Willie Mays breaks National League home run record

Willie Mays breaks National League home run record

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On May 4, 1966, San Francisco Giants outfielder Willie Mays hits his 512th career home run to break Mel Ott’s National League record for home runs. Mays would finish his career with 660 home runs, good for third on the all-time list at the time of his retirement.

Willie Howard Mays was born May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama. The “Say Hey Kid” learned baseball from his father, who played semi-professionally with a team from his steel mill. Willie joined the steel mill team at age 14, and then began his professional career at 16 with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Southern League. He played home games for the Barons from 1948 to 1950, skipping road trips during the school year so he could attend high school. Upon graduation he was signed by the New York Giants, and made his debut at the Polo Grounds on May 25, 1951. Mays went hitless in his first 12 at-bats, hitting his first big league homer in his 13th. That season, he was named Rookie of the Year and helped the Giants to the National League pennant.

In 1952, Mays was drafted into the Army. The Mays-less Giants barely missed the pennant in 1952, then felt his absence more acutely in 1953, when they finished the season with a 70-84 record. Upon his return in 1954, the Giants defeated the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series, during which Mays made what many fans consider to be the greatest catch in history. In Game 1, Indian first baseman Vic Wertz hit a fly ball to deep center field. Mays turned and ran, then caught the ball over his shoulder with his back to the infield, spinning and firing the ball back into the infield to keep the runners from advancing. When he was later asked about the play, Mays famously replied, “I don’t rank ‘em, I just catch ‘em.”

After more than 20 years with the Giants, first in New York and then in San Francisco (the team relocated), Mays was acquired by the New York Mets on May 11, 1972. He spent the next two seasons as a Met under former Yankee catcher Yogi Berra as manager. The team won the National League pennant in 1973, though by then, Mays’ skills had eroded, and he could not catch up to the fastballs he once deposited into bleachers on both coasts.

In addition to winning the National League MVP in 1954 and 1965, Mays played in 24 All-Star games, winning the All-Star MVP in 1963 and 1968. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979. His base running, power, fielding, ability to hit for average and outstanding arm in the outfield made him the prototype “five-tool” player for whom baseball scouts search. Any argument over who deserves the title “greatest baseball player in history” has to include Willie Mays.

Willie Mays

Willie Howard Mays, Jr. was a Major League Baseball player with the Birmingham Black Barons (1948-1950), New York Giants (1951-1957), San Francisco Giants (1958-1972), and New York Mets (1972-1973). The Say Hey Kid is currently the oldest living Hall of Fame player! [The Oldest Living Major League Baseball Players]

Did you know that Willie Mays played Major League Baseball for twenty-two seasons and was named to twenty-four All-Star Games? Did you know Willie Mays was the first player in National League history to join the 30 / 30 Club (30 Home Runs and 30 Stolen Bases)?

Willie Mays Rookie Card | 1951 Bowman Baseball Card (#305 | Checklist)
Baseball Almanac Collection

Willie Mays won twelve consecutive Gold Gloves starting the year the award was first introduced (1957) and up through 1968! Join Baseball Almanac as we take a look at some additional numbers of interest as they relate to the best five-tool player in Major League Baseball history:

1 - Willie Mays was the number one ranked center fielder in baseball history by Bill James in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract . An excerpt from the write-up included this tidbit, "According to Sam Levy of the Milwaukee Journal (Baseball Digest, June, 1955), the Braves began scouting Willie Mays when he was fifteen years old. The Braves head of scouting, Harry Jenkins, watched Mays play many times, and raved about him often - but lost him in a dispute over $2,500 when two of his assistant scouts, sent to cross-check, doubted that Mays was work $10,000. If the Braves had signed him they would have had Mays, Aaron, Mathews and Spahn on the team from 1954 through 1965.

2 - Willie Mays won two Most Valuable Player Awards (1954 & 1965), two All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Awards (1963 & 1968) and was ranked the second greatest player in Major League history by The Sporting News in their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.

3 - Willie Mays, on May 12, 1972, became the third Giants' player to have his number (#24) retired by the franchise, joining Carl Hubbell (#11 | Retired in 1944) and Mel Ott (#4 | Retired in 1949).

4 - Willie Mays hit four home runs in a game on April 30, 1961, only the sixth instance in National League history and a record for Most Home Runs in a Game Record that still stands to this day.

7 - Willie Mays was the seventh team captain in Giants franchise history, serving from 1961 through 1972. The six who preceded Mays were Jack Doyle (1902), Dan McGann (1903-1907), Larry Doyle (1908-1916), Gus Mancuso (1937-1938), Mel Ott (1939-1947), and Alvin Dark (1950-1956).

