Willie Mays Is 80 (From the
The month of May was always
Willie Mays' time. Willie Howard Mays was born
on May 6, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama - 69 years
The New York Giants called him up on the 15th of
May in 1951 from Minneapolis in the American
Association. He was bating .477 after 35 games.
Garry Schumacher, publicist for the Giants at
that time, recalled the first time he ever saw
"The Giants were on their way from Chicago to
Philadelphia to conclude the last three games of
a road trip," Schumacher said. "I was by the
front door of the Giants' office on Times
Square. Suddenly, this kid comes in. There were
always a lot of kids coming around; some of them
wanted tickets and some wanted tryouts. He was
carrying a few bats in one hand and a bag in the
other that contained his glove and spikes. He
was wearing the most unusual cap I ever saw,
plaid colored. When I found out who he was, we
bought him some clothes and then sent him to
Philadelphia to join the club. He was wearing
the new clothes when he left, but funny thing -
he refused to take off that funny cap.
He made his major league debut with the Giants
on May 25, 1951. But his start in the majors
after just 116 minor leagues games was a shaky
one. He was hitless in his first 12 at-bats,
cried in the dugout and said, "I am not ready
for this". He begged manager Leo Durocher to
send him back down to the minors.
But "Leo the Lip" refused to listen to the pleas
of the rookie center fielder just as another
Giant manager John J. McGraw had refused to send
a youthful Mel Ott to the minors.
"You're my center fielder as long as I am the
manager of this team," Durocher said. "You're
the best center fielder I have ever seen."
Mays' first home run was off the great Warren
Spahn. He hit it over the roof of the Polo
"We had a meeting of the pitchers," Spahn
recalls. "We knew Mays was having trouble. I'll
never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid
of Willie forever if I'd only struck him out."
In Pittsburgh's old Forbes Field, Rocky Nelson
blasted a drive 457 feet to deep dead center.
Galloping back, Mays realized as his feet hit
the warning track that the ball was hooking to
his right side. The ball was sinking and Mays
could not reach across his body to glove the
drive. So just as the ball got to his level,
Mays stuck out his bare hand and made the catch.
It was an incredible feat.
Durocher told all the Giants to give Mays the
silent treatment when he returned to the dugout.
But Pittsburgh's General Manager Branch Ricky
sent the Giant rookie a hastily written note:
"That was the finest catch I have ever seen ...
and the finest I ever expect to see".
There is that catch and so many others. There
are also the images of Mays playing stickball in
the streets of Harlem with neighborhood kids,
running out from under his cap pursuing a fly
ball, pounding one of his 660 career home runs,
playing the game with a verve, a gusto, and an
attitude that awed those who were around him.
"Willie could do everything from the day he
joined the Giants," Durocher recalled.
"Everybody loved him," notes his former teammate
Monte Irvin. "He was a rare talent. Having him
on your team playing center field gave us
confidence. We figured that if a ball stayed in
the park, he could catch it."
Mays was The Natural. He led the NL in slugging
percentage five times. He won the home run crown
four times. Twice, he won the NL MVP Award.
"He lit up a room when he came in," Durocher
The superstar of superstars, the man they called
the "Say Hey Kid" was on the scene for 22
major-league seasons. He is all over the record
book and in the memory of so many baseball fans.
Happy Birthday, Willie Mays!
# # #
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About the Author:
Harvey Frommer is in his 38th year of writing books.
A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports
books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and
"Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE
STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL
AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to
acclaim in 2011. The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was
Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One.
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