Remembering Willie Mays

He was the symbol of my youth.

With the passing of Willie Mays it is not a reach to say much of my youth went with him.

He was everything to me.

As a youngster what I cared about the most was the New York Giants.

Yes, I was also a huge fan of the football Giants, but in those days baseball was king, and the Giants were alone at the top.

I lived for baseball and the Giants from 1951 until they moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season.  That’s not a long time, to be sure, to love your favorite team as a kid.

But I had Willie Mays, and that was enough.

Willie passed away last week at 93. It’s been said he never really grew up. A kid for life.

The Say Hey kid. He came into my life in May of 1951. I had been introduced to baseball by my Dad only a month before. I was 8 years old. But when he took me to the Polo Grounds to see the New York Giants I was hooked.

Joe was in the printing business and bought a ticket plan which included Sundays, night games (there were only 21 at the time), holidays and opening day.

So I inherited the Giants from my father who would talk to me about his childhood greats like Carl Hubble and Mel Ott.

the Giants bitter rivals were the Brooklyn Dodgers. In late May the Giants called up centerfielder Willie Mays from the Minneapolis, their top minor league farm team where was hitting .477.  I never forgot that number.

We would go to about 12 games that season, saw virtually every home game on WPIX channel 11 and heard those we didn’t see and the road games on WMCA radio.

At first, my Dad and I  didn’t pay much attention to this kid from Alabama who struggled incredibly at the plate when he first joined the Giants.

What we did notice was the way ran the bases, and roamed the huge centerfield at the oddly-shaped ballpark. Using his remarkable speed he was an immediate sensation in covering left and right center along with bloopers and deep shots. There was nothing he couldn’t get and his arm was sensational.

Willie’s boyish innocence in his free-wheeling style on the field extended to his life away from the park. On his way home after day  games he often played stickball in the streets of Harlem with the folks who found a new hero.

During the late season pennant drive when the Giants came back from a 13 1/2 game deficit in mid-August to tie the Dodgers forcing a playoff,  Mays made a play that I have never seen since.

Leading the Dodgers by a run at the Polo Grounds late in the season, Billy Cox was the trying run on third base when a drive was hit to deep right center.  Mays took off and only with his super speed, made the catch running away from home plate. He proceeded to stop on a dime, spun around and unleashed a long, perfect laser to home to nail Cox.

It was a spellbinding moment.

The catch and throw saved the game for the Giants who crept closer to the Dodgers who they  would ultimately conquer on Bobby Thomson’s dramatic pennant-winning home run in the third and deciding playoff game.

Of course, another hard-to-believe catch and throw by Willie has gone down in history as one of the all-time signature plays.

Joe took me to the first game of the 1954 World Series against the heavily-favored Cleveland Indians.

Yes, I was there to see The Catch. I was now 11.

In the eighth inning and the score tied, the  Indians had runners on first and second when Vic Wertz drove one deep to center. It would have been a home run in every other ballpark in baseball, but center field in the Polo Grounds was 483 feet from home, the longest distance ever.

The drive was hit over Mays’ head and he took off and finally caught the ball over his shoulder with his back facing home plate. What happened next was what made the play so enduring.

He quickly spun and fired back to the infield, losing his footing and his cap, holding the runner on first while the other runner tagged up and went to third.

At the crack of the bat, my father yelled for me to stand on the seat. I did and managed to see the catch I would not have seen with all the fans standing up.

I also remember another incident that day that had nothing to do with the game.

During batting practice, a group of photographers rushed over to where we were sitting.

It appeared they were taking my picture, when my father looked behind me and said nothing.

When they left, he told me to unobtrusively look at the man sitting behind me.

He asked me if I knew who that was. I had no idea.

He quietly told me that the man was General Douglas MacArthur, and who he was.

He said I was in the photos because they thought I was his son.

I’ve recalled that moment as much as I remember Mays’ catch.

I had the chance to meet him on several occasions. But the first time was on a flight, where I acted like a fan, having to tell him that I was there for that game in ‘54.

He told me, as he’s related many times, that the catch wasn’t the greatest one he made.

The best, he has said, was in 1951, when he robbed Bobby Morgan of the Dodgers with a catch leaping horizontally at the warning track at Ebbets field in Brooklyn.

Willie crashed onto the gravel track and was knocked unconscious.

When left fielder Hank Thompson came over to tend to Mays he found the ball firmly nestled in May’s glove.

Mays made countless “great” catches, but the one against Vic Wertz meant the most.

The ‘54 World Series capped a championship by the Giants who had welcomed back Mays after two years in the Army.

He was the National League Rookie-of-the-Year in 1951, and the league’s Most Valuable Player when he returned in 1954.

We know that Mays played a great deal more of his brilliant career with the San Francisco Giants than in New York, but I don’t believe he was never more adored than when he played at the Polo Grounds.

When the Giants moved out west, Mays was certainly appreciated, but it was the new face, Orlando Cepeda, that was more of a fan favorite than Willie. This is a fact.

I never extended my rooting interest when the Giants left town because I couldn’t read about them daily, watch or listen to the games, or go the ballpark.

But I was able to marvel at the phenomenal talents of the man who, like so many others, regard him as the greatest baseball player of all-time.

He could hit, hit with power, run, field, and throw.  But he did them all in spectacular fashion.

Willie Mays was electric. Everything he did was with a flair. A showman without trying to be one.

It was natural.

Thinking back, now that he’s gone, it’s somewhat shocking that I was able to enjoy Willie Mays for only five seasons in a Giant uniform. He was in military service in ‘52 and ‘53, and gone to the Bay Area after the ‘57 campaign.

But having a chance to watch Mays in his formative years, and mine too, for that matter, unquestionably set the tone for my devotion to sports which became my life’s work.