13 - Willie Mays in his thirteenth at-bat, May 28, 1951, (after going hitless in his first twelve at-bats), hit a home run in the first inning over the left field fence in the Polo Grounds for his first big league hit. The pitcher, future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, quipped, "I'll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I'd only struck him out."

17 - Willie Mays had seventeen 20-home run seasons (1951, 1954-1968 & 1970), eleven 30-home run seasons (1954-1957, 1959 & 1961-1966), six 40-home run seasons (1954, 1955, 1961, 1962, 1964 & 1965), and two 50-home run seasons (1955 & 1965) / review the Most Seasons With XX Home Runs Record Book to see where he ranks in each of these plateaus.

22 - Willie Mays wore uniform number 24 across all his 22-seasons in the majors. When Mays stepped off the field on September 29, 1957, he became the last NEW YORK Giant to wear #24 in a regular season game, and when he stepped back onto the field the following year, on April 15, 1958, he became the first SAN FRANCISCO Giants to wear #24 in a regular season game!

24 - Willie Mays was an All-Star twenty-four times, tied with Hank Aaron and Stan Musial for the most in baseball history, prompting Ted Williams to say, "They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays."

660 - Willie Mays finished his career with 660 home runs, third most in big league history (behind Hank Aaron & Babe Ruth) at the time of his retirement.

1954 - Willie Mays made "The Catch" during the 1954 World Series. An iconic moment in World Series history where Mays made an over-the-shoulder running grab in deep center of the Polo Grounds of a long drive off the bat of Vic Wertz during the eighth inning of Game 1.

1960s - Willie Mays, on January 17, 1970, was named by The Sporting News the Player of the Decade, the best ballplayers during the entire decade of the 1960s!

1971 - Willie Mays homered in the first four consecutive games of the 1971 season, setting a new record for most games with a home run from the start of a season. Twenty-seven years later the mark was finally tied, but not beaten. Do you remember who that slugger was? [Answer]

1979 - Willie Mays was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, on his first ballot, with 94.7% of the votes. New York Daily News columnist Dick Young wrote about the 23 votes who chose not to enshrine Mays, "If Jesus Christ were to show up with his old baseball glove, some guys wouldn't vote for him. He dropped the cross three times, didn't he?"

2007 - Willie Mays was selected as one-of-three outfielders on the Rawlings All-Time Gold Glove Team. In August 2007, during the 50th anniversary of the Gold Glove Awards, the best defensive players in baseball history were announced and the Say Hey Kid won the highest percentage of votes amongst every outfielder! [Full List]

2015 - Willie Mays received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2015. The highest civilian award in the United States had previously been bestowed to only eleven big league ballplayers!

Willie Mays | National Baseball Hall of Fame Plaque | Class of 1979 (HOF)

The Say Hey Kid only won a single batting title, when he hit .345 in 1954, but that same year he also led the National League in slugging percentage (which he led five times), on base percentage (which he led five times) and triples (which he led three times). The following season, Mays won his first home run championship (his first of four), led the league in total bases (which he did three times) and extra base hits (which he did two times). These type of numbers / leaderboard appearances continued on across his career prompting Hall of Famer Leo Durocher &mdash Mays first skipper in the big leagues &mdash to say in Nice Guys Finish Last (Chicago Press, 09/15/2009, Page 385), "If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases, and performed a miracle in the field every day, I'd still look you right in the eye and tell you that Willie was better. He could do the five things you have to do to be a superstar: hit, hit with power, run, throw and field. And he had the other magic ingredient that turns a superstar into a super-superstar. Charisma."

New York Giants years

Mays started his career hitless in his first 12 at bats.On his 13th at bat he hit a homer over the left field roof of the Polo Grounds off of a Warren Spahn fastball (but still started 1 for 26) [4]. From then on, Mays' steadily improved his hitting. Although his .274 average, 68 RBI and 20 homers (in 121 games) would be among the lowest of his career, he still won the 1951 Rookie of the Year Award. During the Giants' amazing comeback in August and September 1951 to overtake the Dodgers in the 1951 pennant race, Mays' fielding and great arm were often instrumental to several important Giant victories. Mays ended the regular season as an on-deck batter when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard 'Round the World against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Giants met the New York Yankees in the 1951 World Series. Mays hit poorly and the Giants lost the series four games to two games. The six-game set was the only time that Mays and the aging Joe DiMaggio would play on the same field.

