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Pollock: The passing of Willie Mays reignited a baseball debate

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A column by Sun Senior Sports Columnist CHUCK POLLOCK

The recent passing of Willie Mays has ignited the argument of who was the greatest baseball player of all time.

Mays? Babe Ruth? Ted Williams? Hank Aaron? Ty Cobb? Cy Young? Josh Gibson?

My interest in the game really began in 1955 when I was nine years old and my mother, a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, passed that loyalty on to me. It didn’t hurt that they won the World Series over the hated Yankees that year.

My hero quickly became Dodger outfielder Duke Snider.

It was a great era for centerfielders in New York: Snider in Brooklyn, Mays with the Giants and Mantle for the Yankees.

But even in my youthful myopia I grudgingly had to admit that Mays was decidedly the best of the trio.

When it came to Snider versus Mantle, I prejudicially gave the nod to the former, rationalizing that the latter’s 1,710 career strikeouts weighed heavily against him. But, in my heart of hearts, I knew that Mantle was No. 2 in the five boroughs. No matter, though, all three ended up as Hall of Famers.

However, the privilege of growing up in the Albany area, a mere 2½ hours away, I had easy radio access to all three New York teams and though I regularly tuned in to Dodger games I listened to more than my share of Giants’ and Yankee’s broadcasts. Red Barber, Vin Scully, Mel Allen and Russ Hodges’ voices were as familiar to me as Dwight Eisenhower’s.

AND THAT brings me to the controversy over baseball’s all-time greatest player.

I followed Mays’ career playing for the Dodgers’ fiercest rival and it was clear to me that he was an extraordinary performer.

But the best ever? 

To me it’s an unfair question.

I think it could be argued that Mays is the greatest all-around player in major league history. The numbers say so especially since he lost nearly two full seasons of his prime to military service. Beyond that, Mays was the classic five-tool star: hit, hit with power, run, field and throw.

Ruth is today’s Shohei Ohtani … an extremely gifted pitcher and power hitter. He won 70% of his games on the mound all while setting MLB’s home run record, 714, a mark that stood for nearly four decades.

His skills throwing or hitting a baseball were incredible but there’s no indication that he was a particularly adept fielder and he clearly wasn’t a speedster.

Then there’s Williams.

It is inarguable that there’s never been a more astute student of hitting than the Red Sox star. And his numbers are even more impressive since he missed three full seasons — ages 24-26 — as a fighter pilot  in World War II and almost all of the 1952-53 seasons doing that task in Korea.

He attributed his success to his incredible 20-15 vision which, unfortunately for his baseball career, made him a perfect candidate to fly combat missions.

To me, Mays was the game’s greatest all-around player, Williams its most accomplished hitter and Ruth its top two-way star.

But there are a dozen other players, or more, in baseball history whose talents would put them squarely in the conversation.

(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at cpollock@wnynet.net.)

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