Appreciating Willie, at 90 and beyond

Willie Mays

Willie Mays hits his 500th career home run in the Houston Astrodome, 1965.

I started watching baseball in earnest with the 1961 World Series, when I was pushing six, and the almighty Yankees faced the almost all-surprising Reds and beat them in five. Something about the game put a vise grip upon me that hasn’t let go in the years and over the changes good and bad since.

The Reds’ Frank Robinson was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player for 1961. Willie Mays finished sixth. As I would learn in due course, Robinson won the award as much because he had an MVP-type season as because he played on a pennant winner, but there were better MVP cases in the 1961 National League by Mays and fellow Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Then they finished inventing the Mets. I was no longer stuck with having to think purely about the Yankees in New York, since the National League was coming back into business there. (Assorted family members, especially my maternal grandfather, began telling me about the former exploits of the Dodgers and the Giants.)

And I’d get to see Willie Mays, even if on television alone. His Giants came to play my embryonic Mets in their former cavern, a big, horseshoe-shaped, rambling wreck of a ballpark known as the Polo Grounds. They played against each other there nine times in 1962. The Giants didn’t visit their former home until 1 June, but it certainly felt like a visit to the old neighbourhood—they swept the Mets in four.

I got to see the first of those four. Mays came exactly as advertised, playing center field as though he were part of a track meet; hitting a home run off future Giants manager Roger Craig the other way in the fifth, about 390 feet from the plate and into the right field seats; taking third from first on a seventh-inning single by another future Giants manager, Felipe Alou.

The bad news is that even a Willie Mays who leaves magnificent first impressions just warming himself up in the on deck circle can have days where someone else makes bigger impressions in the game. Fellow Hall of Famer Willie McCovey hit two bombs for the price of one Mays mash. And even McCovey didn’t steal the day’s headlines.

That theft belonged to Jim Davenport, a left-side infielder who wasn’t quite that serious a plate threat, squareing off against Mets reliever Willard Hunter two batters after Mays scored, with the bases loaded and one out. Davenport hit one not too far short of where Mays’s bomb landed in the right field seats.

It made the score 9-1, the Mets’ lone run to that point courtesy of Rod Kanehl hitting Giants starter Billy Pierce for a leadoff jack into the left field seats. The Mets managed to chase Pierce in the eighth with an RBI double (Charlie Neal) and a two-run single (Frank Thomas) back to back, before Felix (Wrong Way) Mantilla greeted Giants reliever Bobby Bolin rather rudely with a two-run homer.

That was the last of the day’s scoring. I’m reasonably certain that that was not the game during which Mets manager Casey Stengel visited Craig at the mound with McCovey due to hit and asked, “How do you want to pitch him—upper deck or lower deck?”

The Giants banked the 9-6 win. I didn’t get to watch the next three games, alas. Perhaps just as well, since the Giants outscored the Mets over those three games 22-6, including a doubleheader in which the scoring difference was 16-6, Giants.

Mays had himself a grand time playing baseball in New York for the first time since the Giants went west four years earlier. In game one of that doubleheader he opened with an RBI single and a run scored on a sacrifice fly in the first and continued with a two-run homer in the second, though somehow the Mets kept him quiet in the nightcap.

Then, he had one more homecoming message to deliver in the fourth game of the series, taking one of the Mets’ two Bob Millers (the righthanded one) into the left field seats with one out in the sixth.

The Giants met the Mets nine times in New York in 1962 and beat them seven times. Mays had himself an .851 OPS during those nine games. He was a lot more rude a house guest of the National League’s other newborn team in 1962, the Houston Colt .45s: despite Colt Stadium being a whole pitcher’s park, Mays battered the Colts for a 1.214 OPS in 1962.

Mays was 31 years old in 1962. But he still played as though still ten years younger. He had that stance with his feet about half a foot forward and aft of home plate, the stride starting his swing where you saw his front foot step forward about another full foot plus, swinging down and across his midsection, not extending his muscular forearms until a split second before contact, the bat sweeping a little up going around.

