During his career, Willie Mays was considered the best or at worst the second
best player in baseball. If Willie Mays played today (no jokes that if he
played today he would be a 74 year old center fielder), he would be the best
player in the game. Virtually every day he played, Mays demonstrated how great
he was, greatness that no statistical formulas can ever reveal.
The date was August 15, 1951. The New York Giants, who trailed the Brooklyn
Dodgers by 11 ½ game, were in the midst of what would become a sixteen game
winning streak. The greatest rivals in baseball history were playing the
second game of a crucial three game series at the Polo Grounds. The game was
1-1 in the top of the eighth inning.
With one out Billy Cox, a fairly fast runner at that point in his career, was
on third for Brooklyn, while pitcher Ralph Branca was on first. There was only
one out. Carl Furillo, one of baseball’s most underrated players was the
batter, facing the New York’s big right hander Jim Hearn. The outfielders were
playing Furillo to pull, with left fielder Monte Irvin shaded toward the left
field line, right fielder Don Mueller playing well off the line in right, and
Willie Howard Mays Jr. moved over to left center field.
Hearn went into the stretch, checked the runners at first and third and
delivered. Furillo hit a fly ball to right center field that to all eyes
appeared would be deep enough to score Cox with the lead run. Mays broke to
his left and running at full speed, made the catch, a catch that most good
centerfielders would make, but Mays had to run towards the right field foul
line to make the catch so he was moving away from home plate. If he stopped
running to set himself for the throw home there was no chance to throw out the
Mays didn’t break stride. He planted his left foot, made a complete whirling
pivot on the dead run as if he were a discus thrower, and fired a fantastic
throw home. The ball came flying toward the plate. First baseman Whitey
Lockman, the cut off man, let the throw go through, a very wise decision.
Catcher Wes Westrum caught the throw belt high and tagged out the sliding,
The crowd’s initial reaction was silence. No one believe what he saw. Then
reality set in and there was a tremendous roar. Fans had seen one of the
greatest plays of all time. It wasn’t one of the greatest CATCHES of all
times. It was one of the greatest PLAYS of all time. Hundreds of players could
have caught the ball but few if any players could have caught the ball and
then made the throw home Mays made to get the runner.
Mays was a rookie in 1951. He joined a struggling New York Giants team in late
May after hitting .477 with the Triple A Minneapolis Millers but had trouble
hitting major league pitching. Willie's only hit in his first twenty five at
bats was a home run off Warren Spahn. Manager Leo Durocher told Mays that all
he had to do was play great defense---the other Giants would take care of the
offense. Mays slowly adjusted, batting .274 with 20 home runs. He won the
National League Rookie of the Year award.
Most fans know about Mays’ Game 1 World Series catch against the Indians’ Vic
Wertz which probably turned the Series around. With the score 2-2 in the
eighth inning, Giants’ starter Sal Maglie walked Larry Doby to put the lead
run on first with no out. Al Rosen followed with a hard hit single off
shortstop Alvin Dark’s bare hand, giving the Tribe runners of first and second
and bringing up the dangerous left handed hitting Wertz.
Manager Leo Durocher brought in southpaw Don Liddle. Wertz hit a tremendous
drive to center field, well over Mays’ head but the New York centerfielder,
with his back to home plate, made the greatest of all World Series catches.
That was all for Liddle, who later quipped that he had gotten his man.
Marv Grissom came in to face right handed pinch hitter Hank Majeski. Indians’
manager Al Lopez countered by sending up the left handed hitting Dale
Mitchell, who would make World Series history in 1956 against Don Larsen, to
hit for Majeski. Mitchell walked to load the bases with only one out, giving
the Indians an excellent chance to go ahead, but they didn’t.
With shortstop George Strickland due to bat, Lopez sent up lefty Dave Pope.
Grissom struck him out, leaving it up to Jim Hegan. The Indians’ catcher, one
of the finest defensive backstops in baseball history but a weak batter, hit a
harmless fly ball to left field to end the inning. The score remained 2-2
until the New York tenth inning.
Indians’ starter Bob Lemon was still on the mound. In 1954, starters were
expected to finish what they started. Don Mueller led off the inning by
striking out, bringing Mays to the plate. Willie worked out a key base on
balls and with the left handed hitting Henry Thompson at the plate and the
right handed hitting Monte Irvin on deck, Willie stole second. The stolen base
Al Lopez intentionally walked Thompson to face Irvin and set up an inning
ending double play. Durocher didn’t like that but he still had a move. He sent
up lefty Dusty Rhodes to hit for Irvin. Rhodes swung at Lemon’s first delivery
and according to New York Times’ sportswriter John Drebinger, “Rhodes, a left
handed batsman, swung and a lazy pop fly sailed down the right-field foul
line. The ball had just enough carry to clear the wall barely 270 feet away.”
