Willie Mays, the Incomparable One
I was working in Watsonville in July, 1961, when the first of the two All-Star games that year was played at Candlestick Park. The National League won it with a 10th inning rally that featured Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson, all of whom are in the Hall of Fame.
At that time, there were annual books of ďThe Best Sports StoriesĒ of the year. Editors would pick the best story written on each of the top events of the year and mine on the All-Star game was chosen that year.
Mays didnít just shine in All-Star games, of course. He had an outstanding career with the Giants and he is often regarded as the best player of all time. I donít feel qualified to make that kind of judgment because I never saw major league baseball, except for World Series games on TV from 1949 on, until the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, as the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. But Iíve seen a ton of games since I came to San Francisco and Mays is far and away the best Iíve seen.
When Mays and I met to discuss his career when I was working on a book on San Francisco Giants history in 1997, we had not talked in 26 years because of a critical column I had written about his behavior toward others in 1971. He was wary but quickly changed his manner when I started asking him about memorable plays I remembered. The most memorable was one against the New York Mets. He was on third base and started running with the pitch. The pitch bounced in the dirt, off the plate, and when catcher Sal Yvars looked up, Mays was already just a couple of steps away. Yvars was frozen in place as Mays scored.
When I talked to Giants manager Herman Franks, who was startled out of his usual belligerency toward writers by that play, he said, ďIf Iíd been coaching at first base, I wouldnít have sent the runner.Ē
Mays explained that he could tell from the angle of the pitch when it left the pitcherís hand that it would be low and in the dirt, so he just started running. Iíve talked to many players over the years and never heard that kind of explanation from anybody else.
In many ways, I enjoyed Maysís base running more than any part of his game. He mesmerized opposing players. I remember one time when he advanced to second on a single to left and then just took little sidesteps toward third while left fielder Bob Skinner held the ball, unable to do anything. He was still holding it when Mays reached third.
He would often coach players behind him on the bases, and he maintained he was never thrown out at third base. He was called out once in a playoff game at the ĎStick but said the umpire had blown the call. I was at that game and thatís what I thought, too.
Leonard Koppett, who had covered Mays in New York before moving to California, told me I never saw Mays at his fielding best because he didnít have the room to roam at Candlestick that he had had at the Polo Grounds. Not just the Polo Grounds, either. The catch his teammates at the time thought was his best came at old Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, another park with immense room in the outfield. Mays ran and ran for a long drive until finally, without looking back, caught the ball with his bare hand. Nothing to it.
At Candlestick, he had another problem: the wind. Instead of taking off immediately, heíd wait a second to see where the wind was taking the ball.
For a time, when the Giants had both Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey, manager Alvin Dark played McCovey in left field. McCovey had never played in the outfield, even in high school, but Mays told him, ďJust cover the line. Iíll take everything else.Ē
He also adjusted his hitting style. Realizing it was futile to try to battle the wind in left field, he aimed for right center, figuring the wind would blow it out in right. His personal high of 52 home runs came in one of his Candlestick seasons.
Mays was a tremendous natural athlete, of course, a regular at 15 in the old Negro League but it was his willingness to make adjustments when he was playing in different circumstances that puts him on a different plane. In contrast, I think of Williams and Joe Di Maggio, great players whose home parks were unsuited to their hitting styles. Neither made any changes. They both had great careers but might have done even better if they hadnít been so stubborn.
So, Iím not going to argue with anybody who says he was the best ever.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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