Mays was drafted into the U.S. Army early in the 1952 season. As a result of the conflict in Korea, he missed most of 1952 and all of the 1953 season. This was despite the fact that he did not see any combat action.

'Say Hey' returned in 1954. He won his only batting title that year and also became the first big leaguer to hit 30 home runs before the All-Star break (31). The race for the title was so close that Mays did not secure the crown until the last day of the season. Mays hit .345 with 41 home runs and the Giants went on to win the National League pennant and the World Series. Although the Giants swept the Cleveland Indians, the series is remembered most for a single Mays moment.

The Catch: Willie Mays hauls in Vic Wertz's drive at the warning track in the 1954 World Series

In Game 1, Cleveland's Vic Wertz hit a long drive to deep center field. Mays was able to catch the ball over his shoulder. The event has become noted in baseball history and is sometime referred to as The Catch. The Giants, on the heels of the play, kept the score tied at 2-2 in the 8th inning. The Giants finally won the game 5-2, on Dusty Rhodes' 3-run pinch-hit home run off Bob Lemon in the bottom of the 10th inning.

'The Catch' is not to be confused with the "basket catch." Mays also popularized the later by fielding fly balls with a double-handed scoop around the belt buckle.

After the 1954 season, Mays won the National League Most Valuable Player Award and the Hickok Belt as top professional athlete of the year.

Mays went on to perform at a high level each of the last three years the Giants were in New York City. In 1957, he won the first of twelve consecutive Gold Glove Awards. At the same time, Mays continued to finish in the NL's top 5 in a variety of offensive categories.

Player News

Register Batting
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195019-4.2TrentonISLGBNYG81 306 1082084 .353 .510 156
195120-7.4MinneapolisAAAAANYG3516414938711838305 1410.477.524.7991.323119710
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197241 2 TeamsNLMajNYM-SFG883092443561111822456048.250.400.402.8029891406
Majors (23 seasons) Majors 3005125411092420683293525141660190933810314681526.301.384.557.9406080251451391214
Minors (2 seasons) Minors 11647045538179381112305 1410.393 .604 275 10
All Levels (24 Seasons) 3121130111137921063472563152672193934310314821536.305 .558 6355258461391214

Willie Mays

Hall of Fame: Inducted as Player in 1979. (Voted by BBWAA on 409/432 ballots)
View Willie Mays's Page at the Baseball Hall of Fame (plaque, photos, videos).

Rookie Status: Exceeded rookie limits during 1951 season

Full Name: Willie Howard Mays

More bio, uniform, draft, salary info


Batting Finders & Advanced Stats

Fielding Finders & Advanced Stats

More Willie Mays Pages at Baseball Reference

This player does not have splits available for some years. See coverage note.

This player does not have game logs available for some years. See coverage note.

More Willie Mays Pages at Baseball Reference

Negro League player stats include league games, interleague games (against major Negro League competition), and games against select top-level independent Black Baseball teams. Player stats do not include the extensive amount of exhibitions and barnstorming games Negro League teams often played. Negro League data is not complete. Research is still ongoing and we’ll continue to publish updates as more information becomes available. More about data coverage

OTD 2004: Mike Piazza Breaks Catcher Home Run Record

On May 5, 2004, Mets catcher Mike Piazza hit home run number 352 as a catcher, breaking the all-time record held by Carlton Fisk.

The blast went 405 feet to right-center field at Shea Stadium. Piazza hit the historic home run in the first inning off Jerome Williams of the San Francisco Giants. The Mets would go on to win the game by an 8-2 score. You can see the record-setter in the video below.

The Norristown, PA native would end his career with 427 home runs over 16 seasons with the Dodgers, Marlins, Mets, Padres, and Athletics 220 of his round-trippers came in a Mets uniform.

Piazza had a career slash line of .308/.377/.545, along with a career OPS of .922 and a 143 OPS+. He was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2016, and was inducted representing the Mets.

The Mets acquired Piazza in May of 1998, in a trade with the Marlins that sent Preston Wilson and minor leaguers Ed Yarnall and Geoff Goetz to South Florida. At first, Piazza did not seem comfortable in New York, and there was widespread speculation that he would test free agency after the 1998 season. However after the season, Piazza signed a seven-year deal to remain in Flushing.

Piazza’s best full season in orange and blue came in 2000, when he swatted 38 home runs and drove in 113 runs. That year, he slashed .324/.398/.614 with an OPS+ of 155. His 1999 season was almost as good, as he hit 40 home runs and drove in 124 runs, slashing .303/.361/.575 with a 135 OPS+. An honorable mention goes to his 2001 season, 36 home runs, 94 RBIs, .300/.384/.573 with a 148 OPS+.

