Their careers started in the same year, 1951, and they were similarly great.
Both men were excellent all-around center fielders, with the five tools: contact, power, speed, defense, and throwing arm.
Old schoolers and modern fans alike can’t help but wonder who was the better between these two legends.
The Case For Mantle
Mantle had a knack for getting on base that isn’t common: his career 17.5 percent walk rate was absolutely elite, better than Mays’ 11.7 percent.
He was a complete player, and he had an aura of confidence that really set him apart.
He believed in his abilities, and boy, did they help him: he retired with a .298/.421/.557 career line, 536 home runs, and 153 stolen bases.
Injuries took a toll on his body and slowed him down considerably on the basepaths and on the field.
But those who saw him play say that they had never seem a slugger with his speed or a speedster with his “slug”.
He is a 20-time All-Star (1952–1965, 1967, 1968) and won the World Series a whopping seven times (1951–1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962).
He won the Triple Crown in 1956 and was the American League MVP three times.
His No. 7 was retired by the New York Yankees, the team with which he played for his entire career.
The Case For Mays
Mays was a comparable hitter to Mantle, even if he was slightly worse by wRC+.
The wRC+ allows us to evaluate and compare offensive production adjusted by era, park, and other external factors.
100 is considered average: Mays finished his career with a rock-solid 154, but Mantle’s 170 topped him.
However, Mays was able to stay relatively healthier and extended his career five seasons beyond Mantle’s retirement.
Mays was a better defender, bordering on spectacular, and he was a faster runner.
He retired with an amazing .302/.384/.557 line, 660 home runs, and 338 stolen bases.
He was a Giant for life except for a couple of seasons late in his career, as he lived the transition from New York to San Francisco.
Mays was a 24-time All-Star (1954–1973), a World Series champion in 1954, and a two-time MVP winner (1954, 1965).
He also won the NL Rookie of the Year award in 1951 and 12 Gold Glove Awards (1957–1968).
Happy 89th Birthday to Willie Mays!
🔹Hall of Fame Inductee
🔹World Series Champion
🔹2× NL MVP
🔹NL Rookie of the Year
🔹12× Gold Glove Award
🔹Roberto Clemente Award
🔹660 career HR (5th all-time)
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) May 6, 2020
The San Francisco Giants retired his No. 24.
Between these two legendary ambassadors of the game, Mantle was by far the most accomplished if we consider his seven World Series titles.
However, we are not comparing team achievement.
We are talking about perhaps the two best center fielders to ever step on a field, and if they aren’t, they are at least top-five.
Mantle was also the better, more patient hitter.
Mantle was the better hitter, Mays was the better outfielder
— Marcia J. Nicklas (@MarciaNicklas) June 27, 2020
But Mays was a much, much better fielder, played for longer, and achieved higher totals.
Comparisons are often tedious, but if we had to pick one, Mays gets the slightest of edges over the great Mick.