This past summer, as Barry Bonds closed in on Willie Mays for third place on Major League Baseball’s all-time home run list, a reporter approached San Francisco Giants manager Felipe Alou – a man who played with Mays and now manages Bonds – and asked him: Who is better: Bonds or Mays?
“Willie is the best player I ever played with or against, and Barry is the best player I’ve ever managed or managed against,” Alou told the reporter. “It’s very difficult to compare Barry and Willie. One guy plays left field; the other guy played center. One guy bats left-handed; the other guy batted right. The way Barry is playing now, he’s the more durable. But Willie was more aggressive.
“Willie is the best player I ever saw. He was instinctive, but he also knew what to do. He had charisma, and he was spectacular … Willie was the best of his era, better than Hank (Aaron), Roberto (Clemente) and Frank (Robinson). Those other guys could do a lot of things, too, but it was the way (Mays) did it.
“Barry is more dominant now than Willie was, but you don’t find many center fielders who did what Willie did – maybe (Joe) DiMaggio.”
It appeared to be an honest, accurate analysis of both players, but Alou never truly answered the question.
Baseball fans, analysts and writers alike have picked apart Mays and Bonds in virtually every statistical offensive and defensive category: home runs (power), batting average, RBI, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hits, total bases, MVP awards, All-Star game appearances, stolen bases, fielding percentage, throwing (assists), games played (durability), position, you name it.
I’ve read arguments comparing charisma (or lack thereof), leadership, attitude and race. Sure, charisma and leadership go a long way in defining a ballplayers character and persona, but they have little to do with performance.
“I’m not sure what the hell charisma is, but I get the feeling it’s Willie Mays!” – Ted Kluszewski
There are no apparent geographical boundaries to this debate either. From the hallowed ground in New York where the Polo Grounds once stood, to Candlestick and Pac Bell Park in the San Francisco Bay, the media pitches the debate and baseball fans swing time and time again, spitting out theories and stats, hoping once-and-for-all to prove who is better.
In the last two months of the 2003 season, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, The Sacramento Bee, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Daily Illini, GoMemphis.com (The Commercial Appeal) and The Oakland Tribune have all featured commentary, internet polls and message boards on the subject matter.
In August, ESPN’s Sports Nation polled fans and asked, “Who is greater, Willie Mays or his godson Barry Bonds?”
Greater what? greater power hitter? greater fielder? greater base runner? If you want to factor in all the non-performance categories too let’s get the answers to who is: more charismatic? greater leader? greater role model? The question is simply too broad. (For the record, 52.8% polled answered Bonds, 47.2% answered Mays).
Along with fans and the media, I bought in and wrestled with this topic, trying to compile a sensible argument. I did a ton of research and, like many baseball fans I charted and compared Mays and Bonds single season and career statistics.
As I combed through the stack of printouts, it hit me. I was looking for the answer in a statistical table. I was caught up in the overwhelming volume of numbers and endless ways to crystallize them in an effort to determine who is better, Mays or Bonds.
I couldn’t come up with one thoughtful, educated response, so I stacked the research in the corner of my office and tried to forget about it. Easier said then done if you are an insatiable baseball fan.
The Mays-Bonds story had been haunting me since I shelved it in mid-September. This week I decided to exercise the demons, blow the dust off the research and start with a clean slate.
MAYS vs. BONDS
Who is better: Willie Mays or Barry Bonds?
It’s one of baseball’s most ridiculous debates. The answer is simple: neither. You can’t compare Barry Bonds and Willie Mays … or Barry Bonds and Ted Williams … or Barry Bonds and Henry Aaron … or Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth.
THE WILD AND WONDERFUL WORLD OF STATISTICS
“Baseball statistics are interesting not because they answer the questions for us, but because they may be used to study issues. The value of baseball statistics in identifying the greatest players is not that they answer all of the questions involved, but that they provide definitive answers to some of the questions involved, which enables us to focus on the others.”
– Bill James/ The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
More than any other sport, baseball fans are swept away by statistics. The Mays-Bonds debate is no different. Fans and the media have compiled mass quantities of statistics. There are graphs, charts and tables full of numbers available on the “information superhighway.” It can be overwhelming.
