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by Harold Friend
Howard Jackson was an avid New York Giants fan.
Willie Mays is his favorite player, and Howard is easily upset when it is claimed that Mickey Mantle was better than Willie. He merely refers to the great year of 1954.
Willie Mays Tore the National League Apart
Mickey Mantle had a good 1954 season, but after missing most of the 1952 season and all of the 1953 season, Willie Mays returned from defending freedom as a member of armed forces and tore the National League apart.
Willie batted .345 to win the National League batting title. Mickey Mantle hit a respectable .300.
Willie blasted 41 home runs (well, maybe not all of his home runs were "blasted"). Mickey Mantle hit 27 home runs.
Willie batted in 110 runs. Mantle had 102 RBIs. Willie led the majors in slugging average and easily won the MVP award. Mantle finished 15th in the voting.
Willie Mays helped lead the New York Giants to 97 wins and the pennant in 1954, while Mickey Mantle helped the Yankees to 103 wins, which put them a distant second to the Cleveland Indians. Who said baseball has to be fair?
Willie Mays: Superstar
Nineteen fifty four marked the arrival of Willie Mays as a super star. Ted Williams was considered baseball's best hitter, and Stan Musial was the greatest all-around player, but Willie's 1954 performance made people think. Those with an open mind couldn't help but conclude that Willie Mays was the game's greatest player.
The Giants had finished fifth in 1953, 35 games behind Brooklyn. Willie provided the impetus in the field and at bat, while Johnny Antonelli, Marv Grissom, and Hoyt Wilhelm provided the pitching.
Great Play the Entire Season
Making great plays in the outfield, day after day, getting clutch hits almost whenever they were needed, and providing an enthusiasm the laconic Mickey Mantle couldn't even identify, Willie Mays made the New York Giants the best team in baseball.
Until July, Willie seemed to be threatening Babe Ruth's single season home record, which Roger Maris broke in 1961, and which still stands today, but the Say-Hey Kid's home run hitting tailed off the second half of the season. Ted Kluszewski led the league with 49, and only Gil Hodges, with 42, topped Willie's 41 home runs.
Willie Mays played his usual great defense in 1954, and topped it off with the legendary catch of a Vic Wertz drive to deep center field in the first game of the World Series. The Giants won the game in the 10th inning when pinch hitter Dusty Rhodes hit a fly ball that traveled about 259 feet down the right field foul line for a three run home run. The Giants swept the Indians.
Willie Joins the Great Home Run Hitters
The following season, Mickey Mantle started to show his greatness. He led the American League with 37 home runs, but Willie did what few had done before him, and the few included Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Hack Wilson, Ralph Kiner, and Johnny Mize. Willie led the National League with 51 home runs.
Mickey Mantle Becomes Mickey Mantle
Mickey Mantle had his breakout season in 1956, winning baseball's Triple Crown, but Willie also had a pretty good year. Willie hit only .296, but he hit 36 home runs and batted in 84 for a Giants' team that finished sixth and averaged a league-low of 3.51 runs a game.
Willie Was Better
Both Willie and Mantle could steal bases, but Willie had a lot steals. He led the National League in stolen bases from 1956-1959. His career high was 40, which Willie accomplished in 1956. Mickey was a faster runner, but Willie was a better runner.
Giants' fans claimed Willie was New York's premier center fielder. The truth was that New York had three premier center fielders in Willie, Duke Snider, and Mantle. Although Snider had a great 1954 season, batting .341, with 40 home runs, he was no longer in Mays' class after that season.
Mickey Mantle had some great seasons, but he also had some merely good seasons. Willie was more consistent throughout his career, and finished with superior statistics to Mantle. Willie's lifetime batting average is over .300.
On Base Average
To Bill James and his disciples, on base average is more important than batting average. One result has been that Mantle has gained in stature because he was walked a lot. Mickey's .421 on base average easily tops Willie's .384, but who would you want at the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and your team trailing by a run?
What upsets me and most fans who know that Willie was better than Mantle is the claim that Mantle was injured often, and that if he hadn't been hurt so much, there would have been more years similar to his 1956 season. Fine. But that's not what happened. What happened was that when they finished their careers, Willie Mays was ranked ahead of Mickey Mantle. Why? Because Willie Mays was the better player, that's why.