By In Baseball, History

A Toast to Willie Mays

Willie Mays turned 84 on Wednesday, so let me tell you quickly about two days of his life in 1967. That was the year I was born, 48 years ago now, and it seemed like Mays was finally showing his mortality after 13 years of being incomparable. He was in a death-defying slump. He looked so helpless that on August 13, for the first time in years, Mays was dropped to the fifth spot in the lineup.

The next day, facing Atlanta, something happened to him that had never happened before: A team intentionally walked a player in order to face Willie Mays. This was the top of the third inning, a man was on third, and Jim Ray Hart stepped up to the plate. Hart was a terrific player; he was hitting .300 with power. The Braves walked Hart to get to Mays.

“It wasn’t that I don’t respect Mays as a hitter,” Braves manager Billy Hitchcock told reporters. “I certainly do. But Hart is their hot hitter, and Mays hasn’t been hitting.”

“That was a good move,” Mays conceded. “If Jim Ray hit a home run, they’re down three runs.”

As it turned out, Mays singled home the run … but that was beside the point. The most fearsome player in the league for 15 years no longer frightened teams. The end seemed in sight. From August 4 to August 27, Mays hit .148 with one extra base hit (a home run off Steve Carlton). He did not steal a base. His batting average plummmeted 25 points into the .260s. He went 0-for-6 against Atlanta’s Denny Lemaster and some relievers, only the second time in his career he’d had an 0-for-6 game. Earlier in the year, for only the second time in his career, he had struck out four times in a game (against 19-year-old Gary Nolan no less).

People started asking Mays about retirement.

“I know I can’t do all the things I once did,” Mays said. He was convinced, though, that his slump had more to do with the flu than with age. He believed he still had something left. Athletes always do.

On August 28 — two days after his 0-for-6 day — Mays was facing a 22-year-old Don Sutton, who would one day join Mays in the Hall of Fame.

And Sutton threw a pitch that hit Willie Mays in the shoulder. Mays was furious. While on the ground, he clearly said something to catcher John Roseboro; he never revealed what he said, but it’s not too hard to figure out. Mays may have been too old to do all the things he once did. But he was also old enough that he no longer wanted to deal with young kids trying to earn their spurs brushing him back. “I’ve got to protect myself from that knockdown stuff,” he said to a reporter afterward.

After Mays reached second base, he was still raging inside. Then it happened: Sutton threw a wild pitch. This was it. Mays sprinted for third and then, with the rage still boiling inside him, turned the corner and headed home.Sutton was covering the plate, just like Mays knew he would. He wanted make sure this young’n understood: You don’t throw high and tight against Willie Mays.

Mays came into home plate with his spikes high. As it turned out, it was just a message slide — Sutton was standing on the first-base side and well out of harm’s way. When Mays popped up after his slide, he stood face to face with the pitcher. There was no missing the point.

“You would have cut up that young fellow,” a columnist told Mays afterward.

“I don’t want to hurt anybody,” Mays said. “But I don’t want anybody hurting me either.”

So there it was: A 36-year-old Willie Mays had scored from second base on a wild pitch. Incredible. In the same game he stole a base and hit a two-run single.

The next day, the Giants were playing the Dodgers again. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Mays walked. Jack Hiatt came up next and cracked a single to right field. There was nothing special about the single, it was a run-of-the-mill base hit, on a line, but Mays read it well (he was, of course, one of the great base runners of all time) and rounded second, headed for third. Mays was running at full speed, and the Dodgers’ Ron Fairly realized he did not have a play. He tossed it back into the infield. Fairly did not realize: Mays was heading home.

The throw to the plate was too late. Willie Mays had just scored from first base on a single. “I haven’t done that in a while,” he said with some amazement in his voice. Next time up he homered. That meant in two days in 1967, when Willie Mays was 36 and showing it, he scored from second on a wild pitch, from first on a single, stole a base, hit a home run and let everyone know that he was still Willie Mays.

“I keep telling you,” Mays said, “I ain’t done just yet.” He was not. Mays played another five years and while he wasn’t the player he had been, he did win another Gold Glove, did lead the league in on-base percentage one year, did finish Top 10 in WAR twice.

