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Baseball: Mays in May

4 minute read

They say it can never be done again. In 1941, Boston’s Ted Williams batted .406 for the season, and no one in either league has come close since. There are too many night games, too many coast-to-coast plane flights, too many tough young pitchers with that big new strike zone to shoot at. But then this year, there is Willie Mays, and Stan Musial sums it up pretty neatly when he says: “Common sense tells you nobody can hit .400—but if anybody can, it’s Mays.”

80 Points Ahead. At 33, and in his 14th season with the San Francisco (ex-New York) Giants, Wondrous Willie is hitting like every lick is his last. So far this year, he has hit safely in 24 of his first 27 games, including a 20-game streak, and leads the National League in just about everything: hits (46), home runs (14), runs scored (29), runs batted in (35). His average for 109 trips to the plate: .422, 80 points ahead of Williams at the same stage of the 1941 season.

Opposing pitchers have tried everything except serving up pingpong balls. “I thought I’d experiment on him,” mutters Dodger Ace Don Drysdale. “I threw a change-up that was high, inside, and right in his wheelhouse. He like to killed Junior Gilliam with a drive down the third-base line.” Willie’s teammates hardly know what to expect next. In Houston last week, Giant Pitcher Juan Marichal, whose own 6-0 record has helped keep San Francisco in the race for first place since the start of the season, walked up to Willie in mock anger: “You didn’t hit any homers the last time I pitched—you owe me two.” “Have a heart,” chirped Mays. “This is a big ballpark.” He then slammed one into the left-field seats in the third inning, put a second in the right-centerfield seats (with a man on base) in the fifth, for good measure singled to left in the seventh, driving in yet another run. Score: Giants 6, Colts 0.

Fights & Friends. “You always play better when you got peace of mind,” says Willie. But for most of the past three years, the Say-Hey Kid has not had much of that. In 1961, his ex-wife Marghuerite won a $15,000-a-year settlement (plus fees), and all during the 1962 season, her lawyer was diligently suing for payment. At one point, Willie’s debts topped $100,000, and his lawyers recommended bankruptcy. That year, Mays led the league in home runs, batted .304—and collapsed from nervous exhaustion in the dugout in September. Starting the 1963 season, he went through the first month tense, nervous, and hitting a dismal .263.

If ever a feller needed a friend, it was Willie. And sure enough, a guardian angel appeared: Jacob Shemano, 51, president of San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Bank. Jake Shemano looks more like a Hollywood Buddha than a banker; he favors green velvet shirts, smokes English Ovals like he was trying to give up Bantron, and originally became a good friend of Willie Mays, he explains, because “I am a very athletically inclined person myself.” By mid-1963, he had talked Mays into depositing every cent of his $105,000 salary into the trust department of Golden Gate National, started paying off Willie’s debts and was doling out a living allowance of $20,000 a year—no more, no less.

Following Orders. As far as Say-Hey is concerned, Jake Shemano is “the best friend I have in the world.” Mays has learned to live on his allowance, and when he is not over at the Shemanos’, he lounges happily in his $100,000 cocoa-and-white split-level pad in the fashionable Forest Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, watches TV on one of his three sets, and keeps open house for the neighborhood kids.

The only thing that makes Willie nervous now is all the chatter about his hitting. “If I’m doing good,” he says, “I don’t like to discuss it. I’m just doing what I’ve always done. Hit .400? Man, that’s silly. All I want to do is hit .300, and that’s hard enough these days.”

For Wondrous Willie, the statisticians figure, it would be especially hard. To get back down to .300, he has to goof up his next 44 trips to the plate.

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