Willie Howard Mays Jr. was born on May 6, 1931, in the African-American mill town of Westfield, Alabama. The only child of Willie Sr., a semi-pro ballplayer nicknamed “Cat,” and Annie Satterwhite, a champion high school sprinter, Mays grew up under the close watch of two aunts after his parents separated.
After moving to nearby Fairfield, Mays began playing for the Fairfield Stars in the Birmingham Industrial League alongside his father. He starred on the football and basketball teams at Fairfield Industrial High School, and at 16 he began playing for the Birmingham Black Barons of the professional Negro Leagues on weekends.
Mays signed with the New York Giants after graduating from high school in 1950 and was sent to the minors. He played well despite enduring segregated living conditions and racial taunts from fans, and after hitting .477 through 35 games with the Minneapolis Millers he joined the big leagues in May 1951.
Mays got off to a slow start with the Giants, collecting a home run off Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn as his lone hit in his first seven games. But the speedy center fielder made an immediate impression with his breathtaking defensive ability, and eventually he proved a capable hitter as well. After helping the Giants reach the World Series, he was named the National League Rookie of the Year.
Called to military duty early in the 1952 season, Mays returned in 1954 to hit a league-leading .345 with 41 home runs en route to NL Most Valuable Player honors. He capped the season with one of the most famous defensive plays in history, running down a mammoth drive to deep center field in Game 1 of the World Series to help the Giants beat the favored Cleveland Indians for the championship.
Mays adopted a son, Michael, in 1959. In 1972, he formed the Say Hey Foundation to help underprivileged children through education and community support.
Mays stayed with the Mets organization as a hitting instructor through 1979, but after he accepted a public relations job with Bally’s casino in Atlantic City he was banned from baseball-related events. Reinstated by Commissioner Peter Ueberroth in 1985, Mays was named a special assistant to the Giants organization the following year, a position that became a lifetime appointment in 1993.
In 2000, the Giants dedicated a statue of the baseball icon outside the team’s new ballpark at 24 Willie Mays Plaza. He received an array of awards in subsequent years, including honorary degrees from Yale University and Dartmouth College, and was inducted into the California Sports Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2015, he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.