The stride and swing that delivered 3,283 Show hits including 523 Show doubles and 660 Show home runs, and leaves open for question even now how many of his 140 Show triples came mostly from his bat or from his legs, considering how relentless a baserunner he really was.

“Willie had great instincts on the bases and he was always aggressive,” Pete Rose has said of him. “I was an aggressive baserunner also. I developed my baserunning skills watching Willie Mays play.” An interesting recollection, that—Mays took extra bases on followup hits 63 percent of the time he reached base, meaning he took more than one base on such a hit. Rose did it 49 percent of the time.

“[O]n a single, it would have been strange if he didn’t go first to third,” Rose’s teammate, Hall of Famer Johnny Bench has said. “He had one of the best turns rounding second or third you could possibly have. With his agility, he made the most perfect turns.”

Mays’s legs did as much for him playing center field as they did on the bases. He thought nothing of starting in as shallow a positioning as he could get away with before reading, hunting down, and snaring a drive. “Curt Flood was the best I’ve ever seen against the wall. He was better than Willie against the wall,” Flood’s Cardinals teammate Tim McCarver has said. “But Curt played deep. Willie didn’t play deep; he played shallow. Willie never went to the wall. Willie was the wall.”

Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller had a dugout seat with the rest of the Indians during the 1954 World Series, including and especially for the catch for which Mays remains remembered singularly, the run to the absolute rear of the Polo Grounds’ right center field, some 460 feet from the plate, to haul down Vic Wertz’s drive.

To everyone else in the house—including a writer named Arnold Hano, sitting in the bleachers and writing A Day in the Bleachers about that game and that play—the play seemed God’s next to last miracle. (My last miracle, said George Burns as God in a 1977 film, was the 1969 Mets.)

“That really wasn’t that great of a catch,” the curmudgeonly Feller once said. And why? “As soon as it was hit, everyone on our bench knew that he was going to catch it . . . because he is Willie Mays.”

Willie Mays Hall of Fame

Wouldn’t you love to know even now just whom the meatheads were that denied Mays first-ballot Hall enshrinement?

When Ted Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966, he name-checked Mays respectfully. “The other day Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty-second home run,” said Teddy Ballgame himself. “He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, ‘go get ‘em Willie’.” Willie went and got 138 more of ’em before his life as a player finally ended.

For me it was baseball fortune to get to see the better of Willie Mays even in his thirties, even if he was on the road team or I had to wait for one of the Giants’ turns on the old national network Game of the Week telecasts. It was worth the wait to see him square off against such Hall of Famers as Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, the aging Warren Spahn, the young Tom Seaver, the young Steve Carlton.

You might care to note that Mays faced Spahn more than he faced any pitcher, Hall of Famer or otherwise, and had ownership papers on the lefthander who owned a nasty screwball and was a bit of a screwball himself. According to Stathead, Mays faced Spahn 253 times, hitting eighteen home runs among 68 hits, with a slash line pretty close to his overall career slash: .305/.368/.587, and a .955 OPS.

His first major league hit was a home run off me,” Spahn said often enough, “and I’ll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out.”

Drysdale might have told Spahn, “Why the hell didn’t you strike him out?” Mays faced Drysdale 243 times and, while he hit a measly thirteen bombs off the Dodgers righthander, the slash line is .330/.374/.604. The OPS is .978. Why the hell indeed.

Having learned more than a shard of baseball history by age 16, and having seen more than enough of Mays even as a road player to know that I was watching greatness that belonged not of this world but about five dimensions beyond it, it was easy to feel a little New York sentimentality when the Giants—entering a somewhat testy reconstruction and no longer afford to carry aging players, not even Hall of Famers—sold Mays to the Mets to let him finish where he began.

He only looked resplendent in the Mets’ fatigues, under the blue hat that brandished the same orange interlocked NY which once crowned Mays’s forehead on the old black Giants hat. Sunday, 14 May 1972, was my mother’s 42nd birthday; she was a year older than Mays. The date was also Mays’s first game as a Met.

