HomeTeamsMetsThe Last Hit In The Amazing Career Of Willie Mays

The Last Hit In The Amazing Career Of Willie Mays

As a young Mets fan in 1972, when Willie Mays was acquired by the Mets it was clear that the Mets were not getting an all-time-great player in the prime of his career. When he was traded, Willie Mays was two weeks from turning 41, and was batting .184 for the San Francisco Giants.

Despite being a player over 40 years old at a time when few players did that, there was plenty of reason for excitement in Queens. Bringing home the Say Hey kid three years after a World Championship seemed fitting for a team that once again had World Series championship aspirations. 

The prior year (1971), Mays led baseball drawing 112 walks and putting up a league leading .425 OBA. His next highest career base-on-balls total was 82. The Giants were not very good and pitching around Willie Mays was always a smart strategy. Although Willie had ‘only’ hit 22 home runs (in 136 games), he was still a dangerous hitter. As a fielder who had lost speed with age, Mays was a league-average fielder the final year of his career after being slightly below average the five seasons prior. There were exactly zero 35+ year old centerfielders in baseball in the 1970’s and it’s something that rarely if ever happens today.

Versus the Mets in his 22-year career, Willie Mays slashed .298/.369/.580 not far from his career .301/.384/.557. Mays beat up the Mets just as much as any other National League team. Mets fans knew what Willie Mays had done and could do.

The 1972 MLB season began with the first players’ strike which lasted 12 days. It was a weird season in which the Tigers won the AL East by one-half game over the Red Sox because they played one more game (and won it). That should not have happened then and could not happen today. The Mets had an outfield of former batting champ Cleon Jones in left field, fan favorite Tommie Agee in centerfield, and Rusty Staub in right field.  Agee only played 114 games due to injury that season so when the Giants decided to cut costs and ship out Willie Mays, Mets owner Joan Payson jumped at the chance to acquire him. Mays played 41 games for the Mets mostly in center field, but he also played 84 innings at first base, something he had also done for the Giants. 

The Mets were good in 1972, finishing 83-73 under new manager Yogi Berra who had stepped in after Gil Hodges’ untimely passing during spring training. That 1972 Mets team scored 538 runs and allowed 578 for an expected win-loss total of 72-84. Yogi Berra never gets enough credit for being a good manager whether that be for the Yankees or Mets. It’s interesting to think about Yogi Berra managing Willie Mays after their many on-field battles in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The 1973 Mets famously came from last place in the NL East to finish first with an 82-73 record – a second consecutive season in which the Mets did not play 162 games. Agee had been sent to Houston and Mays played in 66 games for the Mets, 45 in center field and 17 games at first base. He slashed .211/.303/.244 with an OPS+ of 81, which was just more than half of his career OPS+ average of 155. Willie lost his centerfield job to 24-year-old Don Hahn, a player only diehard Mets fans will remember. Everyone including Willie knew that his career was at its end.

After vanquishing the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS, (highlighted by Pete Rose and the late Bud Harrelson’s fisticuffs at 2nd base in game three at Shea Stadium), Mays and the Mets met the heavily favored and defending champion Athletics in the World Series.

After A’s lefty Ken Holzman outdueled Mets lefty Jon Matlack in game one, in game two the Mets fumbled away a 6-3 lead and found themselves facing future Hall-of-Fame closer Rollie Fingers in the 12th inning of a 6-6 tie. With two outs and two runners in scoring position, the final hit Willie Mays of Mays’ illustrious career was a ground ball single up the middle off a 3-1 pitch, which drove in the go-ahead run in a game the Mets would win 10-7. Appropriately that hit was part of a winning effort and it justly occurred across the San Francisco Bay where Willie had played the bulk of his career.

Had Mays not come through in the clutch, the Mets may well have been swept by the powerful A’s. Instead, the teams played 5 more games, the A’s themselves coming back from being 3-2 down to win games six and seven in Oakland.

Unknown to most Met fans at the time, owner Payson had assured Willie that his number 24 would one day be retired by the Mets. If Citi Field is an homage to the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ebbets Field, then the Mets retiring Willie Mays number is an homage to the New York Giants. The Mets colors were created from those two departed franchises, and Willie Mays finishing his career with an important hit at a critical moment will forever connect New York baseball past, present, and future.

At the time, it seemed a little bit weird that the Mets would retire a number for a player who played only 135 games for the team. Time has made that feeling fade away and having number 24 among the Mets retired numbers is perfect.

Mark Kolier
Mark Kolierhttps://mlbreport.com/
Mark Kolier along with his son Gordon co-hosts a baseball podcast called ‘Almost Cooperstown’. He also has written baseball-related articles that can be accessed on Medium.com, Substack.com and now MLBReport.com.


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