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Living Legends

These six titans are living icons of the sports world
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Catherine Zeta-Jones, September/October 2009

(continued from page 1)

To observers who denounced Namath as some one-hit wonder, there was a game for the ages three years later. Baltimore, who had won perhaps the most important game in league history—the overtime victory over the Giants in the NFL championship at Yankee Stadium in 1958—could not shake the embarrassment of the loss in Super Bowl III. A spirit of vendetta filled the air when the two teams played, and Baltimore had won the four regular season tilts since the epic loss. But the September 24, 1972 game was epic in its own fashion.

It was a heavyweight bout, with Unitas and Namath firing at each other in "take that" fashion and connecting. Namath rent the air for 496 yards and six touchdowns on just 15 completions. Unitas connected on 26 passes for 376 yards and two touchdowns. The two combined for 872 yards passing, an NFL record. But no individual distinction could replace the game of games, the colossal upset that showed the limits of long odds and how perfect a quarterback can be in a given game. Those who saw it expect nothing like it again. That's how good it was.

WILLIE MAYS

It was more than half a century ago that Leo Durocher spoke with reverence of a "five-tool" ballplayer. Those five tools—running, throwing, fielding, hitting for average, and hitting for power—were the precious metals that composed Durocher's statue to the baseball gods. Durocher, who played with Babe Ruth in the 1920s and managed for 27 years, most of them with the Dodgers and Giants when New York was the capital of baseball, made it clear that Willie Mays was his idea of a five-tool star. Mays tracked fly balls as though he had radar, ran as few sluggers could, and smacked more than 50 home runs in a season, as he first did in 1955. And he did all of this with irrepressible exuberance. After games at the Polo Grounds he would play stickball with kids on 155th Street, then treat them at the soda shop.

Willie Mays is baseball's greatest living player, and a monument to the vulnerable way that athletes once competed. In decades past, great athletes faced two opponents—their competitors and the ominous footsteps of father time. So there was Mays on my baseball card in the spring of 1968, with 564 home runs, all alone in second place, only Ruth looming on the horizon, 150 ahead of him. Mays had a chance, if only his reflexes and strength held up. But Mays did not catch Ruth, for he turned 37 that May and over his last six seasons his body would no longer do his bidding. The physical specimen who once hit homers in clumps of 40 and 50 now hit only 16 per year over his last six seasons in the sun. He finished with 660, hanging on with the Mets until he was 42.

To understand Mays, you must understand the way he attained his achievements. Mays sped past Mantle (who, in typical self-effacing fashion, said, "You have to look at the bottom line, and Willie's bottom line was way better than mine"), passed 500, sailed by Ott at 511, Williams at 521, and Fox at 534 to arrive in second place all alone. Players such as Mays who retired in the 1960s, '70s and '80s faced their mid-30s without the elixir of performance enhancing drugs to rescue their declining abilities. Now we hear sportscasters telling us, without a word of context, of Gary Sheffield reaching 500, of Alex Rodriguez passing Reggie Jackson's 563, and Manny Ramirez catching Mickey Mantle at 536. But their achievements are tainted and utterly meaningless. All told, seven of the last 11 players to reach the once-exclusive 500-homer club have been cited for using performance enhancers.

Baseball is still great, but the current stewards of the game—players, union officials and the commissioner himself—are poor, poor curators of it. No wonder then that a Harris Interactive poll showed that 42 percent of Americans declare football to be their favorite game, compared with only 15 percent for baseball. In addition, the television rating for the 2008 World Series was the lowest since ratings were first kept in 1969. It was quite different in Mays's time. Now 78, Mays deserves the appellation "greatest living player." His five-tool kit puts him ahead of Hank Aaron and Stan Musial, two other living greats who honored the game with their work ethic. I've heard Joe Torre claim that Aaron was as good as Mays, only Aaron wasn't as flashy. This cannot be right. Torre played with Aaron for eight years on the Braves, and players often defend their longtime mates in these kinds of comparisons.

The difference between the two, however, is surely not a matter of Willie's cap (which he wore a size too small on purpose) falling off while careening around the bases, nor his signature basket catch in center field. We're not counting style points here but genuine distinctions. Once you see that their offensive achievements are a virtual dead heat—with Mays ahead of Aaron by a mere .002 in slugging average and .10 in on-base percentage—then the debate is over before it starts. It must be, since Mays was by all accounts a superior fielder as well as base runner. The fielding superiority is evidenced by such metrics as range, fielding percentage, and put outs. Base running also favors Mays, the first power hitter to lead the league in steals, something he did four consecutive years in the 1950s. Some believe that Aaron's edge of 755 home runs to Mays' 660 is significant. It isn't. Consider: Mays played in just 34 games in 1952 and 1953, losing 270 games to his Army commitment. To best him by 95 more home runs, Aaron would require nearly 1,500 more at bats.

Being the greatest living player doesn't mean that Mays is without blemishes. In four World Series, Mays hit just .239 without a home run. He didn't pitch like Ruth and his .557 slugging average is miles behind Ruth's .690. But Mays is still the living standard for baseball excellence. He played with an élan and aggression seen in few, if ever.

The achievements of immortals such as Mays and Mantle, Aaron and Musial, Frank Robinson and Pete Rose, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson now look better than ever because of baseball's immoral excesses since they retired. In a game where numbers equal merit, they attained their merits the hard way. Mays is our exemplar of a national pastime that was.


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