In all, an older Willie Mays hit another 16 triples (more than Frank Thomas hit in his whole career), cracked another 96 homers (more than Rod Carew hit in his whole career) and stole another 50 bases (as many as Ernie Banks had in his whole career; more than DiMaggio and Stargell combined). He also gave a million kids a few more memories.

That’s the thing about time. You can’t beat it. The years are like a relentless boxer that never stops hammering away at the body. But, every now and again, the great ones will win one of those late rounds against time. And we all stand up and cheer.

38 Responses to A Toast to Willie Mays

  1. john4psu says:

    Terrific article Joe on the greatest all-around baseball player ever.

  2. gosport474 says:

    On opening day 1974, with two outs in the bottom of the 11th, Pete rose hit a double off Buzz Capra of the Braves. Rose then scored from second base on a wild pitch by Capra giving the Reds the win on opening day.

  3. Paul Callahan says:

    I was born in 1966 and because the great Willie Mays rebounded from that slump in 1967, I was able to watch him play and become a Giants and then later a Mets fan – I was so sad when I read he was retiring, that my parents let me name our new cat “Willie” and took me on a trip 5 years later to see Mays inducted into HOF – great arcticle Joe and Happy Birthday to the greatest i ever saw, Willie Mays

  4. Alejo says:

    Baseball is the only sport that grows greater in recollection.

  5. Brad says:

    Great piece on one of the best to ever play the game. A little context on Gary Nolan. Before he developed arm trouble, he was an outstanding young pitcher. He threw some serious heat and his career W-L is pretty good. Might be an interesting topic for Joe once he finished the top 100?

  6. Sandy says:

    Willie was the best base runner I ever saw. He went first to home on singles many many times. (1968 he went 1st to home on a single to left ) 2nd to home on infield ground outs. 1st to 3rd on ground outs. He was amaysing.

    • sbmcmanus says:

      Does anyone have stats on how much this stuff actually happened vs. how much it feels like it happened?

      • Stephen says:

        I don;t have any stats, but I did a little research today while waiting for my wife to finish something up. I looked at 1961 …Mays scored 129 runs in 154 games, a figure which led the league. To make my life easier, I only looked at the runs he scored, not first-to-third on grounders, etc.

        Mays had two runs that would qualify as unusual. On May 5 of that year he scored from first on a single by Orlando Cepeda, who went to second on the throw, and on June 30 he scored from second on a grounder to third.

        Other than that…the rest of his runs look pretty normal to me. He scored 40 runs on his own homers, another 18 on other people’s homers (usually Cepeda’s). There were a bunch of runs on sac flies, singles, doubles…pretty much what would be expected from a good hitter who was on base a lot.

        As far as I can tell, Mays scored no runs that year from second on infield hits, wild pitches/passed balls, or sac flies.

        Obviously we can’t tell just by looking at the play-by-play how difficult some of the other runs were…We all know that there are some doubles for which scoring from first seems like an impossibility, others from which it seems like a foregone conclusion. Mays scored from first on a double six times, and it could be that some or all of these were pretty remarkable.

        I don’t suppose that Frank Thomas ever scored from first on a single or from second on a grounder, so there’s that. Certainly two isn’t bad. But it doesn’t make you go WHOA BABY either. Based on this one season, anyway, it doesn’t seem as though Mays’s list of very-impressive baserunning achievements was as long as people remember them to be. I’d be happy to see evidence to the contrary.

  7. Marc Schneider says:

    I’m not old enough to have seen Mays in his prime (TV games were limited when I was growing up; I saw the Dodger more than the Giants because they were in the World Series) but I have always thought the Mays’ 1965 season, when he hit 52 home runs, was one of the most amazing seasons ever, considering that it was in the middle of a pitching-dominant era with an enlarged strike zone and he played in Candlestick Park. It was another 12 years, I believe, before anyone hit 50 again (George Foster) and that was after lowering the mound and so forth to improve the offense. Oddly enough, I have not heard many people talk about Mays’ 1965 season, perhaps because other things, such as Koufax’s perfect game and Marichal’s bat incident seemed to get more attention. He started declining a bit the next season. Mays, like Mantle, probably should have been league MVP far more than he actually was.

