Rewriting history: What if the Braves had signed Willie Mays?

Pretend you’re at a bar, sitting near a couple of guys wearing baseball hats, clutching beers and talking animatedly. Now pretend the two guys are Matthew Namee and Steve Treder. This is what you might hear:

Before the Giants had even heard of Willie Mays, the Boston Braves were, for more than a year, trying to purchase the teenage Negro League star. Negotiations with the Birmingham Barons stalled, though, on a matter of money. Meanwhile, Giants scout Ed Montague happened to notice Mays and sent back a gushing scouting report (calling him “the greatest player I had ever seen in my life”). The New York brass forked over the $15,000 that the Braves management had been unwilling to pay, and the rest is history.

At least the Braves didn’t make the same mistake twice. Two years later, they beat out the New York Giants to acquire another teenage Negro Leaguer, Henry Aaron.

All of which begs the question, what if the Boston Braves had been willing to part with 15 grand? What if Willie Mays and Hank Aaron had patrolled the same outfield—and batted in the same lineup—for the better part of two decades?

What if, indeed?

Okay, so it’s the Braves instead of the Giants who pluck the 19-year-old Mays into their system in the late spring of 1950. Since the Giants assigned Mays to their Trenton farm club of the Class B Inter-State League (a pretty high placement for a 19-year-old, roughly equivalent to today’s high-A, but then again Mays was a thoroughly impressive prospect), is it reasonable to assume the Braves would have assigned Mays to their affiliate in the Inter-State League, in Hagerstown, Md.?

Probably not. Hagerstown is below the Mason-Dixon line. In the spring of 1950, that wouldn’t have been a likely place to which a major league ball club would assign a black player. So let’s say instead Mays is assigned to the Braves farm club in the Class B Three-I League, the Evansville (Ind.) Braves. Mays tore up the Inter-State League, and in center field in Evansville he would have supplanted a young fellow by the name of Manual Roberts (who hit .228 with two homers in 438 at-bats), and Mays would have torn up the Three-I League. Evansville finished in sixth place, at 56-70; with Mays the team wouldn’t have won the league title, but would have done much better.

In 1951, the Giants organization promoted Mays to Triple-A, and it’s reasonable to assume the Braves would have done so too. Their Triple-A farm was the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. In 1951, that ball club deployed a player named Jim Basso in center field. Basso was pretty good: He hit .264 with 25 homers, and led the league in outfield putouts by a wide margin. But clearly he wasn’t nearly the equal of Mays, who hit an incredible .477 in 35 games in the same league, with more putouts per game than Basso. So Mays would blow Basso away, and very likely, as he did in the Giants organization, warrant promotion to the major league ball club well before mid-season of 1951.

The Giants made room for Mays by moving incumbent center fielder Bobby Thomson to third base, and benching third baseman Hank Thompson. So, Matthew, here’s a question for you: What would the Braves have done at the same juncture in 1951, with Negro sensation Sam Jethroe already starring for them in center field, if the 20-year-old Willie Mays had been pounding on the door behind him?

Jethroe was good, but (a) he was 33 years old and near the end of the line, and (b) he was not really any better than Mays in 1951 (and he was useless after that season). The Braves simply could have moved Jethroe to right field, replacing the good-but-not-great Willard Marshall. They sold Marshall to the Reds the next year anyway, and there’s no reason why that sort of move couldn’t have been made a year earlier.

In any event, the Braves were a 76-78 team in 1951, and adding Mays wouldn’t have pushed them into the pennant race. Speaking of the ’51 pennant race, would the loss of Mays have spoiled the Giants’ incredible stretch run and robbed baseball history of Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard Round the World? With no Mays, Bobby Thomson would have remained in center field and Hank Thompson at third base. Could a Mays-less Giants team have pushed the Dodgers to a playoff, or would we have had yet another Dodgers-Yankees World Series?

Looking ahead, Mays missed most of 1952 and all of ’53 because of the Korean War, and presumably he still would have missed those seasons as a Brave. But he broke out in 1954, winning the MVP award on the strength of a .345 average and 41 home runs. His Giants won the pennant and went on to stun the Indians in the World Series. Minus Mays, could the Giants have held off the 92-win Dodgers? Or—and this is where things get really interesting—what about the Braves? Adding Mays to an 89-win team surely makes them a pennant contender, doesn’t it?

Okay, agreed, the Braves would move Jethroe to right field to make room for Mays in 1951.

