top of page

The Greatest

If you grew up in northern New Jersey and loved baseball, as I did, one of the great debates of the 1950s and '60s focused on the center fielders for the three local teams--the New York Yankees, New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers.

Who was the best player? Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays or Duke Snider?

For me, Snider didn't merit consideration. Very good player, but not in Mays' and Mantle's elite class.

My family watched all the Yankee games on Channel 11, sponsored by Ballantine Beer, featuring iconic broadcasters Mel Allen and Red Barber.

So, naturally, I gravitated toward Mantle.

My brother, John Cavalli, always a National League guy, was in Mays' camp.

When our family moved to the Bay Area, a few years after the Giants came West, the debate continued. My best friend, Bill Skinner, was a died-in-the-wool Mays man. We had some spirited debates.

I bring all this up, of course, because Mays passed away last Tuesday.

And now I have to come clean.

Mays was better than Mantle. In fact, he was the greatest player of all time.

Both were "five tool" players--hit for average, hit for power, fielding, throwing, and running speed. Mays had a career average of .301, Mantle .298. Mays hit 660 homers, Mantle 536 (Mays played 23 years, Mantle 18). Mantle was faster, but Mays was a superior baserunner. Mays was also a better fielder than Mantle. He was the best center fielder to ever play the game.

Mays also had a sixth tool. He was a coach on the field. As Dan Brown's excellent article in the NY Times/Athletic notes: "Mays was so many steps ahead of the other players that his managers, especially Leo Durocher and Herman Franks, let him direct traffic during games. 'I managed the field when I played,' Mays said. 'The other players played off me, like a quarterback.'"

In addition to positioning his teammates, Mays said his duties also included calling pitches from the outfield. 

Mays, unlike Mantle, played with a flair, an exhilaration, a joie de vivre. He was a great showman, an entertainer who wore a cap that was too small so it would fall off as he rounded the bases.

Tallulah Bankhead, the stage and screen actress (and Giants fan) famously said "there have only been two authentic geniuses in the world, Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare."

She added, "But darling, I think you'd better put Shakespeare first."

Millions of baseball fans might disagree.

More Mays/MantleIn 1979, Mays was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by 94.7% of the electorate. Somehow, 23 voters left Mays off their ballots.

Five years earlier, Mantle was enshrined with 88.2% of the vote. 43 voters left him off.

Interestly, the only unanimous first-ballot Hall of Famer is Yankee closer Mariano Rivera. Not Mays, Mantle or Babe Ruth? Seriously?

Less than three months after Mays was inducted in Cooperstown, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn threw him out of the game for his association with a casino, Bally’s, a highly questionable move since Mays’ duties consisted of playing golf, appearing at charity events and signing autographs.

Kuhn also banned Mantle, who had a similar casino gig. 

One of Commissioner Peter Ueberroth’s first acs as Kuhn’s successor was to reinstate the two legends in 1985.

My, how times have changed. Today, Major League Baseball has gotten in bed with gambling "partners" to the extent that virtually every commercial break in a televised MLB game features an ad encouraging fans to place bets with FanDuel, DraftKings, MGM or Caesar's.

COVID Scare: I caught COVID Friday night from a dear friend in Auburn and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I actually thought I might join Mays in the afterlife. Couldn't breathe, persistent cough, runny nose, nausea, throbbing headache. I was actually relieved to find out it was COVID. Doing better after a few days of paxlovid, thankfully.


Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

bottom of page