New York won 5-2 on Rhodes’ Chinese home run (in those day, Chinese items were
inexpensive or cheap, and cheap home runs were referred to as “Chinese” home
runs), but it was Mays’ walk and stolen base that set the stage for Rhodes. If
Mays hadn’t stolen second, Henry Thompson would have batted and no one will
ever know what events would have ensued. Putting Thompson on first forced
Lopez’ hand which in turn force Durocher’s, resulting in Rhodes pinch hitting.
The New York Giants abandoned New York to become a new National League
franchise in San Francisco following the 1957 season. Many San Francisco fans
resented New York’s love for Willie Mays and his love for New York, resulting
in Mays never feeling completely comfortable in his new city. The Giants ball
park, Candlestick Park, was a nightmare for right handed power hitters because
there was almost always a strong wind coming in from left center field. Many a
potential Mays home run became a fly out, something that statistics do not
reveal. What should the 660 life time home run total really be?
The years passed quickly as they always do. History sometimes replicates
itself, which almost occurred in 1962. The Los Angeles Dodgers, the franchise
that entered the National League along with San Francisco, were in first place
most of the season with the Giants a few games behind. When the season ended,
the teams were tied for first place, forcing a three game playoff.
The teams split the first two games. Going to the ninth inning in Game 3 in
Los Angeles, the Giants were trailing 4-2 (sounds familiar). Manager Alvin
Dark sent Matty Alou up to pinch hit for pitcher Don Larsen. Alou singled,
bringing up Harvey Kuenn, who grounded into a force play. With Kuenn on first
and one out, Los Angeles’ relief pitcher Ed Roebuck walked Wille McCovey and
Felipe Alou to load the bases, bringing up Willie.
Mays promptly hit a hard come backer that caromed off Roebuck, scoring Kuenn
from third to cut the deficit to one run and keeping the bases loaded. Stan
Williams replaced Roebuck to face Orlando Cepeda who hit a sacrifice fly to
tie the game. Alou advanced to third base with the lead run with Mays still on
first. Willie again made a pivotal play.
Left handed hitting catcher Ed Bailey was the batter. Williams, not noted for
his control, threw a pitch into the dirt that barely got away from Los Angeles
catcher Johnny Roseboro. Willie Mays had unsurpassed baseball instincts. He
made it to second on the short wild pitch, changing the inning. Ed Bailey was
intentionally passed to load the bases, bringing up Jim Davenport with the
bases loaded and one out. Williams walked the San Francisco third baseman,
forcing in the go ahead run. Williams was gone, bringing in Ron Perranoski,
who got Jose Pagan to hit a ground ball to second, but Larry Burright messed
it up and Mays scored an insurance run that would not be needed. San Francisco
won the pennant. San Francisco won the pennant (doesn’t sound quite the way
Russ Hodges said something similar eleven years earlier).
The Yankees were waiting for the Giants. It was New York against San Francisco
but it was also Mickey against Willie. Neither of the great center fielders
had an outstanding Series, with Mantle getting only three hits in twenty five
at bats with no home runs and Willie getting only seven hits in twenty eight
at bats with no home runs, but with the teams tied at three games apiece and
the Yankees leading 1-0 in Game 7, Mays got a key hit only Yankees’ right
fielder Roger Maris wouldn’t let the key open the door.
Ralph Terry had held San Francisco scoreless through eight innings. Matty Alou,
pinch hitting for pitcher Billy O’Dell who had come in for starter Jack
Sanford, led off the bottom of the ninth with beautiful drag bunt between the
mound and second base for a single. Terry then struck out Felipe Alou and
Chuck Hiller, leaving it up to Willie Mays, who had hit a home run in his
first 1962 regular plate appearance.
Willie came through again. He smashed the ball down the right field line for
extra bases. It appeared that the speedy Alou would score but Roger Maris, one
of the most underrated defensive right fielders ever, raced toward the line
and cut the ball off before it could reach the fence. Alou had to hold up at
third. Mays had done his job but Maris saved the World Championship.
Yankees’ manager and Ralph Terry eschewed intentionally walking the powerful,
left handed hitting Willie McCovey to face the equally powerful but right
handed hitting Orlando Cepeda. McCovey hit a screaming line drive toward right
field that looked like a sure single but it was right at second baseman Bobby
Richardson. Mays had set it up but the Yankees prevailed.
Willie Mays did things others could only imagine. Ruth was a better home run
hitter, Cobb and Williams were far better hitters, Henderson, Brock and Cobb
could steal more bases, maybe Jackie Robinson had better instincts as a
baserunner, maybe Jimmy Piersall or Paul Blair were better centerfielders and
maybe they weren’t, but statistics will never reveal what it meant when Willie
Mays was on the field and he was on your side. If Willie Mays wasn’t the
greatest player to ever play the game, and he wasn’t, he certainly was the
greatest player in the history of the New York Giants and he certainly was the
greatest player to ever wear the uniform of the San Francisco Giants. Say-Hey