Regarding that 1951 pennant race: Mays’presence on the Giants that year didn’t improve the team a huge amount. Hank Thompson was a much better hitter than he showed in his 264 at-bats that year, and probably would have come around with a solid performance as their third baseman, with Bobby Thomson remaining in center field. But the Giants had zero margin for error in catching and overtaking the Dodgers, so even a not-quite-as-good Giants team doesn’t manage the regular-season tie. With Mays on the Braves, The Shot is never heard.

So when Mays returns from the Army in 1954, what about the now-Milwaukee Braves’ lineup? It would seem that with Mays due to return there’d be no motivation for them to make their February 1954 trade with the Giants, sending a large package featuring promising young southpaw Johnny Antonelli in exchange for none other than Bobby Thomson, and without Mays the Giants certainly wouldn’t be in a position to deal away their center fielder. So would the 1954 Braves outfield be Mays in center, Andy Pafko in right and Bill Bruton in left?

Remember was Thomson’s broken ankle in spring training that year that forced the Braves to improvise, moving a hard-hitting 20-year-old minor league second baseman named Henry Aaron into left field to plug the gap created by the injury. Without that incident to deal with, would the Braves have given Aaron a season in Triple-A in ’54? Or would they have promoted him and played him ahead of Bruton anyway?

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In any case, Mays’ presence absolutely makes the Braves a much stronger contender than they were, and the Giants—not only without Mays, but also without Antonelli—are significantly weakened. All things considered, it looks to me as though it’s the Braves taking on the 111-win Cleveland Indians in the 1954 World Series.

In 1955, even with Mays and Antonelli on board, it’s unlikely the Braves would have made up the 13.5 games they finished behind the Boys of Summer. But in ’56, it’s a slam dunk the Braves win what was actually an excruciatingly close three-way race with the Dodgers and Reds.

The Braves did win the pennant in both 1957 and ’58, so those would be cakewalks: That makes three straight flags, and four Milwaukee pennants in five years. In 1959, the Braves and Dodgers tied, and the Dodgers won the playoff—with Mays and Antonelli, the Braves win that one with ease as well. So, four straight, and five in six years: the Milwaukee Braves would be fashioning a tremendous dynastic run, perhaps the greatest in National League history.

With Mays, Aaron and Eddie Mathews, they would feature an offensive core as great as any ever seen, and with Antonelli joining Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, their big-3 starting pitching would also be among the all-time elite.

What do you think about 1960? Would the Pirates be able to beat them?

First things first: With an outfield of Bruton-Mays-Pafko, would the Braves have called up a young Henry Aaron? I say yes. In ’53, Bill Bruton was a 27-year-old rookie who hit .250 with one home run (and an OPS+ of 70). Meanwhile, Aaron tore up the Sally League to the tune of a .362 average, 22 homers and 125 RBI. Bruton missed a couple weeks in April of ‘54, which would have given Aaron an early opportunity even if he wasn’t an Opening Day starter. Furthermore, that the Braves didn’t see him as a major league second baseman is evidenced by their big December 1953 trade for Pittsburgh second-sacker Danny O’Connell.

I agree that with Mays (and Antonelli), the 1950s Braves would have been one of the greatest dynasties of all time. As you mentioned, they would have easily taken the 1956 pennant from the Brooklyn Dodgers. (Incidentally, does that wipe out Don Larsen’s World Series perfect game?) In the MVP race that year, Hank Aaron finished in third place behind two Dodger pitchers, Don Newcombe and Sal Maglie. In fact, 20 of the 24 first-place votes that year went to five different Brooklyn players, and Aaron managed his third-place finish despite not garnering a single first-place nod. Given that in our counterfactual scenario, the Braves beat out the Dodgers for the pennant, is it reasonable to conjecture that Aaron (who won the batting title) would have picked up enough votes for the MVP? Assuming he still won the ’57 MVP award, that would be two straight for Aaron.

And what about the 1959 MVP race? Braves Eddie Mathews and Aaron finished 2-3 in the vote that year, behind Ernie Banks (who also had won the ’58 award). Would a Braves pennant have been enough to push Mathews ahead of Banks? It would have been the only MVP award in Mathews’ Hall of Fame career.

With Mays on the Braves, the 1960 pennant race would have been one for the ages. Mays had 38 Win Shares that year, but Bill Bruton had a career year with 24. That’s only a five-game advantage with Mays, and the Braves need to make up seven games to catch the Pirates. But get this: The two clubs were scheduled to face each other six times in the final 10 days of the season. In such a tight race, it’s certainly possible that the Braves could have pulled off a victory, but I say the Pirates still win the pennant by a nose.