In addition to his All-Star selections, Piazza was the 1993 National League Rookie of the Year, and the MVP of the 1996 All-Star game. He led all National League players in oWAR in 1997 with a 9.0 mark.

Piazza’s most memorable moment as a Met came in the first game played in New York after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when he hit a home run against the Braves that gave the Mets an eventual come-from-behind victory. Mike will be in New York on September 11 this year to commemorate for the twentieth anniversary of those events.

The Hall of Fame catcher, whose number 31 was retired by the Mets in 2016, remains active with the Mets in retirement, attending spring training as an instructor. He was set to manage team Italy in the 2020 World Baseball Classic, but the event was canceled because of the pandemic.

Here’s a Metsmerized hat tip to an all-time great Met, Mike Piazza.

Today in Baseball History: Willie Mays hits four homers in one game

The other day I recorded a podcast with my . friend Paul Francis Sullivan. It was mostly about the cliches scene in “Bull Durham.” It hasn’t aired yet, but when it does, I’ll link it. The conversation began, however, with a reference to the copy of “Baseball America” Crash Davis was reading on the bus when Nuke comes over to him to learn about how to talk to the press.

The magazine had Mark Whiten on the cover. At the time he was a Blue Jays prospect and, as the movie was being filmed in the fall of 1987, Whiten had just completed his first season in A-ball, having hit 15 homers for the Myrtle Beach Blue Jays in the Sally League. Paul mentioned it with an off-hand comment about how, “no one remembers Mark Whiten” or something to that effect.

I remember Whiten because late in the 1993 season, while playing for the Cardinals, he hit four homers and drove in 12 runs in the second game of a doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds. It was big talk among baseball fans at Ohio State, where I was a student, because Whiten had been on the Indians the season before and was traded to St. Louis in March. A lot of my friends were bummed, thinking that Cleveland let a good one get away. After a year of Wayne Kirby, Manny Ramirez would take over in right field, so it ended up being just fine, but every baseball fan in Ohio from that time still has at least some memory of Hard Hittin’ Mark Whiten. Either because of that four-homer game or because he ended his career back in Cleveland doing, well, not much of anything.

Paul took the little bit of us talking about Mark Whiten and the four-homer club out and put it in his baseball podcast, which went live yesterday. That talk centered around the most obscure players in the four-homers-in-one-game club, which is a title to which Whiten has a pretty strong claim. But it comes up again today because, on this day in 1961 the most famous member of the four-homers-in-one-game club punched his membership ticket: Willie Mays.

Mays and the Giants were in the middle of a 12-game road trip, playing against the Braves in Milwaukee. Mays was in a bit of a slump by his standards entering the game, having gone 0-for-8 in his previous two games and not having hit a home run for 12 days. Indeed, as the last day of April began, Mays had only two homers in all.

Maybe part of that was him still adjusting to life on the west coast. Mays hit 41 homers in his MVP 1954 season and then hit 51 dingers the following year. In his last two seasons in the Polo Grounds in New York he hit 36 and 35 round-trippers, respectively. But in two of his three seasons in San Francisco he hadn’t managed 30 homers and now, here he was again, on a lower-than-Maysian pace. The Giants played in Seals Stadium those first two years in California and that park slightly favored pitchers. Candlestick Park debuted in 1960 and it was more of a pronounced pitchers park in 1960, when Mays hit 29 bombs. Mays was still an MVP-caliber player, obviously, finishing 2nd, 6th, and 3rd in the balloting in those three years, but a few of his homers had turned to doubles since the Giants moved to San Francisco and it seemed like it was happening again in 1961.

Being in Milwaukee that afternoon certainly cured what ailed him. Well, almost all that ailed him. Mays would say later that, the night before, he had eaten something that didn’t agree with him and that he was still feeling nauseous as the next day’s game with the Braves got underway.

It didn’t affect his batting, though: he hit a solo home run in the first inning off of Braves starter Lew Burdette. He then hit a two-run shot off of Burdette in the third. Mays’ three-run homer in the sixth came off of reliever Seth Moreland and then he smacked a two-run shot in the eighth off of Don McMahon. Mays was in the on-deck circle when the Giants’ half of the ninth inning came to an end. In all it was an 8-RBI day with 16 total bases for the Say Hey Kid.