The problem with baseball stats is you can slice and dice the numbers so many ways, in so many categories, a good salesperson can deliver a plausible case through addition or subtraction of the right categories.
The repetitive nature of the research kept me from realizing why I couldn’t come up with anything substantial. When someone asks the question, “Who is better?” our natural reaction is, get me the stats on both players and we’ll break it down. For example …
In August the Oakland Tribune baited fans using an interactive web-based fan poll. Without surprise, baseball fans reacted passionately:
Ray Malgradi (8.29.2003) wrote: There is no comparison. Mays stands by himself in all categories. Mays was the full package, a contact hitter with power, 22 years with a lifetime average of .302, only 156 errors in a tough position. Bonds played the easiest outfield position. Mays had 338 stolen bases, a rifle arm. Bonds has a very weak arm and is just an average outfielder. Mays had reflexes and agility like no other. Plus, as most of us know, Bonds is a cancer in the clubhouse and on the field. Mays was team player and a leader.
False. Mays does not “stand alone in all categories.” He has higher game totals, at-bats, runs, hits, home runs, RBI and batting average. Bonds – in four fewer years – has more walks, more stolen bases, a higher on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Soon, he will catch Mays in the home run race (Mays – 660, Bonds – 658).
For the record here is a compilation of Mays and Bonds’ single-season statistics:
Best Single-Season Offensive Performances (by category)
Best single-season batting average:
Bonds – .370 (2002)
Mays – .347 (1958)
Career – Mays (.302)/Bonds (.297)
Best single-season home run total:
Bonds – 73 (2001)
Mays – 52 (1965)
Career: Mays (660)/Bonds (658)
Best single-season slugging percentage:
Bonds – .863 (2001)
Mays – .667 (1954)
Career: Bonds (.601)/Mays (.559)
Best single-season on-base percentage:
Bonds – .582 (2002)
Mays – .425 (1971)
Career: Bonds (.433)/Mays (.384)
Best single-season stolen base total:
Bonds – 52 (1990)
Mays – 40 (1956)
Career: Bonds (500)/Mays (338)
Other Individual Statistical Achievements
All-Star Game appearances:
Bonds – 12
Mays – 22
Bonds – 1991 (Pittsburgh), 1992 (Pittsburgh), 1996 (SF), 1997 (SF) – 4
Mays – 1956 (NY Giants), 1957 (NY Giants) – 2
Bonds – 1997 (SF) – 1
Mays – none
Bonds – 1990 (Pittsburgh), 1992 (Pittsburgh), 1993 (SF), 2001 (SF), 2002 (SF), 2003 (SF) – 6
Mays – 1954 (NY Giants), 1965 (SF Giants) – 2
Calculating a ballplayers value by statistics alone can be deceptive. To the “old school” baseball fan, the depth of analysis is simply too much, too analytical, too calculated, baseball is overanalyzing players. The “new school” thinkers don’t know any other way. Sabermetrics is IT. On-base percentage is more important than batting average, a stat now considered useless and almost obsolete. Just read Moneyball.
The reason the Mays-Bonds debate will go on for eternity lies in the methodology. It’s statistical based. There are influences that will never show up in the box score that deserve consideration in determining a players value and performance. In the case of Mays v. Bonds, the first is generation.
A GIANT GAP
“It is my belief that the quality of play in major league baseball has improved steadily over time, being higher in almost every generation than it was the previous generation.”
– Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
Willie Mays retired from baseball in 1973. Barry Bonds was nine years old in 1973 and wouldn’t get his first major league at-bat for another 13 years, in 1986 as a Pittsburgh Pirate.
The generation gap between Mays and Bonds is enormous. It’s been 50-plus years since Mays first stepped on a major league diamond. The style, strategy and preparation in which the game is played has evolved.
Bonds leads an era of ballplayers accomplishing statistical feats far beyond any records established by Mays and his peers during the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. No knowledgeable baseball fan will argue that Bonds will eclipse Mays in most statistical categories when he retires. But – again – statistics alone can not be the measuring stick.
“People have a false impression of what a great player is nowadays,” said Willie McCovey, a former teammate of Mays. “If somebody puts up great numbers, they think he’s great. But if you saw Willie play, you would see games where he would win it for us and he wouldn’t even get a hit. He did things that nobody else does. That’s what makes a great ballplayer.”
