You don't need to talk about Willie Mays in the hypothetical in order to see his greatness. His stats tell the whole story. But you can paint the picture of an even more incredible ballplayer when you talk about some of the different "what-ifs" that pertain to his career. Consider, for instance, the time that he played in Milwaukee's County Stadium on April 30, 1961.
First at-bat? Home run to center field. Second at-bat? Home run to left field. Fourth at-bat? Home run to left field. Fifth at-bat? Home run to left-center. And that third AB that I casually skipped over should have been a home run, according to longtime broadcaster Lou Simmons.
"The wind knocked another one down," Simmons said. "Otherwise, he would have had five."
Did a gust of wind really prevent Mays from becoming the first and only player with a five-HR game? I can't say for sure. But it's a fun hypothetical to think about, as is the following: what if Mays had primarily played in a different ballpark, like some of today's stadiums? Tim Kurkjian of ESPN compiled a number of stories and thoughts from several legends of the game to reflect on the greatness of the Say Hey Kid on his 90th birthday, and the "what-if" of just how good Mays would be in today's game was brought up by one of the game's all-time greats.
"I felt sorry for Willie in a way having to play at that s---hole Candlestick. That was the worst place in the world to play baseball," Pete Rose said. "It was always windy and cold. The sun was always in your eyes. There were 10,000, 12,000 people at every game. If he played today in the bandboxes in Cincinnati and Philadelphia and some other places, he'd hit 70 homers a year... If he had hit behind me and [Joe] Morgan, he'd have driven in 500 or 600 more runs."
Rose added that Mays had all the same traits as Mike Trout, widely considered the best player around today and one of the top players of all time, but with more "flair."
Mays' 660 home runs and 1,903 RBI are jaw-dropping numbers, ranking at No. 6 and No. 12 on the all-time leaderboards, respectively. But if Rose's thoughts reflect the truth, those figures could have been a whole lot higher, and Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre seemed to support the case that Mays' home run totals are even more incredible when you consider the conditions in which he played.
"Willie was a left-center, right-center hitter. The ballparks he played didn't aid him," Torre said. "He hit 660 home runs, but he had to earn every one of them at home. The Polo Grounds was short down the lines, but in the gap, they were very deep. And he played at Candlestick. After noon, the ball would fly to right field, but you could shoot a bazooka off in left field some of those nights and the ball wouldn't go anywhere."
The parks apparently didn't hinder his performance too much, seeing as he appears on practically every offensive leaderboard that baseball has to offer and that he was a 24-time All-Star — there were multiple All-Star Games in some seasons — a two-time MVP, and a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Hitting certainly wasn't an issue. But you don't become a unanimous choice for a top-five player in the history of the game without having all the tools. Not unlike Trout, Mays was a true five-tool player, and his fielding prowess was just as well-known as his ability at the plate.
Fellow Giants Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda told Kurkjian that Mays had the greatest throwing arm he's ever seen, "better than Clemente's." Even Felipe Alou, who played next to Mays in the outfield for years, was in awe of Mays' skills with the glove.
"I found myself at times watching the game like a fan would watch a game," Alou recalled. "A ball would be hit and I would say, like a fan or a broadcaster, 'Is he really going to catch this one?' He had an amazing first step. He was covering half of the field by himself."
And then there was the speed — he led the league in steals four years in a row — and there was the charisma, and the leadership, and all the other qualities and intangibles that you look for in a legend of our national pastime. Perhaps Alou summed it up best:
"Willie Mays was too good."