COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – It’s Opening Day of the 1971 season -- April 6, 1971 -- and 39-year-old Willie Mays is 86 home runs away from potentially catching Babe Ruth for the most celebrated title in all of sport – the home run king.
That day, Mays hits career home run No. 629. And in each of the next three games, Mays homers again – seemingly locating the fountain of youth while zeroing in on The Babe forty years ago this week.
For one of the game’s most legendary performers, it was a curtain call of sorts in a career that had no parallel.
Mays, who turned 40 on May 6 of that year, hit only 14 more round-trippers the rest of that season, but did lead the Giants to the National League West title. Meanwhile, Hank Aaron hit 47 home runs in 1971 to close within seven of Mays. Aaron passed Mays for good in 1972 and would never look back, eventually breaking the record for career home runs held by Ruth in 1974.
For Mays, 1971 proved to be his last year as a big league regular. By the time he retired after the 1973 season, Mays had accumulated a career .302 average with 3,283 hits -- including 660 home runs.
Among his other highlights included N.L. Rookie of the Year honors (1951) and two Most Valuable Player awards (’54 and ’65). He also was a fantastic center fielder, as evidenced by his 12 Gold Glove awards.
A total package of a player who used his well rounded skills to earn himself a record tying 24 All-Star Game appearances, Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1979.
“If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases and performed a miracle in the field every day I’d still look you in the eye and say Willie was better,” said Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher. “And he had that 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.”
Kevin Stiner is the spring 2011 Public Relations intern for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum