Phil Taylor, in a July 2008 Sports Illustrated article.
It's difficult, however, to cast aspersions on a man who grew up amidst racial prejudice, a man who, despite being baseball's best all-around player, was overshadowed by Mickey Mantle and now, in retirement, is forced to endure endless questions about his godson. And it should be noted that Willie's foundation raises thousands of dollars each year for underprivileged youth.
But 50 years ago, The Say Hey Kid was a bubbly 28-year-old with a boyish enthusiasm for the game.
"Willie Mays combined the skills of fielding, throwing, bunting, hitting for distance and hitting for average better than anyone else in baseball history. For my money, he was the best . . . And he had the other magic ingredient that turns a superstar into a super superstar. He lit up the room when he came in. He was a joy to be around," said Leo Durocher, (Mays's longtime manager), in The Baseball Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Book.
Renowned author, Donald Honig, expressed similar sentiments in his book, Mays, Mantle, Snider: A Celebration.
"Mays's pell-mell style made it look daring, turning him into the most crowd-pleasing and theatrical man to ever play centerfield. He ran the bases with equal flourish, often running out from under his cap as he whirled from first to third on a base hit," wrote Honig.
Paul Hersey, who owns the No. 3 Mays Master Set on the PSA Set Registry, recalls his uncle taking him to Giants games to watch Mays in the '60s.
"It just felt like magic going to those games when I was eight, nine, or 10 years old," he said.
In many of those games, Willie's magic was performed from the batter's box. He belted 660 homers, and if he hadn't missed 266 games to military service in 1952 and 1953, he would've challenged Babe Ruth's home run record.
But the Giants center fielder wasn't solely a slugger, he led the National League in stolen bases four times and in triples three times. The 20-time All-Star also won two MVP awards (1954, 1965) and led the Giants to a World Series title in 1954.
A 12-time Gold Glove Award winner, Willie's defense was also legendary. What baseball fan hasn't seen footage of The Catch – Willie's unbelievable grab of Vic Wertz's 460-shot to centerfield at the Polo Grounds in Game One of the 1954 World Series?
For his efforts, Mays was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, and he's now widely recognized as the World's Greatest Living Ballplayer. But even with this title, he's still less popular than Mantle in the sports card hobby.
"It's just too bad that someone like Mantle, who was in the East Coast market and stayed in the East Coast market, got more press. That's what it comes down to," explained Hersey. "Mantle's stats don't hold a candle to the stats of Mays."
Mike Wasserman, who owns the registry's No. 5 Current Finest Basic Mays set, concurs.
"If you take all of his skills, Mays was a better player than Mantle," he said.
The veteran hobbyist, who operated a card store for 14 years, often encouraged kids to buy cards of The Say Hey Kid.
"When young people would come in and say, 'Who should we invest in?' I would tell them about Willie Mays. He was the best all-around player that I certainly knew of," he said.
Though smaller in number than Mantle collectors, a few dozen hobbyists are pursuing the Mays Basic (27 cards) and Master (247 cards) sets on the PSA Set Registry.
Here's a rundown of the key cards from each set:
Basic Set Key Cards
1951 Bowman (#305). The Say Hey Kid's rookie card is a tough high number that's difficult to find with decent top-to-bottom centering, says Rick Kendall, owner of the registry's No. 1 Mays Master Set.
"Top-to-bottom, I've seen a number of those cards that have been anywhere from 65/35 to 85/15," he said.
Of the 1,004 submitted, there have been eight PSA MINT 9s and 72 PSA NM-MT 8s. A PSA 9 sold for $85,775 in a Memory Lane auction in May 2008.
1952 Topps (#261). "The 1952 Topps always seems to be the most popular Mays card," said Wasserman.
A key card in one of the hobby's most vaunted sets, this pasteboard is also difficult to find centered. There is, however, one PSA GEM MT 10 copy and nine PSA 9s. One PSA 9 fetched $24,850.80 in April 2007.
1952 Bowman (#218). Often overshadowed by his Topps issue from the same year, this card is an elusive high number that's often found with poor left-to-right centering. Of the 845 sent in, just four have graded as high as PSA 9. One PSA 9 sold for $30,674.40 in April 2007.
1953 Topps (#244). The fragile black border on the bottom of this card makes it evasive in flawless form. Just one PSA 10 and two PSA 9 examples have been uncovered. A PSA 8.5 copy garnered $25,517.50 in a Memory Lane auction in August 2009.
1955 Bowman (#184). The dark wood grain borders on this card are susceptible to chipping, making it one of Willie's most difficult singles to find in flawless form.
"With the color of the borders, it shows the wear quite a bit," noted Kendall.
Just five of these cards have been graded PSA 9 or higher.
1958 Topps (#5). Marking Mays's debut with the San Francisco Giants, this card was printed on poor paper stock, making it difficult to track down in top condition. Being one of the first cards in the set, this card was near the top of collector piles, explains Hersey. Consequently, it was vulnerable to wear.
"The centering is also more difficult than previous years," added Hersey.
Of the 1,644 submitted, there are just five PSA 9s, with no cards grading higher.
Master Set Key Cards
1954 New York Journal American. Part of a 59-card series featuring players from the Giants, Yankees and Dodgers, this single was available at newsstands when buying a paper. The 2" by 4" card was printed in black and white on thin stock. Just two have received a grade as high as a PSA 8. One PSA 8 sold for $4,330 in a Goodwin & Co. auction in March 2008. Kendall owns one of the PSA 8s, but has not seen another surface in the past two or three years.
1954 Stahl-Meyer Franks. Issued in packages of hot dogs, this Mays single was part of 12-card set. Measuring 3-1/4" by 4-1/2", the Mays boasts a color photo and facsimile autograph. The borders are white and the corners are cut diagonally.
Kendall has the top graded Mays from this series. His PSA 9 represents the only card from this issue to receive that lofty grade.
"It's just amazing that a card could escape in that condition, without wrinkles or damage to the corners, or even the hot dog juice," he said.
Outside of Kendall's PSA 9 copy, the only other Stahl-Meyer Franks Mays submission received a PSA PR 1 grade. Hersey has heard that this PSA 1 sold for $3,000.
1958 Hires Root Beer with Tab. A test version (#7) and a regular version (#25) of this card exist. Part of an eight-card regional issue that preceded the regular set, the scarcer test card boasts a sepia-toned picture rather than the color picture on the regular version. The cards were issued with a wedge-shaped tab that served as a fan club membership form, as well as a means to attach the card to a carton of bottles. It's nearly impossible to find either version with the tab still in tact. A PSA 8 regular card (with tab) sold for $2,312.40 in a Memory Lane auction in August 2009.
1967 Topps Punch-Outs. Reportedly distributed in cello packs around Maryland, these cards measure 2-1/2" by 4-2/3". Only one player – the team captain – is pictured on the front of each card, while the backs showcase instructions on how to play a baseball game that encourages participants to punch out the small squares on the cards. It's rare to find these cards without the squares punched out.
"Those are really tough to find without the holes punched. Also, because of the shape and size of the card, the corners really show a lot of wear," said Kendall.
So far, a PSA NM 7 example owned by Kendall is the sole Mays card graded from this issue.
Venezuelan Topps Cards. "I think that my biggest challenge has been the Topps Venezuelan cards," said Kendall.
Distributed in Venezuela and boasting a design similar to the regular Topps issues, these cards were printed on flimsy, non-glossy stock. Albums were generally available for these sets and collectors were encouraged to glue the Venezuelan cards into them. As a result, many cards exhibit glue stains or have paper missing.
"No. 1, the Venezuelan cards are tough to find. No. 2, a lot of them either have tape on the back or they have tacks that are in them, so they're not in what you would consider grading candidates," said Kendall.
Collectors must track down 15 Venezuelan Topps cards to complete the Mays Master Set.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of press time.
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