I once asked Willie Mays what his proudest achievement was in baseball.
His oft-cited designation as the greatest all-around player in history?
His two Most Valuable Player Awards?
None of the above.
“I came into the league with a 32-inch waist and I retired with a 32-inch waist,” he told me 12 years ago when I interviewed him for a biography.
A bit surprising, but not really. Mays takes great pride in his durability as a player, and it wasn’t an accident. He never drank, never smoked, watched his diet and rarely went clubbing.
His self-discipline made possible an epic career that began with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948, reached exalted heights with the New York Giants in the 1950s and didn’t end until 1973. Playing center field for 22 years in Major League Baseball, with a record 7,095 putouts and with 6,066 total bases, Mays surely ran more miles on the field, and with greater speed and more style, than any player before or since.