  8. fourcrickets says:

    The best gets the best treatment from the best.

  9. Three Willie Mays stories — all involve the Mets, since I lived in New York then:

    1. Game tied 1-1, top of the ninth, two outs, nobody on. Mays lines one into the right field corner and arrives at third base at about the same time the ball reaches catcher Jerry Grote. Mays takes a BIG turn at third and suckers Grote into throwing there. The ball hits him and kicks down the left field line. 2-1, Giants win.

    2. Game tied 1-1, bottom of the 11th, Mays on second, one out, Alan Gallagher hits a routine bouncer which 3B Tim Foli fields about a third of the way to second base. Mays, running from second, manages to be no more than two feet past Foli as he fields the ball, causing Foli to hesitate thinking he might have a tag play on Mays, by which time Mays is already out of reach on his way to third base AND Gallagher is able to reach first safely. Tito Fuentes follows with a sac fly, 2-1, Giants win..

    3. Mays is playing 1B (1971). Game tied 4-4, bottom of the 10th at Shea Stadium, one out, bases loaded, Bud Harrelson on third. Ken Singleton lifts a fly ball to center and Bobby Bonds fires home to try to catch Harrelson. Where is Mays? He’s standing just inside the third base line by about a foot, about 20 feet from home plate, doing nothing except legally denying Harrelson an inside route to home plate and perhaps get into his head a bit. Harrelson was safe — the throw was not strong enough — but has anyone here ever seen anybody else do that? He was trying for an edge even though there was nothing whatever he could do in that play.

    A fantastic talent, sure, but the man was also the smartest ballplayer I’ve ever seen.

  10. nevyn49 says:

    Must have been on steroids. They should take him out of the hall[/sarcasm]

  11. Brett Alan says:

    That line about giving millions of kids memories nails it. Around ’73 or’74 my parents took me to a Mets/Braves game. Looking back on it, I know that Mays wasn’t playing very well by that point, and Aaron was no longer his best either. I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. I just care that I saw Willie Mays and Hank Aaron play against each other, with my own two eyes.

  12. wordyduke says:

    Great piece, Joe! I saw Willie playing for the Minneapolis Millers in 1950, and when he rounded first base on his way to an extra-base hit, he made it look like the basepath was banked, he took the curve so fast.

  13. There’s a story from Tom Seaver about Mays time with the Mets when Mays could have scored from second easily on a single to the outfield, but slowed down enough to draw the throw home which gave him an excuse to take out the catcher as he scored, guaranteeing that the hitter would advance to second base. Mays was 42 years old then.

    What a coach Mays would have been! He was an informal one to the Giants—and to Barry Bonds in particular—but to have him travel with a team to lend his insights into the game on a daily basis would have been invaluable. One can even imagine him managing. It’s a pity he didn’t follow that path.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      In another vein like that, Giant fans must wonder how Game 7 in 1962 would have turned out if Mays had been on base when the ball he hit went down the line in right field and was cut off by Roger Maris, keeping the tying run (one of the Alou brothers, I believe,) at third. I have read that Mays said that he would have scored on the play.

  14. Marc Schneider says:

    The thing about Mays is that he missed basically two full years to the military in his prime, 1952-1953. Considering that in the two years after his service, Mays hit 92 home runs, you have to think that the military cost him, at a minimum, 70 home runs, which would have put him at 730 and passing Ruth first. For whatever reason, Hank Aaron was not drafted (Mantle wasn’t either but that was specifically due to a medical condition). But maybe Mays was lucky because he didn’t have to go through what Aaron did in chasing Ruth.

    • Chad says:

      Alternatively, if Ted Williams hadn’t missed all but 43 games out of 5 seasons for military service, it could have been his record Mays was chasing

      • Marc Schneider says:

        Possibly, but I doubt it. See it Williams averaged 27 home runs over 19 years; if you subtract 1952-53, most of which he missed, his average is 29. He also missed time due to injuries so his 162 game average is 37. But even if you assume he would have averaged 37 home runs for those five years, that still gives him only 185 more, which projects to 706. But he only hit 37 or more three times; although, in fairness, he was at his peak before going into service in WW II and had hit 36 and 37 in 1941-1942 and, then 38 in 1946. So, it’s possible but I think unlikely. But he almost certainly would have been number two on the list. Of course, if he had been that close, he might have played another year, given that he had hit 29 in his final season.