It’s probably not accurate to say that Mays’ four-homer game on April 30 put him back on his old power track in and of itself, because Mays would hit only four homers in the entire month of May. He’d smack ten in June and nine in July, however, and would finish 1961 with 40 home runs. He’d hit 49 in 1962 and follow that up with 38, 47, 52, and 37 before his power began to decline as he entered his late 30s. As the 1960s wore on it was Mays, and not Hank Aaron, who everyone considered the serious challenger to Babe Ruth. He’d fall off that pace near the end as Aaron found new life and new power in the early 1970s, but Mays’ 660 career homers would keep him in third place on the all-time list until he was surpassed by Barry Bonds in April of 2004. He still ranks fifth behind Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, and Alex Rodriguez.

As for the other four-homer-in-one-game guys? Most are pretty dang famous. Some are a little closer to the Hard Hittin’ Mark Whiten side of the scale. But here they are:

  • Bobby Lowe: May 30, 1894
  • Ed Delahanty: July 13, 1896
  • Lou Gehrig: June 30, 1932
  • Chuck Klein: July 10, 1936
  • Pat Seerey: July 18, 1948
  • Gil Hodges: August 31, 1950
  • Joe Adcock: July 31, 1954
  • Rocky Colavito: June 10, 1959
  • Mike Schmidt: April 17, 1976
  • Bob Horner: July 6, 1986
  • Mark Whiten: September 7, 1993
  • Mike Cameron: May 2, 2002
  • Shawn Green: May 23, 2002
  • Carlos Delgado: September 25, 2003
  • Josh Hamilton: May 8, 2012 : June 6, 2017
  • J. D. Martinez: September 4, 2017

Whiten’s 12 RBI is still the most for all the four-homer guys. Indeed, he holds the all-time record for most RBI in a game, tied with Jim Bottomly of the St. Louis Cardinals who, on September 16, 1924, drove in 12 via a grand slam, a two-run homer, two two-run singles, a one-run single, and an RBI double.

Shawn Green hit a double and a single along with his four home runs to give him 19 total bases, which is a single-game record.

Mike Cameron’s four-homer game was the only one to feature four solo shots. Delgado’s is the only one in which the player only had four plate appearances. Ed Delahanty’s and Bob Horner’s feats were the only times a guy hit four homers in a game and his team lost. Not that that would be the most dubious thing that would ever happen to Ed Delahanty.

Also today in baseball history:

1946: Making his 13th start after coming back to baseball following four years in the Navy, Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians hurls his second career no-hitter, beating the New York Yankees 1-0.

1967: Steve Barber and Stu Miller of the Baltimore Orioles combine on a no-hitter of the Detroit Tigers. Barber pitched eight and two-thirds innings of it and Miller pitched one-third of an inning. The Tigers won, however, 2-1, thanks to Barber’s wildness. Leading 1-0, he walked the first two batters in the ninth, then retired the next two hitters before throwing a wild pitch that let the tying run score. After walking one more batter he was lifted for Miller, who was on the mound when the Tigers scored the go-ahead run on an error. In all, Barber walked 10, hit two batters, threw that wild pitch and committed a throwing error of his own.

1970: Cubs outfielder Billy Williams becomes the first player in N.L. history to play 1,000 consecutive games. He’d be the National League Iron Man until Steve Garvey passed him several years later.

1986: One day after striking out 20 times against Roger Clemens, the Mariners strike out 16 more times in a 9-4 loss to the Red Sox, setting a major league record of 36 strikeouts in two consecutive games.

1988 – The Mets beat the Reds 6-5, thanks in part to a delayed call by first base umpire Dave Pallone which provoked Reds manager Pete Rose to shove Pallone twice. Rose says he did it in response to Pallone poking Rose in the cheek on purpose. Pallone said it was an accident. Rose would be fined $10,000 and would receive a 30-day suspension. It would be the worst thing to happen to him in baseball for, like, a year.


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The 50th Anniversary of The Say Hey Kid’s 600th Home Run

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Willie Mays’s 600th home run. I posted this a day late.

Things were much different 50 years ago on this date in 1969! Currently, the Giants are playing out the string in Bruce Bochy’s final week as their manager, while the young talented Braves are heading to the postseason. Back in 1969 these same two teams were locked in a tense fight to capture the first National League West Division title.

In the midst of that heart throbbing stretch run, the incomparable Willie Mays became the second player in baseball history to hit 600 home runs! It took place in San Diego Municipal Stadium, (subsequently Jack Murphy Stadium), in the inaugural year of the San Diego Padres. The Say Hey Kid hit this milestone homer off rookie righthander Mike Corkins.

It was a clutch home run in a 2-2 tie game in the top of the seventh inning, in a game the Giants desperately needed. Mays was not expected to play in the contest because of an injured left leg. But, with the Giants needing to win to maintain their slim ½ game lead over Atlanta, the Giants captain answered new manager Clyde King’s call. Willie was pinch-hitting for newly called up rookie George Foster. Foster had entered the game in the sixth as a defensive replacement, for Jim Ray Hart. “We didn’t want to put too much pressure on the ‘kid'”, Mays said afterwards.

Ron Hunt had led off the inning with a single and was on first as Mays strode to the plate. Willie laced the first pitch from Corkins, a fast ball, in a high arc over the left center 370 feet marker. The ball ended up an estimated 391 feet from home plate.

Willie Mays blasting a pitch from Mikr Corkins for his 600th home run in San Diego on September 22, 1969.

The stands where baseball touched down were empty, except for 15 year-old Al Forlander of Carlsbad, who retrieved the historic baseball. But, in a sign of the times, Padres ushers wrestled the ball away from the teenager and gave it to third base coach Ozzie Virgil. “It was real exciting. But they got it away from me and gave me another ball.”, young Forlander said.

As Willie limped slowly around the bags all the Giants poured out of the dugout to greet the great man at the plate. The one hundred or so Giants fans that had made the journey to San Diego whooped it up behind the Giants dugout. The sparse crowd of 4,779 stood and cheered wildly for five minutes breaking into a, “We want Willie! We want Willie!”, chant towards the end until Mays emerged from the dugout and tipped his cap.

Between innings former MLB player Frank Torre, representing Willie’s bat manufacturer the Adirondack Bat Company, presented Mays a huge trophy at home plate to commemorate his achievement. Later, Mays received from his bat company one share of Adirondack stock for every 391 feet his homer travelled plus a sports car.

The Giants won by that 4-2 score to maintain their narrowest of margins over the Braves. After the game Mays remarked, “That was my biggest thrill, seeing my teammates there at the plate. There was no one on the bench. I love pressure and like to go up there when we have to get a hit. But, I’ve been thinking long ball for two or three weeks this was on my mind and when you think about hitting home runs you usually don’t hit them.” He added, “When I started in this game I had no idea I’d ever hit 600 home runs. I don’t even like records. But, I have to be thrilled with this one and I don’t think I should quit right now.”

Mays indicated that he probably will not last long enough to break Babe Ruth’s home run record of 714, which in 1969 was the record. “There are so many young people coming around,” Willie added, “that I’m just happy to be maybe one of four or five who will hit 600.”

Mays was correct, he would finish his first-ballot Hall of Fame career after the 1973 season with 660 home runs. The 1969 Giants would lose the next two games to the expansion Padres in heartbreaking fashion and five of their last eight games to finish three behind the Braves for the first NL West title.

Watching my idol’s 600th home run was bittersweet for me personally because of the circumstances in which I witnessed it. I saw this amazing milestone home run on TV in my father’s hospital room. He had gone into the hospital two weeks before for “routine” prostate surgery. Something went horribly wrong during the surgery and he wound up paralyzed from the chest down and would never walk again!

However, Willie’s home run did bring a smile to my father’s lips for the first time in weeks. He reminisced about taking me to my first MLB game with my grandfather at Seals Stadium in April 1958. It was at that game that I fell in love with Willie and baseball, as described in the preface of my book, Falling in Love With Baseball (which you can buy HERE).

July 23, 1969: Willie McCovey’s two homers power National League to All-Star win

Nearly 50 years before Bryce Harper won the 2018 Home Run Derby2in front of the hometown fans at Nationals Park, another generation of Washingtonian baseball fans at the 1969 All-Star Game gathered at RFK Stadium to watch the feats of baseball’s greats, including 19 future Hall of Famers.3The All-Star Game is a celebration of baseball history, its past heroes and its current stars. Invariably, the thunderous ovations and the flow of emotions are at their peak when players from the host team are introduced and honored.4

Change abounded in the game and elsewhere: The raw memory of the 1968 assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the rioting in American cities, including Washington, DC, were still fresh in our minds. In 1969, the Montréal Expos and San Diego Padres were new franchises in the National League and the Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Pilots debuted in the American League. Each league was divided into two divisions, permanently altering postseason play and the path to the World Series.

The year also marked the centennial of professional baseball, 100 years since the Cincinnati Red Stockings began paying salaries to their players. Sports-management executive and author Marty Appel noted that Major League Baseball was just embracing serious marketing of the game under new Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, including an All-Star Game in the nation’s capital complete with a US postage stamp.5The logo designed to be worn on all uniform sleeves remains as the MLB logo of today.

