Willie Mays Turns 81

I wrote this blog post — Willie Mays turns 80 — exactly a year ago. I hope to be back blogging like mad in the next week or week and a half, but for now, here is one-year-later rerun as Willie Mays Turns 81.

The most wonderful rock concert I ever saw was an outdoor show in Atlanta featuring Midnight Oil. This had to be 1993. This was wonderful not because Midnight Oil was somehow more talented musically than other great band. Midnight Oil is not one of my 10 favorite bands, maybe not one of my 25 favorite. This was not because lead singer Peter Garrett had a better voice than anybody else or because Rob Hirst hammered the drums harder or Bones Hillman played the bass better than anyone I ever heard. The concert was not louder than any other, and the songs were not better than a thousand other songs I liked, and I wasn’t even there with a girl I was in love with.

The concert was wonderful because of the joy. The joy was everywhere. The songs themselves were not built to be joyful — Midnight Oil was a pointedly political band, and the songs were performed to right wrongs — but the songs WERE joyful despite themselves, and Peter Garrett danced like a madman, and we in the crowd came close to crawling INSIDE the music. The weather was perfect, our seats were great, the band was on, Garrett was wound up, the music was in the perfect pitch to sing along, strangers kept wandering over to dance with us, and it just felt like everybody was happy, thoroughly and unambiguously happy, and for a few minutes there was nothing in the world but that happiness.

Willie Mays turns 80 years old today.

* * *

There’s a famous story about Willie Mays scoring from third on an infield fly ball. It was while looking for the story that I came across a curious play-by-play from a game in 1967. The game happened on a Tuesday at the end of August, and it featured a Giants team that was 11 games back in the standings and a Dodgers team that was more than 20 games behind. The game was, in that way, the very definition of a baseball dog day. Willie Mays was 36 years old then. He was already a legend, already viewed as the best all-around player to ever play baseball. And he was in the middle of what was, by quite a lot, the worst year of his career to that point.

The play-by-play reads like this.

Bottom of the 5th. Giants leading Dodgers 4-1.

– Willie Mays walk
– Jack Hiatt single to RF (Mays scores)

That’s it. That’s the whole masterpiece. Mays walks. Mays scores on follow-up single. What? How? Here’s the most amazing part of all: Mays had, by 1967, done these sorts of minor-miracles so many times, that the witnesses did not even feel the need to explain it anymore. There was an Associated Press photograph that appeared in papers the next day of Mays sliding under Jeff Torborg’s glove on the play. But even the cutline, even the accompanying stories, did not explain HOW Willie Mays scored from first on a single. He had to be moving on the pitch. He had to notice the way the outfielder was turned. He had to see how the cutoff man was set up. He had to …

Nothing. The only thing that papers said was that Willie Mays was at it again. That was enough. Heck, the night before he had scored from second on a wild pitch. Later that game he mashed a 400-plus foot home run. Yep, Willie Mays was at it again. Claude Debussy is the musician who said that music is the silence between the notes. Mays’ genius was the silence within the scorecards.

* * *

The most wonderful movie I ever saw was “This Is Spinal Tap.” Everything about the movie was madness, pure insanity, amps that went to 11, concerts played at the Isle Of Lucy, promoters begging band members to kick him in the butt, mimes serving hors d’oeuvres.

The movie may or may not have been the funniest I ever saw — there probably have been a hundred movies where I laughed about as often. But I saw it at the perfect age, on the perfect day, when I was in exactly the right mood. The theater was crowded, and it had just the right mix of old and young, and Spinal Tap was different enough from anything we had seen to leave us transfixed. And it was euphoric, the happiest movie you could ever see, a movie about the world’s loudest rock band getting second billing to a puppet show, a movie about the world’s most punctual rock band getting lost backstage in Cleveland.

And when the characters who were supposed to be representing the Druids danced happily around a 12-inch Stonehenge, I probably laughed harder than I had ever laughed before, harder than I ever laughed since, and everyone around me laughed too, and their laughter pumped up mine, and my laughter pumped up theirs, and that was one of the happiest incidents of my life.

Willie Mays turns 80 years old today.

* * *

It was while looking for that story on the infield fly ball that I came across a doubleheader Willie Mays played on Easter Sunday at the Polo Grounds in 1957. This was a bizarre day across baseball. In Milwaukee, Don Hoak was the runner on second base when Wally Post hit a ground ball toward short. Hoak, running toward third, actually FIELDED THE BALL with his his bare hands and flipped it to Milwaukee shortstop Johnny Logan. Hoak would say he was just trying to protect himself. Logan said he was trying to prevent the double play. In either case, it might be the only time in baseball history that a player retired himself.

