Mays was better, but for a while it was too close to call (Salon.com)
For many years during the 1950s and well into the 1960s, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were the best center fielders in their respective leagues, if not the two best players in baseball. Throughout the first halves of their careers, before Mays' Giants moved to San Francisco, they were frequently compared with Duke Snider, the talented center fielder of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Snider and Mays both departed New York after the 1957 season, and while Snider was never again the superstar he'd been in Brooklyn, Mays flourished on the West Coast. He and Mantle were widely regarded as the best all-around players in baseball, and upon retiring found themselves on the short list of not just the best center fielders of all time (along with Tris Speaker and Mantle's one-time teammate Joe DiMaggio), but the best players period.
There's no question as to which one was better. That would clearly be Mays, who many consider the best ballplayer not named Babe Ruth. He was just as good as if not better than Mantle in his prime and lasted longer, which explains his advantage of nearly 50 bWAR.
But for a long time, Mantle hung in there. Despite the injuries, his offensive numbers were on par with Mays's and because Mantle walked more, he was a significantly better hitter. Mays was a much better baserunner and fielder, but as a total package Mantle was very nearly his equal.
Here are their stats from 1951 through 1964:
Mays: 8,002 PA 1,379 R 453 HR 1,290 RBI .313/.388/.589 161 OPS+ 109 bWAR 78.8 WAA
Mantle: 7,979 PA 1,472 R 454 HR 1,298 RBI .309/.429/.582 177 OPS+ 97.8 bWAR 73.5 WAA
After 1964, however, Mantle could no longer keep up. The Mick faded fast, becoming a .250 hitter with 20-homer power over his final four seasons. Mays remained a superstar for several more years, copping his second MVP with 52 dingers in 1965 and putting together a nine-win season in '66. He continued to be a solidly above average player into the early '70s, several years after Mantle retired, before hanging up his spikes after the 1973 campaign.
Many, myself included, maintain that Mantle was actually a hair better than Mays before he broke down. Are they right? Let's take a closer look, going year-by-year to determine which one was better.
Both had massive expectations place on them from the start and, as 19 year-olds usually do, hit rough patches early on in their rookie campaigns. Mays famously went 1-for-his-first-26 (albeit with a home run off Warren Spahn) and became so discouraged that Leo Durocher promised Mays would remain the starting center fielder for the rest of the season to revive his confidence. Mantle was demoted in mid-July to New York's minor league affiliate in Kansas City, where he remained for six weeks and nearly quit before his father talked some sense into him.
Both rebounded from their early slumps. Mays caught fire in June (1.041 OPS) and July (10 home runs) en route to winning the NL Rookie of the Year award and helping the Giants overtake the Dodgers in a wild pennant race. Mantle rejoined the Yankees in late August in time for the stretch run and hit well enough to reclaim his spot at the top of the order. As fate would have it, the dynamic duo met up in the World Series. The Bombers, in the midst of claiming five straight titles, prevailed despite a gruesome knee injury suffered by Mantle when he caught his spikes in an outfield drainage ditch trying to make a play on a fly ball, a fly ball hit by none other than Willie Mays.
Statistically, Mays outproduced Mantle in almost every offensive category. Granted, part of that was because Mays played 25 more games, but even so he outslashed Mantle in average, OBP, and slugging, producing an OPS 36 points higher than Mickey's .792 mark. Combined with his plus defense in center field (Mantle played the less challenging position of right field with DiMaggio still patrolling center), Willie was worth almost four wins above replacement, more than double Mantle's 1.5.
Mantle and Mays faced each other in two World Series. Mantle's Yankees won both (Bama Media)
Following a two-year hiatus in the Army, Mays returned to baseball a full-blown superstar. He more than doubled his home run output from his rookie year, improved his OPS by 250 points and scored more than twice as many runs. Mays made his first All-Star team and was voted league MVP after leading the majors in batting (.345), slugging (.667), and bWAR (10.6) while also pacing the NL in triples, OPS, and OPS+. To top it all off, he led the Giants to a World Series victory over the heavily-favored Cleveland Indians, winners of 111 games during the regular season.