Baseball analyst/historian Bill James has created a statistic to give ballplayers credit for the intangible, yet valuable, influence they have on a team win. Traditional statistics do not offer this important information. It’s called the “Win Shares System.”
James’ “win shares” formula is simple in concept but long in execution. In his 2002 book James took the first 260 pages to explain the formula and how it is executed. The quick and easy explanation is: for each win a team gets, they are given three “win shares.” So, if a team wins 100 games during the regular season, the team has 300 “win shares” to divide between players. It’s wins times three.
“Win shares” are then assigned to individual players using three statistical categories – runs created (an estimation of how many runs a player has created offensively) quality innings pitched and defensive excellence.
In essence, “win shares” are “wins created,” exactly what McCovey was talking about, he just didn’t have a name for it. Mays compiled 641 “win shares” in his 22-year career (for those unfamiliar with the system, that is excellent). Bonds “win shares” to date is 467 (for more information on the Win Shares system I highly recommend the book, simply titled Win Shares and available online through Stats Inc.)
Players and fans tell legendary tales about Mays’ performance. Listening to the stories now, well, they seem surreal, bordering on fictional.
It has been said that while he was playing in the Negro Leagues, Mays once hit a ball so hard that it literally went through the outfield wall, leaving behind a hole in the fence. That sounds more like something out of The Natural than reality.
In an interview with the San Jose Mercury News, veteran Bay Area sports announcer Lon Simmons said: “When he (Mays) was in motion, he looked like Seabiscuit,” Simmons recalled. “Seabiscuit always looked like he was flying and Willie was the same way. He was like magic.”
Mays hit a home run off Hall of Famer Warren Spahn in his first major league at-bat. Leo Durocher, who managed the Giants then, said, “I’ve never seen a ball get out of the ballpark so fast in my life.” (according to the report, Durocher colored that statement with a variety of expletives to get his point across)
Mays transcended the game of baseball at a time when baseball was the only game in town. Baseball was clearly the number one sport in America and those who played it were idolized.
“All I remember about the game was sitting on my father’s shoulders and him pointing to center field and say, ‘That’s Willie Mays,’” remembers Bob Costas. “It was like he was pointing out the Grand Canyon or the Washington Monument.” No small feat for a black athlete playing in a generation where race played a big factor.
The game of baseball has changed since Mays played. More teams, new hitter-friendly ballparks, interleague play, free agency, the designated hitter, the closer (pitching strategy: There are now set-up guys and closers coming in to pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings). Modern baseball teams are playing in-division less.
Over time training has evolved too. Barry Bonds workout regimen is incredible. Bonds’ off-season conditioning has allowed him to improve with age. Mays was naturally athletic and was smaller than Bonds in his playing days. His day-to-day conditioning included playing stickball in the streets of Harlem with local kids.
The generation gap will always separate Mays and Bonds but should never place a gap in our appreciation for what both athletes have given to the game of baseball.
Rick Reilly, author and columnist for Sports Illustrated, took aim at the Mays-Bonds debate in the September 15th issue of the magazine:
“Call Bonds the most feared slugger ever if you want. Say he’s having the greatest finish to a career in history. But no way, no how, in no universe, is Bonds a better baseball player than Willie Howard Mays.”
Reilly supported his position with a variety of statistics: running, fielding, throwing, play with joy (is “playing with joy” even a category?), leadership, hitting and blah, blah, blah, all full of holes and one-sided in an effort to tip the scales in favor of his position.
The only valuable piece of information that Riley offered is the fact that Mays played in the Polo Grounds and Candlestick Park, both difficult parks to field and hit in. Reilly must have forgot that Bonds also played in Candlestick Park for six years (1993-1999). Still, it is a valid point when measuring player performance.
1951-1957: Polo Grounds IV
1958-1959: Seals Stadium
1960-1972: Candlestick Park
1972-1973: Shea Stadium
1986-1992: Three Rivers Stadium
1993-1999: Candlestick Park/3 Com Park
2000-2003: Pac Bell Park
The most intriguing ballpark is obviously Candlestick Park, where Mays played for 12 seasons (1960-1972) and Bonds six seasons (1993-1999). Candlestick Park had a reputation as the most-hated ballpark in baseball due to its poor playing conditions.