Would 1960 have been the end of the line for the Milwaukee dynasty? The real-life Braves finished 10 games behind the champion Reds in 1961, a gap that even the great Willie Mays couldn’t bridge. In 1962, the Braves were even further out of the race. Speaking of ’62, without Mays there’s no way the Giants could have beaten the Dodgers for the pennant, setting up still another Dodgers-Yankees World Series. Same story in ’63: Mays or no, the Braves were well off the pace of the pennant-winning Dodgers.

But how about 1964? Milwaukee was a mere five games behind St. Louis that year (in an amazing five-team pennant race). Would Mays have made the difference and put the Braves back on top?

Regarding Aaron’s promotion to the majors: I’m inclined to think you’re correct. He was such an extraordinary talent that the Braves would likely have found a reason to get him to the big club sometime in 1954, if not at the start of the season. Thomson’s injury happened to be the actual triggering event, but it didn’t need to be.

Something worth considering here is the de facto “quota” of players of color on big league rosters that still prevailed at the time. Remember that not only in early 1954 were five of the 16 major league clubs (the Phillies, Senators, Yankees, Tigers and Red Sox) still all-white, but even those teams that had integrated were careful about how many players of color they deployed.

It wouldn’t be until July of 1954 that the Dodgers would field the first majority-black lineup (that is, five of the nine players), and most teams carried no more than two or three black players. So with Mays and Aaron on the Braves’ roster in 1954, if the ball club did keep Bruton on hand as the utility outfielder, on days when Bruton spelled Pafko, Milwaukee would have presented an all-black outfield, the first in major league history. Given the disgusting sensitivities of the time, it seems likely that when Aaron came up, Bruton would have gone down, or if not Bruton, very likely utility man Jim Pendleton.

So, to 1964: With Mays the Braves would clearly vault ahead of the fourth-place Giants. But would he improve them enough to surpass the Cardinals for first place? Here the question really hinges on the additional impacts Mays’ presence would have made on the Milwaukee roster.

The Braves in that period had chronic difficulty in coming up with a satisfactory everyday center fielder, so Mays would be particularly helpful to them; with Mays around they would have been able to leverage some of their good-but-not-really-center-fielder outfield talent (Lee Maye and/or Mack Jones, for example) in trade to shore up their pitching and/or infield, and they clearly wouldn’t have had to expend two solid pitchers (Bob Shaw and Bob Hendley) as they actually did in December of 1963 in a trade to the Giants for outfielder Felipe Alou.

So, it’s reasonable to assume that not only would Mays have improved the Braves’ outfield, but also that the Braves would be improved in other departments. Most likely 1964 would be the year that the Braves recaptured the National League pennant, their first since 1959, and sixth in the 12 seasons the franchise had been in Milwaukee. Instead of the Bob Gibson/Lou Brock Cardinals grappling with the dynastic Yankees in that fall’s hugely memorable World Series, it would have been the Mays/Aaron Braves.

What might have been the impact of that? In actuality, Braves’ attendance, spectacular through the 1950s, had noticeably sagged in the early ’60s, and by 1962 their ownership was openly engaged in discussions to move to Atlanta. Would that have been the case, with a stronger, contending ball club? Would the drama and excitement of September-October 1964 have put the kibosh on the relocation, eliminating the team’s bitter and sparsely attended “lame duck” season of 1965?

In a word: Yes. The Braves’ success in 1964 (and improvement in ’60-’63) would have kept the club in Milwaukee for good. In real life, the Braves of the ’50s were a solid team that won a couple of pennants but otherwise were a mild disappointment, and in the early ’60s they became a perennial fifth-place club. With Mays, the ’50s team was one of the greatest dynasties in history, and the decline in the early ’60s was merely a not-so-bad lull between pennants. Winning the NL crown in 1964 would have put to rest any talk that might have sprung up about relocation.

What about Atlanta? The 1969 season saw the debut of the Seattle Pilots, who were lured to Milwaukee by a young Bud Selig the very next year. Would Selig have taken control of the Braves instead? Would Atlanta, not Seattle, have received an (American League) expansion franchise in ’69? And here’s a question relevant to the present day: what would the impact have been on the statistics of Hank Aaron and Willie Mays? Everyone knows that Aaron got a late-career boost from Atlanta’s “Launching Pad”; would Barry Bonds have already passed Aaron’s home run record? Shoot, would Aaron even have surpassed Ruth in the first place?

Of course, it’s impossible to bring up the Braves’ move to Atlanta without also talking about the earlier move of the Giants and Dodgers to California. What impact, if any, would the absence of Mays have had on the Giants’ decision to leave New York? Without a superstar to build around in San Francisco, would owner Horace Stoneham have agreed to join Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley on the West Coast? Or would the Giants have stayed put, thereby forcing the Dodgers to remain in Brooklyn?

