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Today, May 6th Willie Howard Mays turns 78 years old.

For the young folks reading this blog the name may not ring a resounding bell. But those of us old timers who grew up with three teams in New York City remember Mays reverently. You didn't have to root for the Giants to realize that the irrepressible young man from near Birmingham, Alabama was something special. Barely 20 years old, he arrived in the big leagues at the end of May 1951 after hitting .477 for the Giants' farm club in Minneapolis. Such was Mays' popularity in Minnesota that Giants owner Horace Stoneham took out an ad in the newspapers apologizing to the fans for taking him away but he was desperately needed in the big city. He became one of the sparks on a Giants team that won the 1951 pennant on Bobby Thomson's famous playoff home run. (Little-known fact - Willie Mays would have been the next batter if Thomson had not homered.)

Branch Rickey had left Brooklyn for the Pittsburgh Pirates by 1951 but leave it to Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman to explain Mays' greatness in a pithy sentence: "The secret to Willie Mays' success is the frivolity in his bloodstream." I can still picture him running the bases with his cap inevitably falling off and making his basket catches at the waist. Unlike some of today's players, Mays wasn't accumulating style points but the basket catch enabled him to more quickly get the ball out of his glove. Mays was that rare "five-tool" player, a term Branch Rickey coined for athletes who could run, throw, field, hit, and hit with power. Mays could do it all and with joy and confidence in every move.

Branch Rickey used Willie Mays as an example when he tried 50 years ago to establish the Continental League. When asked whether there were enough players to fill a third major league, Rickey responded, "Not every ballplayer on the Giants is a Willie Mays. But that does not mean that Willie Mays is the only big league ballplayer on the Giants." Rickey was confident that there were enough decent ballplayers to fill eight new teams with new stars ultimately emerging. Alas, the Continental League did not have a chance to prove the point, disbanding in the summer of 1960 before a third major league game was played. The idea did influence the National Hockey League's expansion by six teams in the 1960s. More on this later in the blog season. -- Lee Lowenfish, author BRANCH RICKEY: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman

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