Mantle, who'd developed into a great player while Mays was gone, continued to improve in his fourth season. In addition to batting .300 for the second time and exceeding a .400 OBP and 100 RBI for the first, he set career highs in nearly every category and scored an ML-best 129 runs. The Mick was tremendous, worth almost seven wins, but Mays was playing in a different stratosphere that year.
Very, very close this time around. Both B-R and FanGraphs give Mantle the slight edge in WAR, rating him closer to 10 while pegging Mays at nine exactly, but frankly I can't see how. Mays was arguably better in his MVP encore, leading the majors with 13 triples, 51 homers, 382 total bases, a .659 slugging, and a 1.059 OPS. Mantle was outstanding in his own right, emerging as a true superstar by leading the AL in triples, big flies, OBP, slugging, and OPS, as well as both leagues in OPS+ and bWAR.
Mays definitely had the bigger offensive season, however, compensating for Mantle's 31 point advantage in OBP with 14 additional home runs, 28 more RBI and a slugging percentage some 48 points higher. Mays also stole three times as many bases as Mantle and was already regarded as the best center fielder in the game after making "The Catch" the previous October. Advantage: Mays.
'56 was Mantle's signature season, a gem of a campaign that saw him win the major league triple crown and pile up 11.3 bWAR in addition to leading baseball in runs, runs created, total bases, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, WAR, extra base hits, and times on base. When the dust settled, he'd led the Yankees to another World Series championship, won his first MVP award (unanimously), and endeared himself to a new generation of Yankee fans with a season comparable to the best of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. Mays, with 36 home runs, a major league leading 40 steals, and 7.6 bWAR, was also terrific, but Mantle was legendary.
In his final season in New York (before returning as a Met 15 years later), Mays won his first of 12 straight Gold Gloves. He also treated the fans to some impressive offensive statistics, slugging 35 home runs and a ML-leading 20 triples to go along with his 38 steals (also tops in the bigs) and a 1.033 OPS, good for the best OPS+ (173) in the National League.
But Mantle, in some respects, had an even better year than his Triple Crown campaign. Not only did he bat a career-best .365 with a .512 OBP (fueled by 146 walks--most in the majors), but he also posted the highest OPS (1.177) and OPS+ (221) of his career. WAR says Mantle's '57 was every bit as valuable as the season that preceded it, and the voters agreed, giving him his second straight MVP trophy despite an otherworldly season by Ted Williams (.388/.526/.731 with 38 homers).
So with a three-bWAR edge over Mays, Mantle wins easily.
The Say Hey Kid's first season out west was a good one, as he batted .347/.419/.583 for a league-best 1.002 OPS and 165 OPS+. While his 29 homers were his fewest since his rookie season, he made up for it with personal bests in batting average and hits (208) as well as leading the majors in stolen bases again (with 31). His second season worth at least 10 bWAR was only good enough for second in the NL MVP race, however, as voters elected Ernie Banks (9.4 bWAR) and his prodigious power totals at shortstop.
Mantle fell back to earth a bit after his insane 1956 and 1957 seasons, but still clobbered a league-high 42 home runs, batted over .300, and worked more walks/scored more runs than anybody else in baseball. Despite batting 43 points lower than Mays, he still held significant advantages in OBP (24 points) and slugging (nine points), not to mention the best OPS+ in baseball at 188. That's why I'm giving the edge to him even though bWAR estimates Mays was worth about 1.5 more wins to his team. With Mantle clearly the better hitter and almost Mays' equal on the bases (he was a very efficient 18 for 21 in stolen base attempts), I'm not going to be swayed by unreliable defensive metrics.
1959 was a major disappointment for Mantle and the Yankees, who finished only four games above .500 and failed to win the pennant for only the second time since Casey Stengel took over. The Mick suffered his worst season since 1953, hitting "only" 31 home runs with "only" 75 RBI. Those numbers would have been more palatable to Yankee fans had he not led the major leagues in whiffs with 126 (a career-high) and batted .285--his worst mark since his rookie season.