A doubleheader in Washington was called because of power failure, which was especially odd because it was (of course) a day doubleheader. In Brooklyn, Don Newcombe gave up back-to-back-to-back home runs to Pirates hitters, and in the same game Frank Thomas tried to pull the “hey kid, throw me the ball,” trick on Dodgers rookie pitcher Rene Valdes (it didn’t work). In St. Louis, Chicago Cubs pitcher Don Kaiser got a telegram saying: “Phone home immediately, Mother desperately ill. Dad.” Kaiser, who was only 22, pitched one of the better games of his career, lasted eight innings, and won. The stunt might have worked better if Kaiser’s mother had not died a year earlier. It was a goofy enough day that the Associated Press wrote a story about the many oddball happenings in baseball.

In New York, in the first game of the doubleheader, the score was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning. The great Robin Roberts was pitching — there were stories the next day across the country about how Roberts was giving up too many home runs and did not know what to do about it. And he gave up a home run to Hank Sauer in the second inning, but that was the only run he allowed through eight. In the ninth inning, with one out, Mays hit a ground ball to short. Chico Fernandez apparently felt rushed by Mays speed and threw it away. Mays ended up at second base. Mays promptly stole third. And he scored the game-winner on Sauer’s single.

Roberts would call it one of the toughest losses of his life. Many years later, he remembered Mays scoring the game winning run without a hit. “Mays could win games without doing anything,” Roberts would say. Once again, the papers had almost nothing about it. That was just Willie Mays doing what he did, even without doing anything at all.

* * *

The most wonderful book I ever read was High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. One of the things that made the book so wonderful was that, at the time, I had not heard of Hornby. Nobody had recommended the book to me. I had not read any reviews of it. I was walking through a bookstore, and I still do not know how I came across the book. It was not even facing forward for easy viewing. The book was squeezed between two others — neither by Hornby — and something about it must have caught my eye because I pulled it out. I opened it up and read the first couple of sentences. And I knew that I would love it.

Like the most wonderful movie and concert, I would not say High Fidelity is anywhere close to the best book I’ve ever read. But that’s the distinction, isn’t it — between most wonderful and best, between something that is universally and fundamentally great and something that animates a moment in time. I was 28 years old when I saw that book in a bookstore, and I had broken up with a girlfriend, and I felt sure I was going to die alone. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do — write sports — but I felt sure that I did not deserve the job. I was in a city, Cincinnati, that I did not know yet, living in an apartment that had old furniture someone had given to me, and I felt like I was drifting, and there was only one book that in that moment could capture exactly how I felt, and could make me laugh about how I felt, and could make me realize just how much fun life should be … and I happened to find that book hidden between two others at a Barnes & Noble next to a mall.

And Willie Mays turns 80 years old today.

* * *

Willie Mays was not necessarily the best at any one thing. Well, he might have been the best defensive centerfielder ever, but that’s a hard thing to define. Joe DiMaggio and his brothers Vince and Dom were all pretty great defensive centerfielders, too. Paul Blair was amazing. Devon White chased down everything, and Andruw Jones was like a genius out there, and Garry Maddox famously covered the one-third of the earth that wasn’t already covered by water. You could certainly say that Mays was the best defensive centerfielder ever and few would argue. But it’s a matter of opinion.

Mays was, of course, a brilliant hitter, but he was not as good a hitter as Ted Williams or Stan Musial or Ty Cobb. He got on base at a very high rate, but even in his era there were others who reached base more. He had immense power, but his great rival and friend Mickey Mantle probably had more, and Hank Aaron lasted longer, and certainly going back Babe Ruth was a more forceful hitter. Mays could run like the wind, but Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock and Maury Wills stole many more bases, and plenty of players throughout history were probably faster.

What does any of this mean? Not much. If a player is one of the best defenders ever, one of the best hitters ever, ever of the best power hitters ever and one of the best base runners ever, he is almost certainly the best player ever, not just by acclamation, but by accumulation. And I think Willie Mays IS the best player ever by accumulation. There is nobody — save Barry Bonds, who has his own obvious drawbacks — who could do so many things brilliantly as Willie Mays. “He could beat you every way you could be beaten,” Buck O’Neil often said.

But I don’t think any of this does much of a job explaining Willie Mays’ magnificence. I did not see Willie Mays play until he was old and worn out, and even then I was too young to notice much. What I know about Willie Mays, I know from the stories told by people who watched him … and the stories people tell is of someone who enlivened the moment, a player who made them feel a little bit more alert, a little bit happier, a little bit lighter on their feet.

They would watch Mays race into the gap — his hat, of course, flying off his head — and chase down a fly ball … they would watch Mays steal second base, watch the throw bounce a few feet from the shortstop and then see him take off toward third … they would watch him flail and miss at a slider in the dirt, his corkscrew swing pulling him off balance, his hat again falling off his head, and then crush the next fastball into the leftfield bleachers at Wrigley Field or Busch Stadium or Candlestick Park … and it was one of those rare times in life when they could step out of time, when everything felt particularly in focus, when there was nothing at all in the world except joy and wonder and the unmistakable gladness of being being alive.

