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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Willie Mays: first black superstar in pro baseball, football or basketball.

The first black MVP:
NFL: Jim Brown 1957
NBA: Bill Russell 1957

Jimmy Brown, as he was known in his playing days, was the star fullback for the Cleveland Browns. Brown won the first two NFL MVP awards starting in his rookie season of 1957. Except for 1962 Brown led in rushing every year 1957-1965.

Bill Russell was the star center of the Boston Celtics for seasons 1956-1957 through 1968-1969. Russell won the third NBA MVP in his rookie season, following Bob Pettit and Bob Cousy. Russell was player-coach in his final three seasons.

The other day I ran a query for the home run leaders through 1962. I sent it to one of my brothers who was born that year. Here are the results:

Rk Player HR AB From To Age G PA R H 2B 3B RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS Pos Tm
1 Babe Ruth 714 8399 1914 1935 19-40 2504 10622 2174 2873 506 136 2214 2062 1330 43 113 2 123 117 .342 .474 .690 1.164 971/H83 BOS-NYY-BSN
2 Jimmie Foxx 534 8134 1925 1945 17-37 2317 9676 1751 2646 458 125 1922 1452 1311 13 71 69 87 73 .325 .428 .609 1.038 *35H2/7916 PHA-BOS-CHC-PHI
3 Ted Williams 521 7706 1939 1960 20-41 2292 9788 1798 2654 525 71 1839 2021 86 709 39 5 20 197 24 17 .344 .482 .634 1.116 *79H/1 BOS
4 Mel Ott 511 9456 1926 1947 17-38 2730 11348 1859 2876 488 72 1860 1708 896 64 109 82 89 .304 .414 .533 .947 *95H8/74 NYG
5 Lou Gehrig 493 8001 1923 1939 20-36 2164 9663 1888 2721 534 163 1995 1508 790 45 106 2 102 100 .340 .447 .632 1.080 *3/H976 NYY
6 Stan Musial 463 10635 1941 1962 20-41 2902 12339 1915 3544 715 175 1893 1564 118 653 51 35 48 240 76 31 .333 .419 .564 .983 3798H/1 STL
7 Mickey Mantle 404 5896 1951 1962 19-30 1675 7199 1340 1821 256 67 1152 1251 78 1214 11 13 30 61 133 29 .309 .429 .581 1.009 *89/H6745 NYY
8 Eddie Mathews 399 6002 1952 1962 20-30 1634 7124 1138 1690 248 61 1082 1031 62 976 18 31 43 83 59 28 .282 .386 .543 .929 *5/H73 BSN-MLN
9 Duke Snider 389 6640 1947 1962 20-35 1923 7633 1199 1995 343 82 1271 893 91 1123 20 52 28 162 99 49 .300 .384 .553 .936 *89H/7 BRO-LAD
10 Gil Hodges 370 7008 1943 1962 19-38 2061 8077 1103 1916 295 48 1271 940 31 1135 25 56 50 165 63 31 .273 .359 .488 .847 *3/H275984 BRO-LAD-NYM
11 Ralph Kiner 369 5205 1946 1955 23-32 1472 6256 971 1451 216 39 1015 1011 1 749 24 9 7 126 22 2 .279 .398 .548 .946 *7/83H PIT-CHC-CLE
12 Willie Mays 368 5862 1951 1962 20-31 1534 6666 1143 1846 301 99 1076 725 106 667 24 1 51 137 240 74 .315 .390 .588 .978 *8/H NYG-SFG
13 Joe DiMaggio 361 6821 1936 1951 21-36 1736 7673 1390 2214 389 131 1537 790 369 46 14 130 30 9 .325 .398 .579 .977 *8/79H3 NYY
14 Johnny Mize 359 6443 1936 1953 23-40 1883 7370 1118 2011 367 83 1337 856 524 52 20 99 28 1 .312 .397 .562 .959 *3H/9 STL-NYG-NYY
15 Yogi Berra 350 7399 1946 1962 21-37 2052 8186 1154 2105 315 49 1402 689 47 394 51 9 43 142 29 26 .284 .348 .482 .830 *2H79/35 NYY
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/6/2016.

