(Bloomberg) -- Willie Mays, the “Say Hey Kid” who slugged home runs, raced around the bases and patrolled center field with graceful abandon in New York and San Francisco during a two-decade Major League Baseball career, has died. He was 93.

His death, on Tuesday, was announced by the San Francisco Giants and his family. 

“My father has passed away peacefully and among loved ones,” Mays’s son Michael said in the statement.

One of professional baseball’s first Black stars, Mays was widely considered the greatest all-around player of his era, perhaps ever. About five decades after his last game, in 1973, he remains sixth in career home runs with 660, seventh in runs scored with 2,062 and first in putouts by an outfielder with 7,095. Mays won 12 consecutive Gold Glove awards, which recognize outstanding fielders at each position. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility.

His use of the basket catch — with glove at waist level, facing up — added a note of casual confidence to his corralling of fly balls. One of his catches, in the 1954 World Series running toward the wall with his back to the plate, is considered among the best in baseball history.

“I was always aware that you play baseball for people who paid money to come see you play,” Mays wrote in a 2020 collection of life stories and lessons, compiled with co-author John Shea. “You play for those people. You want to make them smile, have a good time. I would make a hard play look easy and an easy play look hard.”

Those who saw Mays in his heyday, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, said statistics didn’t tell the whole story.

Five Tools

“He could do the five things you have to do to be a superstar: hit, hit with power, run, throw and field,” Leo Durocher, Mays’ first big-league manager, wrote in his memoir. “And he had the other magic ingredient that turns a superstar into a super Superstar. Charisma. He lit up a room when he came in. He was a joy to be around.”

Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox star whom many consider the greatest hitter ever, wrote of Mays: “He played the game with controlled abandon. On the base paths he was in perpetual motion: stealing bases, disrupting pitchers’ concentration, stretching singles into doubles, doubles into triples.”

Newspaper photos of Mays, at 20, playing stickball with kids on the streets of Harlem helped establish him as a fan favorite in New York, and his only World Series ring came with the New York Giants. Yet it was in San Francisco, where the Giants moved in the late 1950s, that Mays’s uniform No. 24 was retired. Oracle Park, the Giants’ stadium since 2000, sits at 24 Willie Mays Plaza. (The New York Mets, the last team Mays played on, also retired No. 24, in 2022.)

James Hirsch, in his 2010 biography, said Mays’s “athletic brilliance and stylistic bravado contributed to the assimilation of Blacks during the turbulent civil rights era.” Awarding Mays the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, Barack Obama, America’s first Black president, recalled what he had told Mays when they rode together in Air Force One to the 2009 All-Star Game: “I told him then what I’ll tell all of you now — it’s because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for president.”

Willie Howard Mays Jr. was born on May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama. At 10, after his parents divorced, he moved with his father to Fairfield, a segregated suburb of Birmingham. At the all-Black Fairfield Industrial High School, even as he starred in multiple sports, he was trained to be a cleaner or presser in a laundry — plausible employment for a Black Southerner at the time.

His father had other ideas. A standout player on his steel mill’s baseball team, which played in Birmingham’s Industrial League, William Mays was determined that his namesake son would play professionally.

The younger Mays joined his dad in the Industrial League at 15 and, a year later, began playing with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. That same year, 1947, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers was breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, clearing the way for future stars such as Mays.

Signed by the Giants, Mays was assigned in the spring of 1950 to a minor-league franchise in Sioux City, Iowa, but the team declined to take him, citing racial tensions in that city. Mays went instead to the Giants of Trenton, New Jersey, part of the Class B Interstate League. He joined the team on the road in Hagerstown, Maryland, where, he recalled, he heard somebody in the stands direct an epithet toward him.

“I started my organized baseball career oh-for-Maryland, and in a segregated town, to boot,” Mays would later write.

His teammates called the 19-year-old Mays “Junior.” Not yet knowing their names, he would respond, “Say hey,” which led to his nickname — the Say Hey Kid.

Promoted to the big leagues early in the 1951 season, Mays overcame a 1-for-26 start at the plate to win National League Rookie of the Year honors, and he was in the on-deck circle when Bobby Thomson hit the “shot heard ’round the world” to put the Giants in the World Series, where they lost to the New York Yankees.

Mays played just 34 games of the 1952 season before reporting for U.S. Army duty, which for him meant playing and teaching baseball at Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia, for almost two years. He was discharged in March 1954, just in time for his first full season in the majors. He won the batting title that year, hitting .345, along with 41 home runs and 110 runs batted in, appeared in the first of his two dozen All-Star games and was named National League Most Valuable Player.

In Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, Mays used most of the spacious center field at New York’s Polo Grounds for his famous catch-and-throw of a drive by Vic Wertz with runners on first and second in the eighth inning of a tie game. Some 450 feet from home plate, Mays caught the ball over his shoulder running away the infield, whirled and threw it on the fly to second base.

“I must have looked like a corkscrew,” Mays recalled. The play would become known as “The Catch,” a celebrated moment in the sport’s rich history. The Giants won the game and went on to win the championship.

Mays led the National League in 1955 with 51 home runs and in 1956 with 40 stolen bases, a category he led every year through 1959.

In 1956, Mays married Marghuerite Wendell, and together they adopted a son, Michael. That marriage would end in divorce. In 1971, Mays married Mae Louise Allen.

The cross-country relocation of the Giants after the 1957 season gave Mays a new home crowd, in San Francisco, as well as new challenges in center field when famously cold and windy Candlestick Park opened by San Francisco Bay in 1960. Mays said the trick to playing fly balls there was to count silently to five before committing to any direction.

In Milwaukee on April 30, 1961, Mays hit four home runs in a game, a feat equaled but never surpassed.

A month into the 1972 season, the Giants traded the 41-year-old Mays to the Mets. A slow start in 1973, compounded by aching knees, convinced Mays he was in his final year.

By winning their division, and the National League pennant, the Mets extended Mays’ career by a few weeks and put him in his fourth World Series, this one against the Oakland A’s. His single in the 12th inning of Game 2 knocked in the winning run. His groundout, pinch-hitting in Game 3, would be the final at-bat of his career. The A’s would go on to win the championship in seven games.

By then, Mays had made official that the season was his last. “I’ve got to face facts,” he said. “I’ve been in a lot of slumps and come out of them, but now I’m running out of time.”

On Willie Mays Night at Shea Stadium, on Sept. 25, 1973, Mays received three cars, a trip around the world and a white mink coat among other gifts. “This is a sad day for me,” he told the sellout crowd. “I may not look it, but it is a new experience for me to have you cheer for me and not to be able to do anything about it.”

(Updates with comment from Mays family. An earlier version corrected years since last game)

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