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:
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:
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.