My goodness! You raise a number of very good questions.

First, I’m inclined to agree that the Mays-infused Braves would have been so fully established as successful, if not sensational, in Milwaukee, that the idea of relocating the franchise would have been dismissed. So the Braves would remain in Milwaukee from 1966 onward, and this would have definite implications on Hank Aaron’s home run production, which we’ll explore shortly.

As for Atlanta, certainly the AL expansion franchise that went to Seattle in 1969 might have been granted to the burgeoning Georgia metropolis instead. But just as likely, if not more so, the Kansas City Athletics might have already moved there instead of to Oakland in 1968: Fulton County Stadium was ready for business as soon as 1966, and actively wooing suitors. In either case, it seems probable that Atlanta would have become an American League territory.

Regarding the Giants’ move to San Francisco, I think the absence of Mays only would have made that eventuality more probable. All the elements seducing Stoneham—a municipality offering to build him a brand-new stadium, in a rapidly-growing affluent market, with the promise of a closed-circuit TV network back to the existing New York market—would still be in play, and without Mays his New York product and supporting fanbase would be that much weaker. The Giants would be in San Francisco in 1958, a less worthy, and perhaps therefore more hungry, franchise. And thus O’Malley’s Dodgers would be in Los Angeles in, well, a Brooklyn minute.

So, Aaron playing his post-1965 career in Milwaukee’s County Stadium: Unquestionably, Hammerin’ Hank’s home run output was enhanced by playing half his games in “The Launching Pad” from 1966-74. But exactly how much is a tough question; my rough guess is that playing in Atlanta instead of Milwaukee (a rather poor home run park) gained Aaron somewhere around five homers per season. So let’s take five away from him for each of those nine seasons, and that leaves him with 710 for his career … how tantalizing a figure is that?

Mays began to decline following 1966, and his impact on the Braves’ performance, while hardly negligible, wouldn’t be dramatic from that point. Given that the Braves were rarely a contender in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s without Mays, there’s little reason to imagine they would have been significantly better with him. Thus their lone championship in that period—the NL West flag in 1969—is likely all they’d have achieved with Mays.

Let’s consider the images and reputations of Mays and Aaron. The home parks Mays played in with the Giants through 1965 were generally more conducive to home runs than County Stadium, so it seems clear that Mays would have hit fewer than the 660 career homers he actually amassed. Without the Atlanta boost, Aaron would have wound up with fewer than 755, and perhaps wouldn’t have even managed to eclipse Babe Ruth’s career mark of 714.

Playing apart, Mays (certainly helped by being in New York at the beginning) developed a much more glamorous reputation than Aaron. But it’s also the case that Mays was legitimately the more well-rounded player than Aaron: As good a defensive outfielder as Aaron was, Mays was far superior; as good a baserunner as Aaron was, Mays easily surpassed him. Aaron was superior as a hitter, but not by a huge margin. Thus it’s interesting to ponder how, if they had been teammates, winning and losing together, both permanently in the media backwater of Milwaukee, their relative images might be different than they are. What do you think?

The most enduring image of Willie Mays is not one of his 660 home runs or his 3,283 hits; it’s his famous over-the-shoulder catch of a Vic Wertz blast in the 1954 World Series. But that catch was made possible in large part by the vast expanse of outfield in the Polo Grounds, which served as a stage for Mays to show off his defensive magnificence.

While he certainly would still have been regarded as an outstanding fielder in Milwaukee, I don’t know that he would be remembered as a defensive player in the class of Brooks Robinson and Ozzie Smith. The greatness of Willie Mays is that he was simultaneously an incredible hitter and a phenomenal fielder, so losing some of his home runs AND being robbed of his early Polo Grounds stage would have an impact on his legacy.

On the other hand, Mays often is cited as a great player who couldn’t hit in the postseason—he batted just .247 with one home run in 89 postseason at-bats. But playing with the Braves, he would have had far more opportunities to hit in October, and it’s likely that his numbers would be significantly better.

The bigger beneficiary here, in terms of legacy, is Aaron. I have no doubt that if Aaron had been sitting at 710 homers in 1976, he would have hung around for another year to pass Ruth. Given that in Atlanta, Aaron had the added stress of facing racism and death threats during his final pursuit of the Babe, it may well be that he would have performed better in the lower-stress environment of Milwaukee. While the final image of Willie Mays would probably have been that of a declining superstar, Aaron’s farewell would have been a home run to pass Ruth. I suspect that they would be regarded today as at least equals.