I was pleased to see my favorite player, Mickey Mantle, who wore number 7 for the Yankees, was also number 7 on the list. Mantle had 34 more at bats and 36 more home runs than Willie Mays, who was 12th. Two other Yankees were on the list, both Italian: Joe DiMaggio, who wore number 5 and was 5th in home runs the year he retired, and Yogi Berra.

I then noticed that Mays was the only black player. And there no players with a Spanish last name. It occurred to me that Mays was the first black superstar in any of the three U.S. team sports.

Jackie Robinson had been the first black baseball player in modern times and Robinson had been Rookie of the Year in 1947 and in 1949 led the National League (NL) in Batting Average (BA), which was a big deal back then, and been voted the first black MVP. But as good as he was, Robinson was not a superstar like Mays. In fact, if you compared them on the five traditional skills, Mays would sweep: hit, hit with power, run, field, throw.

Robinson made the NL All Star team each year 1949-1954 but he was 28 when he started and 35 in 1954, his last big season. He hit 19 home runs in 1951 and 1952, the most in any of his ten seasons. Robinson was benched for lack of hitting in game seven of the 1955 World Series, the only win by the Brooklyn Dodgers over the New York Yankees.

Mays was Rookie of the Year in 1951 at the age of 20. He played 34 games early in 1952 and hit four home runs, then was drafted into the Army and did not play major league ball again until 1954, age 23. That season Mays led the NL in 3B, BA, SLG, OPS, OPS+; he also hit 41 home runs, more than twice the two best seasons of Robinson. Mays was voted MVP and his New York Giants won their last World Series, this one over the Cleveland Indians who had won 111 games to the Yankees 103.

In 1955 Mays led in 3B, HR (51), SLG, OPS, OPS+, TB. In 1955 Dodger catcher Roy Campanella won his third MVP in five years.

Chicago Cubs shortstop Ernie Banks played his first full season in 1954, then hit 44 home runs in 1955 when Mays led the NL with 51. Banks was MVP in 1958 and 1959 with 47 and 45 home runs, the middle of four consecutive 40 home run seasons. But Mays had preceded Banks and was also leading the NL in stolen bases (SB) 1956 through 1959. Mays was better and earlier.

Hank Aaron played his first season in 1954. In 1956 he led the NL in Hits, 2B, BA. In 1957 Aaron led the NL in Runs, HR, RBI, TB and won his only MVP. In 1974 Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth in career home runs. As great as Aaron was, Mays was better ... and earlier.

Mays hit 52 home runs in 1965 and won his second MVP; he also led in SLG, OPS, OPS+, TB. Mays played through 1973 and finished with 660 home runs, 54 behind Ruth. It's not unreasonable to suggest that Mays might have hit those 54 home runs had he played full seasons in 1952 and 1953 when he was in the Army. Would Mays be remembered very differently had he passed Ruth before Aaron?

Willie Mays was alone in 1954 as the first black superstar, with no rivals in sight. By 1956 Mays had been eclipsed in his home town by Mickey Mantle who exceeded Mays's 51 homers in 1955 by one, Mays's BA in 1954 by 8 and also led in RBI, something Mays never did, for the triple crown, not only of the American League but of both leagues. Mantle was voted AL MVP in 1956 and 1957.

The Giants, despite having the great Willie Mays descended in the standings and had the lowest NL attendance in 1956 and 1957. Following the 1957 season both the Giants and Dodgers left New York and went to California. In San Francisco Mays was probably not appreciated as much as he should have been. He went through a "slump" and local fans became infatuated with Orlando Cepeda in 1958 and Willie McCovey in 1959. The New York transplant was not home grown.

It must have been difficult for Mays being the first black superstar and then also being uprooted and overlooked a bit until he reasserted himself in 1962 leading the NL with 49 home runs and 382 TB; Mays also had 141 RBI, his career high. He should have been voted MVP but that went to Dodger shortstop Maury Wills, who broke Ty Cobb's SB record of 96 with 104 SB.