What better way to connect the generations of baseball fans — and create some debate along the way — than by greatest-player-ever polls across the country, announced in conjunction with the 1969 All-Star Game.The greatest all-time team included Lou Gehrig at first, Roger Hornsby at second, Honus Wagner at short, Pie Traynor at third, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Joe DiMaggio in the outfield, Mickey Cochrane catching, Walter Johnson as the right-handed pitcher, and Lefty Grove as the left-handed pitcher. John McGraw was the manager. A second poll identified the greatest living players: George Sisler and Stan Musial (tied) at first, Charlie Gehringer at second, Joe Cronin at short, Traynor at third, DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Willie Mays in the outfield, Bill Dickey catching, Bob Feller right-handed pitcher, Grove left-handed pitcher, and Casey Stengel, manager. Mays was the only player still active at the time.6

The game was scheduled for Tuesday night, July 22, but it rained and rained and rained, flash thunderstorms bringing Washington more than three inches of rain in less than one hour. The game was postponed until Wednesday afternoon. Rain began to fall 90 minutes before the first pitch and the infield was covered, but thankfully the rain stopped and the All-Star Game was ready to begin, even though the on-the-field introduction of the greatest living players had to be canceled.

There were two significant changes to the “starting lineups.” President Richard M. Nixon had headed out for 12 days of worldwide diplomacy, so Vice President Spiro T. Agnew threw out two first pitches, one to NL catcher Johnny Bench and the other to AL catcher Bill Freehan.7Mel Stottlemyre (14-7, 2.61 ERA, 13 complete games) started for the American League in place of Denny McLain (14-5, 2.50 ERA, eight complete games). McLain was back in Detroit for a three-hour dental appointment and didn’t arrive at the ballpark until the second inning.8 Cardinals pitcher Steve Carlton (12-5, 1.65 ERA, six complete games) was honored with the start for the National League.

The National League jumped out early against Stottlemyre with a little of everything. Matty Alou hit Stottlemyre’s first pitch to left-center for a leadoff single, advancing to second base on a groundout and to third on a wild pitch. Hometown hero Frank Howard had been introduced moments earlier to a sustained standing ovation.9Unfortunately, he played Hank Aaron’s pop fly to left with substantial uncertainty and the error gave the NL an early 1-0 lead.10 In the top of the second, Cleon Jones hit another leadoff first pitch for a single. When Johnny Bench powered a two-run home run into the mezzanine in left field, the National League had a 3-0 lead at about the time that McLain showed up in the dugout. Minutes later, Howard atoned for his error by hitting a prodigious solo home run to the center-field mezzanine, 440 feet away.11 Local radio/television sports-talk host Phil Wood, attending the game as a fan, noted, “The place went nuts, obviously. His eyes were glistening as he rounded third.”12 All was forgiven.

Unfortunately for the locals, any faint hopes of the American League to end a six-game losing streak were dashed by the NL stars in the top of the third inning against Blue Moon Odom. Aaron singled to left on Odom’s first pitch, soon followed by Willie McCovey’s two-run, 400-foot home run off the center-field scoreboard for a 5-1 lead. One out later, Cleon Jones reached on Rico Petrocelli’s boot of a grounder and Johnny Bench singled him to third. When Felix Millan doubled down the left-field line, scoring two, and Steve Carlton doubled into the left-center alley scoring Millan, Odom was done for the day. Darold Knowles retired the last two batters in the inning but the damage was done and the AL trailed 8-1.

Bill Freehan opened the bottom of the third with a home run off Carlton and the left-field mezzanine. So when McLain entered the game in the fourth inning, dental work and all, the score was 8-2. He managed to strike out Aaron just before McCovey lined his second home run in consecutive innings over the right-field fence. McCovey joined Arky Vaughan, Ted Williams, and Al Rosen in hitting two home runs the same day in the 40 All-Star games.13

Bob Gibson replaced Carlton in the bottom of the fourth. The AL scored on a walk to Howard and singles by Sal Bando and Freehan to make the score 9-3. The crowd of 45,259 had just seen the teams hit five home runs so it was hard to believe that the last five innings would be scoreless. In fact, Dave McNally, Sam McDowell, and Ray Culp limited the National Leaguers to one hit and Bill Singer, Jerry Koosman, Larry Dierker, and Phil Niekro allowed only two hits to the American Leaguers. The National League’s All-Star Game record improved to 22-17-1.