While '59 was a down year for Mickey, it was business as usual for Mays, who won another Gold Glove, slugged 34 home runs, drove in 104, and stole a league-high 27 bases in 31 attempts. Add it all up and Mays was worth over a full win more than Mantle, even though their offensive output was almost dead-even (Mays had a 156 OPS+ to Mantle's AL-best 151).
Mantle and Mays squared off in the first ever home run derby. Mantle won
Offensively, Mays and Mantle were about dead-even in the first year of the '60s, with perhaps the slight edge going to Mantle. By this point, however, Mays was the much better fielder and baserunner, which means on the whole he was more valuable. This is bored out by bWAR, which puts Mays at 9.5--a full three wins better than Mantle's 6.3. Both players endured "down" years by their lofty standards, with Mays failing to reach 30 home runs for the second time in three years and Mantle batting .275 with a league-high 125 strikeouts. I'm nitpicking, of course, but I'm sure both players would tell you that 1960 wasn't their best.
Mays boosted his power numbers considerably in his second year at the 'Stick, generating his most home runs (40) and RBI (123) since his monster 1955 campaign and raising his slugging percentage nearly 30 points.
Even with the power spike, he still fell well short of Mantle, who along with teammate Roger Maris challenged Babe Ruth's hallowed single-season home run record. Mantle fell short at 54, but still led the majors in walks (126), slugging (.687) and bWAR (10.5). So feared was the Mick that Maris, despite launching 61 homers himself, did not receive a single intentional walk in 1961, for he spent most of the season batting in front of Mantle.
Mantle may have won his third MVP but Mays eclipsed him in almost every category. Mantle had the superior rate stats, batting an obscene .321/.486/.605 (195 OPS+), but he also missed roughly a quarter of the season, which limited his value to about six wins. Mays, on the other hand, played 162 of a possible 165 regular season games, racking up personal bests in runs (130), RBI (141), and total bases (382) as well as 49 home runs--most in the majors. Mays was worth an incredible 10.5 bWAR that year, and yet somehow did not win MVP (voters gave it to Maury Wills, who shattered Ty Cobb's single season stolen base record that year).
Mantle got the best of Mays in that year's Fall Classic, which featured the Yankees and Giants in a rematch of the 1951 Series. New York won in seven despite Mantle's mediocre .120/.241/.160 performance. Perhaps the Giants would have won--they lost Game 7 by one run, had Mays done more than bat .250/.276/.321 with zero home runs and one RBI.
Mantle seriously injured himself, missing almost 100 games after breaking his foot in a nasty collision with a chain-link fence. He was terrific when he did play, replicating his 1962 production, but Mays stayed healthy so there was no discussion.
'64 was Mantle's last great season, yielding 35 homer runs and 111 RBI as well as the best OBP (.423), OPS (1.015) and adjusted OPS (177) in baseball. But Mays was right there with him, knocking in the same number of runs, socking 12 more home runs, leading the major leagues in slugging percentage at .607 and posting the NL's best raw (.990) and adjusted (172) OPS. Mays was much better in the field and on the bases at this point as well, with 19 steals to Mantle's six and Gold Glove defense in center compared to Mantle's abysmal defense. All said, Mays was worth more than twice as many bWAR (11.1) as Mantle (4.8), making him the obvious choice here.
After 1964, Mays vs. Mantle was no longer a debate. Age, injuries, and alcohol pushed Mantle over the cliff, as he batted just .254 over his final four seasons while averaging just 20 home runs and 53 RBI per season. Mays took much better care of himself, and thus aged more gracefully, winning his second MVP in 1965 and compiling almost 31 bWAR from 1964-1968. Their teams endured similar fates, as the Yankees plummeted to the second division while the Giants remained one of the best teams in baseball.
One can only wonder how Mantle's closing act would have played out had he stayed healthy and avoided the bottle. Based on how close the above comparisons are, I can't imagine it would have been much different from Mays.