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Willie Mays: Marking His Career In International Baseball

 Matt Tallarini - World Baseball Network  |    Jun 20th, 2024 2:45pm EDT

From the sandlots in Birmingham, Ala., to the Major Leagues, Willie Mays impacted the landscape of baseball from the Negro Leagues and the Caribbean Winter Leagues before ever stepping on a Major League field.  

Willie Mays was inducted into Cooperstown in 1979. Though international baseball stats do not fill the playing resume for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the development and landscape of the talent in the winter leagues in Latin America have played a signature role for players and legends who have paved their way in the sport.  

Mays was one of those players who had a significant impact, playing in Cuba and Puerto Rico in the early 1950s and on barnstorming tours in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s.  

Mays began his journey in international baseball with an opportunity to play for Alacranes del Almendares in the Cuban League during the 1950-51 winter league season. However, he was sidelined due to an ankle injury during the 1950 regular season with the New York Giants affiliate, the Class B Trenton Giants.  

He made his MLB debut on May 25, 1951, against the Philadelphia Phillies on the road at Shibe Park and did not get a hit until his 13th at-bat against Boston Braves southpaw starting pitcher Warren Spahn, where he drove a solo home run over the left-field roof of the Polo Grounds.  

Mays won the 1951 National League Rookie of the Year Award by hitting .274, with 20 home runs and 68 RBI, while playing in 121 games.  

Mays was on the on-deck circle during the 1951 one-game playoff against the Brooklyn Dodgers when New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson drove a game-winning three-run homer off of right-handed pitcher Ralph Branca over the left field wall at the Polo Grounds to win 2-1 and the National League pennant to set a date with the 1951 American League champion New York Yankees in the World Series.  

During the 1952 regular season, Mays played in 34 games and batted .236 with four home runs before being drafted to the United States Army to serve in the Korean War on May 2, reporting to Fort Eustis in Virginia.  

Mays missed the 1953 season because he was serving in the Korean War. He was discharged by the U.S. Army on March 1, 1954, before reporting to Giants’ spring training the following day.  

Mays was selected to his first All-Star team with the NL in the 1954 season and won the NL MVP after being absent for all of 1953.  

He led the Major Leagues in 1954, hitting .345 with a .667 OPS. He also led the NL with 13 triples, a 1.078 OPS, and a 175 OPS+ while towering 41 home runs and 110 RBI.  

The Westfield, Ala. native took his talents to Puerto Rico after the 1954 season to suit up for the 1954-55 winter league season with the Cangrejeros de Santurce under first-season manager Herman Franks.   

Fast-forward to the 1954-55 winter league season, the Cangrejeros de Santurce management asked the New York Giants for permission to have Mays play for the organization in the MLB offseason.  

Owner Pedrín Zorrilla built the Cangrejeros de Santurce roster for the 1954-55 season with top talent in the majors, such as Roberto Clemente, Bob Thurman, Buster Clarkson, and Don Zimmer that helped them carry the franchise to the 1955 Caribbean Series at Estadio Universitario in Caracas, Venezuela.  

In a Society For American Baseball Research piece, Thomas Van Hyning wrote that Franks recalled, “When Santurce arrived in Caracas, the Venezuelan media asked me what I was doing there. They said that Santurce didn’t have a chance to win with Alacranes de Almendares from Cuba in the field and that the mighty Havana team would win. I told them the only reason I brought this Santurce team there was for them to see Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente.” 

Santurce aimed for its third Caribbean Series title in 1955 after winning the 1954-55 Puerto Rico league championship.  

Before the 1955 tournament, Santurce went 47-25 in the 1954-55 regular season and beat the Criollos de Caguas in the Puerto Rico finals to earn a berth to Caracas.  

Santurce won the Caribbean Series in 1951, going 5-1, and in the 1953 tournament going 6-0.  

The Cangrejeros became the third franchise to go undefeated at the Caribbean Series before Alacranes del Almendares in 1949, with their record at 6-0 and Leones del Habana going 5-0 in 1954. 

Mays set the plateau of his career at the 1955 Caribbean Series by playing in all six games, hitting .440 with 25 at-bats, scoring six runs, smacking 11 hits, one double, two triples, two home runs, nine RBI, and a .880 slugging percentage.  

Zimmer was named the 1955 SDC MVP after playing in six games, batting .385 in 26 at-bats, ripping 10 hits, scoring six runs, two doubles, three home runs, four RBI, and having a .808 slugging percentage.  

On February 12, in the third game of the 1955 Caribbean Series, the Navegantes del Magallanes took a 1-0 lead off pitcher Sam Jones when it loaded the bases when first baseman Skinner grounded into a double play in the top of the first inning.  

In the bottom of the first inning, Clemente cracked a solo homer over the center-field wall to tie the game at 1-1.   

During the top of the second inning, catcher Güigüí Lucas scored the go-ahead run in the top of the second inning from shortstop Chico Carrasquel’s RBI single, with Navegantes del Magallanes taking the lead at 2-1.  

The Cangrejeros de Santruce did not tie the game up at two until the bottom of the first inning, when first baseman George Crowe rocked an RBI triple, scoring first baseman Buster Clarkson to tie the game up at 2-2. 

When the clock struck midnight, the game went into the eleventh inning. It was February 13 at the 1955 Caribbean Series, and the Cangrejeros de Santurce were battling it out against the 1954-55 LVBP champion, Navegantes del Magallanes.  

Mays came up to the plate looking to position the Puerto Rico winter league champions in a good spot at the event as he drove a two-run 385-foot homer to left-center field in the bottom of the 11th inning off pitcher Ramón Monzant into the Caracas night at 12:03 a.m., scoring Clemente to win their third game of the tournament and their third win, as Mays rounded third and was greeted by his teammates at home, he jumped in the air rejoiceful of excitement with helping Santurce winning their third game in Caracas at the 1955 Caribbean Series.  