The moment passed, of course. And nothing real changed. After the moment, bills were still due, marriages still broke up, wars still raged, hate still bubbled up inside people, all that. But that moment was not meaningless either. It was remembered. People held on to the moment. It was that moment that made people who met Willie Mays later in life cry. It was that moment that parents shared with their children. I once had a teacher who heard I was a baseball fan. He asked me who was the greatest player who ever lived. I don’t know who I said. Babe Ruth, maybe? Reggie Jackson, maybe? Duane Kuiper, maybe? I was just a kid. I just know I didn’t say the right answer.

“Wrong,” he told me. “The greatest player who ever lived was Willie Mays.”

“Why?” I asked.

“He just was,” he told me, and he had this happy look on his face that I have not forgotten though that must have been 35 years ago.

Willie Mays turns 80 years old today.

* * *

I never did find the precise details for story about the sacrifice fly. I’ve heard the story from several people, particularly Jeff Torborg who was there. The story goes that the Giants were playing the Dodgers, and Mays was at third base. Someone hit an infield fly ball toward second.

The Dodgers’ Jim Lefebvre caught the ball, and Willie Mays bluffed like he was going to run home. Lefebvre then bluffed like he was going to throw home. And the two players looked at each other and smiled. The Giants and the Dodgers had been through so many intense games, and here was a moment in time — like two heavyweight fighters touching gloves at the start of the final round — where everyone could relax for just a second and think about how many times Willie Mays had done something extraordinary.

Lefebvre then dropped his head slightly and began to run the ball back to the pitcher. And Willie Mays took off for home. He scored, of course, at least according to legend.

The story may not be exactly right. There is an easily-found story about Lefebvre fielding a ground ball, looking Mays back to third, and then throwing to first … while Mays raced home to score. Then again, there is a day in 1956 — May 8 — when Mays scored from first on a single TWICE. There was a day at Crosley Field in 1957 when Mays twice reached base and then promptly stole second and third — he hit a home run that day too. There was a day in 1954 when Mays scored five runs, one a a teammate’s double, one on a teammate’s triple, two on a teammate’s home run, and the fifth on an error. There was the day in 1961, at County Stadium, when Mays hit four home runs (and Hank Aaron hit two — the wind was obviously blowing out) — but even more Mays hit two or more home runs 63 times in his beautiful career, which means that 63 times in his career he gave baseball fans in the stands a day that they would remember the rest of their lives.

There are literally thousands of Willie Mays stories that people remember and hold on to even now. Mays had this unique gift, this unrepeatable gift, for exuding joy. He made people feel like they (and they alone) had discovered him. He had this unique gift for making people feel happy. He had this unique gift for making every day feel like the perfect day to watch him play.

In other words, there is no way to sum up Willie Mays, but it is the smile in the sacrifice fly story that I think about today. It is not always easy to explain what it is that makes an instant wonderful, to explain why certain dunks bring us out of our seats while equally great dunks don’t, to explain why Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Born To Run” in Kansas City soared while the same song four days earlier in Milwaukee felt a bit flat, to explain why a certain joke made us laugh hysterically. “You had to be there,” is often the best explanation we can muster.

I wasn’t there for Willie Mays. But I can see that smile. I can see the years behind the smile — all the times he raced home when no one expected it, all the times he caught fly balls nobody thought he could reach, all the times he looked utterly helpless and baffled at the plate only to turn on the next pitch. The smile said: “Heh, you thought I was going to go, didn’t you?” Lefebvre’s return smile said: “Yes, I did.”

And then Willie Mays went. And then he scored.

7 thoughts on “Willie Mays Turns 81

  1. Hirsby

    My only theory is that Hiatt hit a long line drive to the wall that he thought was gone, but it banked off the fence and the RF threw it into the infield quickly, so Hiatt had the proverbial long single. Mays, meanwhile, was running all the way and scored.

    Then again, that’s the non-romantic version. In my imagination, Mays was just as fast as the wind.

    Reply
  2. Michael

    Perhaps I posted this a year ago–I don’t know. But the Brooklyn Dodgers had a kid broadcaster in the early 1950s who said one day on the air, “Willie Mays is the best ballplayer I’ve ever seen.” His mentor, Red Barber, ON THE AIR, said, “Young Scully, how old are you?” The reply was, “24.” Red then said, “Who CARES who you think is the best ballplayer you ever saw?” Young Scully learned to avoid undue enthusiasm and undue superlatives, but, 60 years later, he has said that the best ballplayer he’s ever seen is … Willie Mays.

    Reply
  3. Dutchess

    The Minute I set my eyes on your posts glitter explodes throughout the atmosphere angels and fairies dance across the room the world shines rainbow colors I love your blog keep posting baby X dutchess

    Reply
  4. David in NYC

    My favorite Mays story is about the time he made a “only Willie” catch against the Brooklyn Dodgers. IIRC, it was a liner into the left-center gap, Willie made a diving catch, preventing a double, probably triple. After the game, Dodgers’ manager Charlie Dressen was asked what he thought of Mays’ catch.

    Dressen replied, “I’d like to see him do it again.”

    Reply
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