Only Willie Mays Could Make "the Catch"
Willie Mays was a true five-point player. He hit with power, hit for average, had speed, was amazing in the field, and had a strong throwing arm.
He performed all these skills at near super-human levels. He even had the perfect positive attitude for a grown man playing a game for little boys.
He had an uncanny knack for remembering little nuances and is not given enough credit for being very cerebral in his approach. He had non-stop enthusiasm, a genuine love of the game, and was a great team player.
No one smiled more than the Say Hey Kid. He got the nickname because he would frequently call out to people with "hey man" in that squeaky voice of his. It just so happened that it rhymed with his name. "Say Hey" Willie Mays! See? Perfect all around.
Any baseball fan knows what you mean when you say those two words. The play itself even has its own Wikipedia page.
It was the first game of the 1954 World Series. The Indians' brawny left-handed power hitter, Vic Wertz, is at the plate. Fleet-footed Larry Doby is on second and big Al Rosen is on first. The 5’ 8”, 165 lb southpaw Don Liddle is brought in from the bullpen just to pitch to Wertz in the eighth inning. There are no outs.
It's called a money pitch when a pitcher pretty much has to throw a strike or he’s going to be one ball away from walking the batter. Wertz is aware of this and is sitting on a fastball with the count of two balls and one strike.
He gets that pitch and sure enough, clobbers it directly over center fielder Mays’ head. The Kid senses it's heading towards the wall, dead center, and takes off in a full sprint.
In any other park ever played in Major League Baseball history, this would have been a long home run. But the Polo Grounds is a freak of engineering. It's made for the huge field needed for polo, not baseball.
It had a one of a kind extremely long center field that stretched 483 feet. All pro ballparks still are 400 and never more than 420 feet.
About 250 feet were behind Willie when he immediately took off running in full gallop. All of his black with burnt orange trimmed number 24 on his broad back is directly aligned perpendicular flat with home plate.
When you’re that far away, you don’t hear the exact instant of when the bat hits the ball. He’s about 230 feet away, to begin with. It takes a long second for the sound to reach your ears as the ball cracks off the bat. So you have to instantly judge the flight of the ball in a split second by how it leaves the bat and how hard a swing the batter takes.
He knew in a split second before the sound could even reach his ears that he had only one chance to make this play and it was to go full bore into the big forest green wall then deal with how he'd negotiate that meeting when the time came. Right now, he's focused on getting to a spot in his head and beating the ball there.
Willie Mays' fleet feet were racing on the outfield grass running at breakneck speed at the crack of Wertz’s bat. The center field was his domain.
If he misses the ball, nearly any player with average speed will at least get a triple. One crazy carom of the ball and it's easily an inside-the-park home run. Willie knows this but he bets on his confidence and ability to catch anything hit inside the park.
All you see on film is his jersey, number 24, turned directly towards you from the infield view. Eyewitnesses at the park saw his cream-white Giants uniform with the coal-black numbers outlined in orange. It was a beautiful contrast to the forest green of the center-field backdrop of the Polo Grounds.
But the stark black and white footage for the rest of us shows our hero framed as a small figure before the monstrously tall fence. Teammates said that if Willie pats his mitt before catching anything, that means he knows he'll be able to catch it. He gives the mitt a pat.
Then suddenly, his mitt pops up above his head. Like magic, the ball disappears into the pocket! Willie handles the baseball as though it were made of glass. Incredibly, Wertz hit the ball so high and so far that it took a full five seconds to go from the bat to Willie’s mitt.
The crowd of 34,320 explodes in cheers. It's so loud that CBS-TV announcer Jack Brickhouse can’t be heard on his microphone announcing live on TV.
But by the roar of the New York fans, you can tell what had happened. Willie Mays has done something nearly impossible and the audience reacted with deliriously loud cheering.
When Jack's voice can be heard, he’s yelling from excitement. He became the storyteller of the greatest defensive play in baseball history.
But now what? Willie was at least 450 feet from home plate. Two more steps and he would have crashed head-on into the concrete wall. He has to stop on a dime and keep the runners from tagging up two bases by somehow getting the ball back to an infielder.
The catch, turn, and throw all have to be done in one motion. An impossible task you say? Ha! That's what "Say Hey" Willie Mays would say!
Not too many people talk about his incredible relay throw back to the infield. He twists violently, with his right arm flung backwards. He then slingshots his arm forward in a blur, launching the ball towards the infield.
His hat twirls off like the corkscrew top of a bottle. His muscular body spins around like the red, white, and blue stripes of a barbershop pole. He lands on his knees and palms in a violent 360-degree finish. All the while he's keeping watch on the developing play.
Here is the only break Willie got because Doby had to scramble back to second base and tag up. Rosen just lumbered back to first. Doby barely makes it to third, stops, turns to look back in shock because Willie (who later admitted he threw blindly) has spun around like a twisting tornado to throw a perfect relay.
It was a nearly straight "clothesline" (ballplayers call it) of almost 300 feet! The ball arrives to shortstop George Strickland, who’s just a few feet from the infield dirt!
Doby sees this while rounding third and has to put on the brakes. If anyone else was throwing into the infield, the runner could have jogged home tagging two bases along the way. But Doby was well aware of this guy's arm and he had to check to see if the relay throw had been dropped.
Manager Leo Durocher immediately replaced Liddle, who greets his relief pitcher, Marv Grissom, with a smirk by saying, “Well, I got my man.”
Grissom struck out the next two batters, preserving the tied game. The Giants won in the 10th with a three-run homer by pinch hitter Dusty Rhodes. They eventually won the 1954 World Series in four straight wins. No doubt sparked by Willie's catch.
After the game, Willie was seen playing stickball in the streets with the kids of his neighborhood in New York City. Do you think he was picked first by the team captain? I’d pick Willie Mays first above anyone else who ever played the game.
© 2017 Dan W Miller