The game time at Estadio Universitario was two hours and twenty-five minutes.  

Mays was 0 for 12 before playing Navegantes del Magallanes.  

Cangrejeros de Santurce starting pitcher Sam Jones allowed three hits, while throwing 10 innings against Navegantes del Magallanes. 

Mays also hit a game-winning single on February 13 against Alacranes de Almendares, scoring Roberto Clemente for their fourth win of the 1955 Caribbean Series.  

The Cangrejeros de Santurce won their third Caribbean Series championship, going 5-1 at the tournament in Caracas.  

Cangrejeros de Santurce has five Caribbean Series titles in franchise history, 16 league titles, and won the Serie Interamericana in 1962 as the host nation.  

Mays had mentors during his time in the winter leagues, even players who would become future managers and coaches at the MLB level. For example, he was teammates with Tommy Lasorda with the Alacranes de Almendares and Don Zimmer during his time in Puerto Rico.   

With the twist of MLB having the game at Rickwood on July 20, the winter leagues have been a massive component for the sport, and the amount of players that have in Latin America that have crossed over to play in the Negro Leagues and down the line into Major League Baseball.  

Mays is one of 33 players in the 3,000-hit club, but he’s the only player in MLB history with at least 3,000 hits. His lifetime average, 300-plus home runs, and 300-plus stolen bases finished above .300.  

Mays finished his MLB career playing in 2,992 games with a lifetime average of .301 in 12,497 plate appearances, dialing 3,283 hits, 523 doubles, 140 triples, swiping 338 stolen bases, being caught stealing 103 times, 1,464 walks, 1,526 strikeouts, and a .941 OPS while playing with the New York-San Francisco Giants from 1951-52, 1954-1972, and with the New York Mets from 1972-73.  

Mays played for the Birmingham Black Barons in his first year as a professional at the age of 17 and helped the organization get to the 1948 Negro League World Series and losing to the Kansas City Monarchs in five games.  

According to Baseball Reference, Mays played in 13 games with the Birmingham Black Barons and batted .233 with 48 plate appearances, ripping 10 hits, two doubles, one triple, six RBI, one stolen base, and four walks.   

With the MLB at Rickwood Field: A Tribute to the Negro Leagues game on Thursday, June 20 at 7:15 p.m. EDT on FOX between the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants will have a lot of magnitude for this historical event, with Mays playing for the Birmingham Black Barons in the 1948 season and how much the Say Hey Kid left a mark in baseball.  

The Cardinals will be the home team at the MLB at Rickwood Field: A Tribute to the Negro Leagues game against the Giants on Thursday before the three-game regular season concluding at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on June 22 at 2:15 p.m. EDT. and on June 23 at the same time.   

May’s Hall of Fame plaque will be on display at MLB at Rickwood Field: A Tribute to the Negro Leagues game on Thursday.  

Rickwood Field is in Birmingham, Ala., and is the oldest active professional baseball venue in the United States since opening its doors on August 18, 1910.  

Notebook: MLB at Rickwood Field: A Tribute to the Negro Leagues game will have the first all-African-American umpire crew in a MLB game with Adrian Johnson as the crew chief first-base ump, Alan Porter being behind the dish, C.B. Bucknor at second base and Malachi Moore third base. Jeremie Rehak will manage replays to assist from the MLB Communications Office in New York.  

Major League Baseball has employed just 11 African-American umpires in AL-NL history, with the five working at Rickwood Field on June 20. The five umpires working the game at Rickwood Field on Thursday are the only active African-American umpires in MLB.  

San Francisco Giants – Japan Barnstorming Tour: The San Francisco Giants toured Japan in 1960, 1962, and 1970 when Mays was with the organization.  

The New York Giants also toured Japan in 1953, when Mays was active in the U.S. Army.  

Oldest Living Hall of Famer: Luis Aparicio is now the oldest living Hall of Famer at 90. The Maricaibo, Venezuela native played in 18 seasons with the Chicago White Sox from 1956-62 and 1968-70, the Baltimore Orioles from 1963-67, and the Boston Red Sox from 1971-73 before being inducted into Cooperstown in 1984.   

Aparacio was a 13-time All-Star from 1958-64 and 1970-72, a World Series champion in 1966, the AL Rookie of the Year in 1956, the Gold Glove Award nine times from 1958-62, 1964, 1966, 1968, and 1970, and the AL leader in stolen bases from 1956-64.   

In his 18 seasons, Aparacio played in 2,599 games with 11,231 plate appearances, hitting .262 with 2,677 hits, 394 doubles, 92 triples, 83 home runs, 791 RBI, 506 stolen bases, 736 walks, 742 strikeouts, and a .653 OPS.  

The Say Hey Kids Accolades:  

  • 24× All-Star (1954–1973)
  • World Series champion (1954)
  • 2× NL MVP (1954, 1965)
  • NL Rookie of the Year (1951)
  • 12× Gold Glove Award (1957–1968)
  • Roberto Clemente Award (1971)
  • NL batting champion (1954)
  • 4× NL home run leader (1955, 1962, 1964, 1965)
  • 4× NL stolen base leader (1956–1959)
  • Hit four home runs in one game on April 30, 1961
  • San Francisco Giants No. 24 retired
  • New York Mets No. 24 retired
  • San Francisco Giants Wall of Fame
  • Major League Baseball All-Century Team
  • Major League Baseball All-Time Team

Photo Credit: Willie Mays of the New York Giants slides safely into the plate. (Getty Images)

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Matt Tallarini - World Baseball Network
Matthew (Matt) Tallarini is the Founder and Chief Correspondent for the World Baseball Network.