    • J.R. Clark says:

      Imagine if the Giants had remained at the Polo Grounds for Mays’ entire career…Willie would have put the home run record out of sight.

  15. Phil Royce says:

    I read the other day that A-Rod “equaled” Willie Mays. He may have 661 homers, but A-Rod is no Willie Mays.

  16. Monica Massey says:

    i am posting this with permission:

    Monday, December 15, 2008

    Willie Mays, last day at Polo Grounds, and my Dad
    Lanny Davis

    Last week’s column described life with my 10-year-old son, Josh. I received a better response to that column than to anything I have ever written before. As one Very Important Person said to me, “You need to write more personal columns that people identify with than just writing about politics.”

    I tried not to take this as indicating that few people care about my political opinions. (My 10-year-old son tells me he cares; my wife tells me she doesn’t.)

    So in this column, I am writing a sequel to last week’s column, which ended with my accolade to my hero, Willie Mays, who, from all the e-mails I received about last week’s column, clearly was a hero for many people, both men and women.

    On Sept. 29, 1957, my dad took me to see Willie Mays play his last game in New York for the New York Giants. The next season, the Giants were moving to San Francisco.

    We expected all 54,555 seats to be filled in the old Polo Grounds on Coogan’s Bluff in Harlem, Manhattan, just across the ravine from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Instead, the stands seemed virtually empty. It seemed that Giants fans were angry about the move to San Francisco, and also, the Giants were mired in sixth place. (We later learned the attendance was only about 11,000 fans.)

    But there was an advantage to the poor turnout. My dad was able to take me to the empty seats right behind the Giants’ dugout, near the rail to the field. None of the ushers seemed to mind. So close to Willie!

    In the first inning, when No. 24 came up to bat (batting third), my dad urged me to yell, “Say hey, Willie,” and I did. He turned, looked and smiled at me! I swear he did.

    Then he proceeded to get a single. But the game didn’t go well for the Giants. They were down 9-1 going into the bottom of the ninth, when Willie came up with one out. Thank goodness, I thought, he won’t be the last out in the last inning.

    Oh, please, please, I prayed to the God of Baseball, let Willie hit a home run in his last at-bat at the Polo Grounds. But that was not to be. Willie hit a one hopper to the pitcher, and he was quickly was thrown out. Yet he hustled all the way to first base and beyond. Oh my, oh my, I thought: My hero hustled to the very end.

    Two outs. And then came the last batter, grounding out add to shortstop, and it was over. As fast as that.

    All of a sudden, I saw No. 24 literally leap up the steps of the Giants dugout, right in front of me, so close I could almost touch him, and there he was tearing full speed toward center field to the safety of the clubhouse and the team locker room.

    As soon as I saw Willie lead the way out of the dugout, I had only one thought: I HAVE TO SHAKE WILLIE’S HAND AND THANK HIM AND SAY GOODBYE. I HAVE TO! Without the slightest hesitation, I jumped over the rail and ran after him.

    I ran as hard as I could. A few other people apparently had the same idea — like virtually all 11,000 fans who also were also lining the railings for the last out. A few people (seemed like a few thousand) stopped, as I did, to get souvenirs from the field. I grabbed a handful of Polo Grounds infield dirt the same dirt, I thought, that Willie might have stepped on! I put it in my pocket. I kept that dirt in a paper cup in my desk drawer for years.

    Other fans grabbed the infield bases. Others were tearing down the outfield walls. It was a mob, and it was a mess.

    I ended up sitting on the first step of the steep steps to the clubhouse, with nearly all 11,000 fans behind me, all of us shouting, “We want Willie! We want Willie!” Then suddenly it hit me:

    “Where is my dad?” I looked around to see if I could find him. I couldn’t.