You call Milwaukee a media backwater, but after playing host to a dynasty, would that still have been the case? Could a city with five pennants (and four MVPs) in six years really have been ignored? A generation of baseball fans would, year-in and year-out, tune into the World Series broadcast from Milwaukee. If the 1960s Packers could capture the imagination of the sporting world, why not the 1950s Braves?

The residual impact of Mays on the Braves is hard to estimate. Certainly the legacies of players like Eddie Mathews, Del Crandall and Lew Burdette would have been directly improved, as well as that of manager Fred Haney. But Bobby Thomson would be just another solid player, no different than contemporaries like Andy Pafko and Gus Bell. And without his perfect game (and could you really no-hit that Braves team?), Don Larsen would be merely a .500 pitcher with a drinking problem.

Moving on to the Giants, sans Mays, what would they have done with the young Willie McCovey in the early ’60s? Would they still have jerked him around, or with a less-crowded outfield/first base situation, might they have simply put him in the lineup every day? And how about Bobby Bonds—when he came up with the Giants in the late ’60s, he was subjected to endless comparisons to Mays, and you could argue that his career suffered as a result. Outside Mays’ shadow, would Bobby Bonds have made it to the Hall of Fame?

While your point regarding Mays is a good one—the enduring public portrait of him was always the Wertz catch, not him with a bat in his hands—I’m not sure your assumption is warranted, that had Mays not made that incredible play in the Polo Grounds during the 1954 World Series, his reputation as a brilliant center fielder wouldn’t have grown as it did. Yes, that single indelible image wouldn’t have been recorded, but Mays was more than capable of pulling off breathtaking plays of any sort—leaping above fences, flashing across the gaps, uncorking jaw-dropping throws, and always with the cap flying off. Playing for the Braves, he’d have appeared in five World Series by 1959, three of them against the Yankees: I think it’s reasonable to conclude that some version of the Wertz play would have taken its place.

But I’m inclined to agree with you that, though Mays might have been slightly diminished in stature, the prominence of Aaron would only increase. He would be Lou Gehrig to Mays’ Babe Ruth: the quiet, shy junior partner superstar, gaining less idolization, but in the long run perhaps more admiration than his older, more flamboyant counterpart. Whether or not he eventually would eclipse the hallowed 714 mark, Aaron’s capacity to remain a great hitter deeper into his career than Mays did would allow his star to continue to rise as Mays’ set. I suspect that, while one’s name would almost never be uttered without the other’s, in their final alignment in the cosmos, Aaron’s light would shine at least as brightly as that of Mays, and perhaps a bit brighter.

And you’re right, the tremendous attention their amazing feats would have brought to Milwaukee might have transformed it into baseball’s Green Bay. Warren Spahn’s image might not be greater than it is; I think he’s always been correctly perceived as the inner-circle great that he was. But Eddie Mathews would have gained stature more in keeping with his all-time elite performance—he’d be roughly as highly-regarded as Yogi Berra, say—and most definitely the Burdettes, Crandalls, Logans and Antonellis would be seen more along the lines of the similarly talented supporting cast of the Yankee dynasty: They would have gained prominence equivalent to that of Eddie Lopat, Hank Bauer, Gil McDougald and Vic Raschi.

The huge losers in all of this would be, by all means, the Giants. Not only would the name Bobby Thomson be just as obscure among casual fans today as an Andy Pafko or a Gus Bell, but the once-mighty franchise of McGraw and Mathewson would have left New York in the mid-1950s after having won its last pennant in 1937, and in San Francisco would capture no title of any kind until 1987.

Such was the impact of Willie Mays. And I see no reason to believe that Horace Stoneham and his management team would have made any better decisions than they did with regard to the deployment of talents such as Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda. The one bright spot might be, as you suggest, that a young Bobby Bonds developing outside of the shadow of Mays would have been a center fielder, and might have been properly perceived as the extraordinary performer that he was.

Steve Treder has been a co-author of every Hardball Times Annual publication since its inception in 2004. His work has also been featured in Nine, The National Pastime, and other publications. He has frequently been a presenter at baseball forums such as the SABR National Convention, the Nine Spring Training Conference, and the Cooperstown Symposium. When Steve grows up, he hopes to play center field for the San Francisco Giants.
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Jim Jacobson
8 years ago

My question is, do the Braves get the Brewers greats like Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Cecil Cooper? Do they still get Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz, McGriff and Chipper Jones? Are they still the team of the 90’s?