Remembering How Willie Mays Inspired

5 minute read
By Sean Gregory
Willie Mays of the New York Giants in 1954.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
5 minute read

Millions of kids who watched Willie Mays play during the prime of his major league baseball career, or were born after he retired from the game in 1973, pictured themselves making “The Catch.” Or practiced making “The Catch,” just like Mays—who died peacefully on Tuesday afternoon, at 93, the San Francisco Giants announced—did that afternoon back in 1954. Throw a ball up into the air, behind you, in your backyard, turn around and chase it down, making an over the shoulder grab with your mitt, and conjure up the cheers of a packed Polo Grounds. Those imaginary screams filled the vacuum of countless young minds.

And we’ve been doing this for almost 70 years.

Such was the power of Mays’ iconic World Series play, in September of 1954, against Vic Wertz of the Cleveland Indians in the eighth inning of Game 1 of the World Series. The score was tied, 2-2. Mays, playing shallow in center field for the New York Giants, started running back towards the wall as soon as Wertz smashed a ball that would travel some 420 feet. Mays kept running, and running, and running, and made a miraculous basket catch with his back to home plate. Not only did Mays save at least two runs, he also had the presence of mind to immediately hurl the ball back towards the infield, keeping Cleveland’s Larry Doby, himself a fellow baseball Hall of Famer, from tagging up from second base to home plate. Doby only got to third. The Giants won the game, and the World Series.

“Willie Mays just brought this crowd to its feet,” said broadcaster Jack Brickhouse, “with a catch which must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people.”

Mays makes his famous catch off the bat of Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series.
Mays makes his famous catch off the bat of Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series.NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Mays was just 23 years old, the reigning MLB MVP, and the most electric baseball player—if not athlete—of his time. He was nicknamed “The Say Hey Kid,” for the enthusiastic manner in which he greeted teammates. Only Cassius Clay’s emergence, in the 1960s, could overshadow Mays in the minds of Americans.

“He plays with a boy’s glee, a pro’s sureness and a champion’s flair,” TIME wrote of Mays in a 1954 cover story. Entering the majors in 1951, just four years after Jackie Robinson integrated the game, Mays roamed centerfield when baseball still reigned as America’s true pastime, before the explosion in popularity of football and basketball. His career home run total—660, third all-time through the end of the 20th century, still good for sixth-best today—is etched into our sports psyches.

Mays grew up during the segregation era, in Alabama, and joined the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro League in 1947. He soon emerged as one of America’s first Black crossover stars. His talent, and effervescent presence, seemed to transcend existing prejudices. Fans couldn’t dare look away, when he came to the plate or took the field, because something exciting was bound to happen. His appearances on otherwise lily-white TV programs such as the Donna Reed Show, Bewitched, or the Ed Sullivan Show, played a landmark role in the culture. White America was willing to embrace a Black sports star in their living rooms—on television, at least.

Once he got to the big leagues, Mays wasn’t immune to racism. When the New York Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season, white neighbors objected to him buying a home in one of the city’s neighborhoods. He eventually moved in. All in all, he helped America take some steps forward.

Bleacher fans lean over the wall to greet Willie Mays as he and the San Francisco Giants made their first appearance against the Mets ca. 1962.
Bleacher fans lean over the wall to greet Mays as he and the San Francisco Giants made their first appearance against the Mets ca. 1962.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

That wasn’t good enough for critics, like Robinson himself, who thought that Mays should become more vocal in the civil rights movement. “​​Willie is personable and has great talent,” Robinson said about Mays in the late 1960s. “But he’s never matured. He continues to ignore the most important issue of our time. He’s never had any decent guidance in these matters and probably keeps looking only to his security as a great star. It’s a damn shame he’s never taken part. He doesn’t realize he wouldn’t be where he is today without the battles others have fought. He thinks it isn’t his concern. But it is.”

History, however, will remember Mays for bringing light to what Black Americans could accomplish on a fairer field of play. “A few years ago, Willie rode with me on Air Force One,” President Barack Obama said in 2015 at the White House ceremony in which Mays received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “I told him then what I’ll tell all of you now—it’s because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for President.”

On Thursday, a day after Juneteenth, the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals will play in Birmingham, Ala., at Rickwood Field, the oldest still-existing professional ballpark in the country and former home of the Black Barons. Just yesterday, Mays announced that he couldn’t make the game, which was set to honor him and the Negro League. On Tuesday, Mays’ passing was announced on the loudspeaker at Rickwood Field, during a minor league game. The crowd and players broke into a standing ovation and chanted “Willie, Willie!”

It was a fitting tribute to a man who moved generations. Mays, his “Catch,” and his memory will live on. Never to be duplicated.

Mays steps up to home plate during a game against the Chicago Cubs at Shea Stadium, in Queens, New York in 1972.
Mays steps up to home plate during a game against the Chicago Cubs at Shea Stadium in Queens, N.Y., 1972.Walter Leporati—Getty Images

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