    First I thought there was no reason to be afraid after all. I was 12 years old, so why should I be afraid of temporarily being separated from my father?

    Then I changed my mind as I looked at the screaming mob of strangers behind me.

    I was petrified.

    But at that very moment, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned. It was my dad.

    “How did you know where I was?” I asked him.

    “I knew where you would be,” he said quietly, with a wisdom I didn’t appreciate at the time.

    And then it happened. More than 50 years later, I remember it as if it were today. At least I think it happened. Willie came out, waved to all the delirious thousands of shouting fans.

    And then … and then … he looked down the stairs, he looked at me, and he pointed his finger at me, as if to say, “Hi, kid. Bye, kid.”

    I swear he did. Well, I think he did.

    To this day I am certain he was talking to me, only me.

    Well, almost certain.

    Looking back 51 years later, I realize I had experienced an important lesson in life. I learned that I could be both happier and sadder at the same time than I have ever felt and that feeling those two contradictory emotions wasn’t so bad. I learned over the many years that joy and sadness are not only part of life, but also that one almost always follows after the other, and then, back again.

    So now I know, with the wisdom of hindsight and many years since hence, that when such a moment of pure joy occurs, never forget it, always treasure it, because in real life it won’t be allowed to go on forever, because surely, some sadness will inevitably follow, which make the times of joy all the better.

    So remember those moments of joy as best as you can and, if possible, write them down so you won’t forget them.

    Now I finally have.


    Lanny Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006 to 2007. He is the author of “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America.” This article appeared in The Washington Times on Monday, December 15, 2008.

  17. Alejo says:

    Baseball gets existential angst over PED use.

    Football get emotional over deflated balls.

    You have to admit baseball is the more highbrow choice here.

  18. I’m a tour guide at Target Field, which features a private club with a tribute to minor league ball in the Twin Cities, the highlight being a huge picture of Willie homering as a Minneapolis Miller in 1951. Fresh up from Class B Trenton, the 20-year-old played in only 35 games for the Millers before being called up. He was hitting an astounding .477 in triple-A. The fans were outraged and formed an I Never Saw Him Play Club without bothering to identify who Him was.

    His fielding was equally spectacular. In one game he scaled the center field wall at Nicollet Park with his spikes and snared a long drive by Taft Wright (appropriately nicknamed Taffy), doubling a runner off second base. Wright lumbered into second with a sure double and didn’t believe the umpire’s out signal. He wouldn’t leave the field until his manager came out and dragged him off.

    Speaking of Willie’s base running, I saw him win a game in Philadelphia by taking third on an intentional walk! The catcher dropped one of the throws and the ever-alert Willie took third and scored the winning run on a sac fly.

    Some people think 3M stands for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing. To me it represents Mays’ Miraculous Month.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      It’s interesting to me how the early African-American players seemed to be able to dominate “organized” baseball to an extent not seen before or since. The stories about the things that Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays did on the bases seem incomprehensible today; it’s hard to imagine any player being able to do some of these things. This suggests to me (1) the overall level of talent is higher today so that even a guy like Mays could probably not do some of the things he did back then; and (2) the integration of the game led to not only a higher overall level of talent but to a new way of playing that most white players had not seen before. The stories of what guys like Mays did seem hard to fathom.

  19. dave says:

    See: Duncan, Tim

  20. does anyone know what happened to mays in 1971? that year his walks and strikeouts went up enormous amounts compared to any other part of his career, before or after.

    thanks to those who reply!

  21. Ross says:

    Coincidentally, the Astros intentionally walked Trout to get to Pujols in the 9th on Friday.

  22. huskergut says:

    How is it possible Joe DiMaggio only stole 30 bases in his career?

    • Marc Schneider says:

      The Yankees didn’t need to steal bases; in fact, they probably thought it was beneath them.

  23. Wayne says:

    Great stories from all of you about Willie Mays. I caught Willie Mays 559th home run at candlestick park against the Didgers pitcher Dick Eagan. I started out behind the dougout but prior to the game moved to left center field with my father bottom of the 7th inning 0-2 fastball. 48 years later I still have it. Mays signed it and actually put 559 on the ball for me. I had a vision top 5 players of all time

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