The Mets took an early four-run lead thanks to Rusty Staub’s first-inning grand salami off erstwhile Indians howitzer Sudden Sam McDowell. The Giants tied the game with a four-run fifth. Leading off the bottom of the fifth came Mays, who’d been 0-1 with a walk and a strikeout when he checked in against Giants reliever Don Carrithers.

Mays hit one about 400 feet over the left field fence to bring the Shea Stadium house to a boil of delight. The fan’s heart prayed it might be an unlikely revival; the analyst’s head knew in its heart that it was only a question of when, not if we’d have to imagine baseball games played somewhere without Mays playing in one of them.

The greats don’t always go gently into that good gray night when they can no longer play the games that made their names. This son of an Alabama industrial league ballplayer  fought a small war in his soul when his age insisted he was no longer able to play the game he loved so dearly at the level on which he’d played it for so many years. Some said he’d become sullen, moody, dismissive in the clubhouse. Some resented him, others felt for him, still others mourned.

The smiles may have become rare now but when they came he still looked like the Say Hey Kid. But, yes, you can look it up: Mays never said, “Say hey!” His early habit of starting greetings to people with “Hey . . . ” inspired beat writers covering the Giants to tab him the Say Hey Kid.)

When he smiled as a Met, you still saw him in his youth, you didn’t see the manchild who was yanked rudely into manhood by a San Francisco that shocked him with skepticism as a New York import rather than a hero of their own. By a San Francisco that also shocked him, for all its reputation otherwise, when his bid to buy a home with his first wife was obstructed long enough by the sting of neighbourhood racism.

But when he accepted the now-inevitable, you cried the tears he fought to suppress when the Mets gave him a Willie Mays night, 25 September 1973, and he addressed the Shea Stadium throng and his pennant-aspiring teammates alike, when Mets announcer Lindsey Nelson beckoned him to a microphone:

I hope that with my farewell tonight, you will understand what I’m going through right now. Something that—I never feel that I would ever quit baseball. But as you know, there always comes a time for someone to get out. And I look at the kids over here [pointing toward his Mets teammates], the way they are playing, and the way they are fighting for themselves, tells me one thing: Willie, say goodbye to America.

The game couldn’t possibly love Mays back as deeply as he loved the game, but it did its best with what it had. Today Mays celebrates his 90th birthday as the oldest living Hall of Famer, and someone like me who was there for enough of his best on the field and at the plate wishes almost as much as he must at times that we could take him back to one more day in the prime of his youth and turn him loose.

This sexagenarian and a half who saw more of him than he had a right to expect would love to shake his hand and say thank you for the honour of watching him play the game the way he played, but the fear is that “thank you” would be insufficient.

We’d love to remove the glaucoma that’s caused him to stop driving and playing golf, and take him back eyes wide open to make one more rambling catch in the depth of the Polo Grounds or in the eye of the Candlestick Park hurricane. We’d love to take him back to the day he won a second National League Most Valuable Player award eleven years after he won his first; we’d love to show him the record and get him at least two or three other MVPs he should have won.

We’d love to take him back to hit one more bomb off the Warren Spahn who only thought we’d have gotten rid of Mays if Spahn had only struck him out; to have his way with Spahn, Drysdale, fellow Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, and others; to let him have one more crack at the Bob Gibson who more or less owned him in comparison; to let him have, especially, one more chance in the single most transcendent one-on-one battle between pitcher and hitter you could ever hope to see, Willie Mays facing Sandy Koufax.

We’d also love to bring back his beloved Mae Louise, his second wife, who wept with him that farewell night at Shea Stadium, and whose eventual suffering with Alzheimer’s her loving husband didn’t allow to stop him from tending her, caring for her, loving her until she died a little over eight years ago.

But all we can do is say “Happy birthday, Willie, and here’s to many more,” we Americans who’ve never really said goodbye to the man who transcended the game we’ve loved, and who have no known inclination to do so. America without Willie Mays would feel like England without the Beatles: anything except themselves anymore.

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