Oh, here are the top 15 in home runs today:

Rk Player HR AB From To Age G PA R H 2B 3B RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS Pos Tm
1 Barry Bonds 762 9847 1986 2007 21-42 2986 12606 2227 2935 601 77 1996 2558 688 1539 106 4 91 165 514 141 .298 .444 .607 1.051 *78H/D9 PIT-SFG
2 Hank Aaron 755 12364 1954 1976 20-42 3298 13941 2174 3771 624 98 2297 1402 293 1383 32 21 121 328 240 73 .305 .374 .555 .928 *9783DH/45 MLN-ATL-MIL
3 Babe Ruth 714 8399 1914 1935 19-40 2504 10622 2174 2873 506 136 2214 2062 1330 43 113 2 123 117 .342 .474 .690 1.164 971/H83 BOS-NYY-BSN
4 Alex Rodriguez 696 10566 1994 2016 18-40 2784 12207 2021 3115 548 31 2086 1338 97 2287 176 16 111 261 329 76 .295 .380 .550 .930 65D/H3 SEA-TEX-NYY
5 Willie Mays 660 10881 1951 1973 20-42 2992 12496 2062 3283 523 140 1903 1464 192 1526 44 13 91 251 338 103 .302 .384 .557 .941 *8H/39675 NYG-SFG-NYM
6 Ken Griffey 630 9801 1989 2010 19-40 2671 11304 1662 2781 524 38 1836 1312 246 1779 81 8 102 199 184 69 .284 .370 .538 .907 *89DH/73 SEA-CIN-CHW
7 Jim Thome 612 8422 1991 2012 20-41 2543 10313 1583 2328 451 26 1699 1747 173 2548 69 1 74 165 19 20 .276 .402 .554 .956 3D5H CLE-PHI-CHW-LAD-MIN-BAL
8 Sammy Sosa 609 8813 1989 2007 20-38 2354 9896 1475 2408 379 45 1667 929 154 2306 59 17 78 202 234 107 .273 .344 .534 .878 *98D/H7 TEX-CHW-CHC-BAL
9 Albert Pujols 589 9062 2001 2016 21-36 2407 10472 1661 2805 599 16 1808 1210 300 1043 100 1 99 333 107 41 .310 .393 .574 .967 *3D75/9H64 STL-LAA
10 Frank Robinson 586 10006 1956 1976 20-40 2808 11742 1829 2943 528 72 1812 1420 218 1532 198 17 102 270 204 77 .294 .389 .537 .926 97D3H8/5 CIN-BAL-LAD-CAL-CLE
11 Mark McGwire 583 6187 1986 2001 22-37 1874 7660 1167 1626 252 6 1414 1317 150 1596 75 3 78 147 12 8 .263 .394 .588 .982 *3/HD59 OAK-STL
12 Harmon Killebrew 573 8147 1954 1975 18-39 2435 9833 1283 2086 290 24 1584 1559 160 1699 48 0 77 243 19 18 .256 .376 .509 .884 357DH/49 WSH-MIN-KCR
13 Rafael Palmeiro 569 10472 1986 2005 21-40 2831 12046 1663 3020 585 38 1835 1353 172 1348 87 15 119 232 97 40 .288 .371 .515 .885 *3D7/H98 CHC-TEX-BAL
14 Reggie Jackson 563 9864 1967 1987 21-41 2820 11418 1551 2584 463 49 1702 1375 164 2597 96 13 68 183 228 115 .262 .356 .490 .846 *9D8H/7 KCA-OAK-BAL-NYY-CAL
15 Manny Ramirez 555 8244 1993 2011 21-39 2302 9774 1544 2574 547 20 1831 1329 216 1813 109 2 90 243 38 33 .312 .411 .585 .996 79D/H CLE-BOS-LAD-CHW-TBR
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/6/2016.

Mantle dropped from 7 to 17 with 536, although in only 8,102 AB, fewer than any except McGwire. Among the top 15 the only players who are neither black nor have a Spanish last name are Ruth, Thome, McGwire and Killebrew.

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