Willie McCovey’s two home runs made him the obvious choice for the game’s most valuable player. Johnny Bench, a 21-year-old in his second All-Star Game, was a worthy runner-up with a home run, single, and walk. And what about the hometown hero, Frank Howard? He was clearly moved by the reception he received before the game and the thrill of hitting another booming home run in RFK Stadium. He made no excuses about committing that first-inning error. “I just butchered it,” Howard said. “It wasn’t the field, it wasn’t the sun. It was my play all the way and I butchered it.”14 SABR biographer Mark Armour called him a gentle and humble man.15 He was that … and he could also hit booming home runs!

Some baseball feats can mark a fan’s memory of a day at the ballpark for a lifetime. The ninth inning leading to a no-hitter, the exhilaration of a walk-off home run or even the rare occasion of a triple play become indelible. Moments in history can have that same effect. Three days before this All-Star Game, the world watched on television as Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. At the same time, the New York Mets reached the All-Star break as credible pennant contenders, having beaten the first-place Chicago Cubs in two three-game series in early July. As New York Times sportswriter and author Leonard Koppett observed, “If that moon walk didn’t suggest that anything was possible, what could?”16 The rest is part of baseball history.17

Author’s note

The Sporting News was an invaluable resource for the author’s research. Its print coverage noted that seven new All-Star Game records were set and 17 records were tied.18The author was left to smile curiously while examining the list of club batting records that were tied.

Fewest three-base hits, game, one club and both clubs — 0

Fewest sacrifice hits, game, one club and both clubs — 0

Fewest stolen bases, game, one club and both clubs — 0

Fewest hit by pitcher, game, one club and both clubs — 0

We can only draw one conclusion. Some baseball records will never be broken!

1Shirley Povich, “This Morning…,” Washington Post, July 24, 1969: C1.

2Steven C. Weiner, “ July 17, 2018: American League Wins Home Run-Happy All-Star Game in Extra Innings,” SABR Baseball Games Project. The first Home Run Derby was held in 1985 at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis and was won by Cincinnati’s Dave Parker with six home runs.

3“Washington, DC and the All-Star Game,” Washington Nationals 2018 Media Guide, 284. Those future Hall of Famers in the 1969 game were Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Johnny Bench, Rod Carew, Steve Carlton, Roberto Clemente, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, Harmon Killebrew, Juan Marichal, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Phil Niekro, Tony Perez, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Ron Santo, Tom Seaver,and Carl Yastrzemski.

4For example, when an iconic player of hometown fame is honored, the atmosphere is electric. Such was the case in 1999 at Fenway Park when that honor was bestowed upon Ted Williams (Dan Shaughnessy, “Ted Williams the Star as All-Stars Come to Fenway Park, BostonGlobe.com, July 14, 1999, accessed December 30, 2018, bostonglobe.com/sports/1999/07/14/ted-williams-star-baseball-showcase/h202nQNc3jEy6XU9NtEGKI/story.html).

5Marty Appel, “National Pastime Museum: Baseball’s Centennial ‘Greatest Players Ever Poll’ Poll, AppelPR.com, accessed December 30, 2018, appelpr.com/?page_id=466.

7Leonard Koppett, “Agnew Pitches Twice in Relief,” New York Times, July 24, 1969: 28.

8Joseph Durso, “5 Clouts Are Hit in All-Star Game,” New York Times, July 24, 1969: 28.

9Merrell Whittlesey, “It’s Cakewalk — Not Moonwalk — for N.L. Stars,” The Sporting News, August 9, 1969: 7. “The ovation for Hondo when he was introduced was a wonderful tribute, warm and lasting and sincere, and he was touched as he stood head down, pawing the ground.”

12David Driver, “Howard Had Memorable All-Star Moment in 1969 at RFK Stadium,” Washington Times, July 12, 2018, washingtontimes.com/news/2018/jul/12/frank-howard-had-memorable-all-star-moment-1969/.

13Durso. The first All-Star Game was played on July 6, 1933, at Comiskey Park in Chicago. No game was played in 1945 due to World War II and two games were played in each season from 1959 to 1962.

14“Howard Takes Blame,” The Sporting News, August 9, 1969: 8.

15Mark Armour, “Frank Howard,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, sabr.org/bioproj/person/789d55a7.

16Leonard Koppett, Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004 edition), 344.

17The Mets swept the Atlanta Braves in three games to win the very first National League Championship Series. They became 1969 champions by winning their very first World Series in five games over the Baltimore Orioles.

Watch the video: Willie Mays Breaks NL Home Run Record


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