How bad? When Keith Hernandez negotiated his contract with the New York Mets in 1983, he had a trade clause added to his deal which banned the Mets from being able to deal him to the Giants.
Candlestick Park was cold and windy, courtesy of the San Francisco Bay bordering the park. According to reports, when the Giants picked Candlestick Point to build their new stadium, Giants owner Horace Stoneham never visited the site in the afternoon. Builders made sure to bring him out in the late morning, when the day was still and perfect and beautiful.
One day he showed up at the site in the afternoon and was nearly knocked over by the heavy wind gusts. He made a remark about the severity of the wind and one of the construction workers replied: “Oh, don’t worry, it only kicks up like this around 3 o’clock.”
“But that’s when we play our games,” Stoneham replied.
In 1963, Casey Stengel’s New York Mets took batting practice at Candlestick Park until a gust of wind picked up the batting cage and drop it 60 feet away on the pitcher’s mound. Fly balls were adventure too. It was reported that Mays would wait for a five-count before getting a jump on fly balls.
Candlestick Park affected Mays more than Bonds for two reasons:
1. Candlestick Park’s $16.1 million dollar renovation included a double-deck in hopes of cutting down on the wind. Shortly after, in 1972, Mays was traded to the New York Mets. Candlestick was completely enclosed during the renovations in 1971.
2. Before the modification, the Bay area winds blew strongly from left field into right field. Right-handed hitters (Mays included) always struggled for power while left-handed hitters would benefit from the jet stream from left to right.
“I bet I lost 200 home runs in that place. The wind would just come in and knock them down. You’d think they were gone and then the ball just dropped,” Mays said in a 1999 interview about Candlestick Park. Albeit, Mays led the league in home runs three seasons while playing at their, some believe he would have hit 800+ home runs if he played in a hitter-friendly park.
Mays was never really had the advantage of playing in a ballpark that was considered “hitter-friendly.” He played the first seven years of his career at the Polo Grounds IV. The park was modified by construction and maintenance over the years, never to the advantage of the hitter. From 1954-1957 Mays hit 79 home runs at home and 84 home runs on the road. The deep alleys at the Polo Grounds hindered Mays’ offensive style.
Then, of course, in the twilight of his career he played in Shea Stadium, a ballpark widely considered as a “pitcher-friendly” park. Then again, by that time, Mays was not much of a power threat.
Bonds spent his early years (1986-1992) playing in Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, a park rich with history. Three Rivers, which has since been demolished and replaced by PNC Park, was considered neutral. There were no outstanding features or qualities. There is no obvious evidence that the stadium architecture had any marked affect on Bonds’ performance.
Then there is Pacific Bell Park, the new home of the San Francisco Giants that opened in 2000. The Giants used Candlestick as a reference point and what NOT to do when building their new digs.
Giant ownership and the ballpark architects made a concerned effort to design a fan-friendly atmosphere. That means, less wind and more comfortable conditions. As a matter of fact the Giants contracted wind tunnel research experts from U.C. Davis, and modern design technology in construction, to assure they got what they wanted. The result: a controlled atmosphere.
Bonds current home (Pac Bell Park) and Mays’ first home (Polo Grounds IV) are similar in design. Both stadiums had curious shapes, deep alleys and short porches along the foul lines. Clearly both parks favor pitchers.
You’d never know it by looking at Bonds’ statistics. Since Pac Bell opened in 2000, he has mashed 208 homers, 21 more than Mays hit in six years at the Polo Grounds.
Regardless, the ballpark itself and the elements that surround them are a factor. They do not show up in a box score or baseball encyclopedia but they do directly affect, at least in part, a player’s performance. In the case of Mays v. Bonds the ballpark should receive serious consideration because their distinctive qualities.
So, to this end, I have given up on asking who is better – Mays or Bonds. They played in different generations, different eras. The game is no longer played the same way – or at the same speed. Baseball has evolved and the game has changed, for better or worse.
I also learned a lesson along the way: baseball players can not – and should not – be measured by statistics alone. Sometimes you have to look beyond the numbers at the intangibles that can not be measured by a boxscore.