erik lundegaard


Sunday June 30, 2024

Willie Mays (1931-2024)

I heard about the death of Willie Mays when I was beginning my third week in Minneapolis helping look after and advocate for my father, who’d had a stroke at the end of May. The next morning, visiting Dad in his small room at R. Hospital in Golden Valley, I read him the long obit in The New York Times, and we reminisced about all Dad used to say about The Say-Hey Kid as a tour guide at Target Field in the 2010s. 

In one of the rooms at Target Field, I think the “Legends” room, there was a giant photo of Willie playing for the Minneapolis Millers in the spring of 1951, and most of Dad’s stories related to that time period: how Mays was hitting .477 over 35 games when he got the call to join the NY Giants; how Mays was so beloved in Minneapolis that Giants owner Horace Stoneham had to take out an advertisement apologizing to Millers’ fans for “stealing” their star; how, when Mays told Giants’ manager Leo Durocher that he didn’t think he could hit big league pitching, and then owned that he was hitting .477 for Minneapolis, Durocher supposedly replied “Do you think you could hit .2-fucking-77 for me?”; and how, after he began his career hitless in his first three games, and he again felt he couldn’t hit Major League pitching, Durocher assured him that he was his center fielder for life. “You’re the best player I ever saw,” Durocher told him, or some reasonable facsimile of that, and at R. Hospital Dad repeated it with tears in his eyes.

Dad must’ve choked up five times during our Willie Mays conversation. That’s how much he meant to people.

To Charles Schulz, Mays was the symbol of perfection:


To Joe Henry, he was a sign of a better time for America: 

But that was him
I'm almost sure
The greatest centerfielder of all time
Stooped by the burden of endless dreams
His and yours and mine

He was the subject of songs, and biographies, and Saturday morning cartoons, and he was so omnipresent when I was young, so much the sky, that in 2012, when I was telling a story about him to friends, and one of those friends, Myriam, asked, “Who’s Willie Mays?” I didn’t even know how to respond. I just stared at her. Who’s Willie Mays? I should’ve said: One of two geniuses in the world, according to Tallulah Bankhead. The other was William Shakespeare.

Do we go into the numbers? I know most of them off the top of my head. 

660 is, of course, the homerun total, which would’ve been higher had he not played at Candlestick Park, but it was still the third highest-total in MLB history when he retired. He was only the second player to hit 600, nearly 40 years after Ruth, Sept. 22, 1969. There are now nine on the list. Half are suspect.

.301 is the career batting average. Some of his contemporaries, like Mickey Mantle, wound up dipping below .300. Not Willie.

24? Number on his back, number of All-Star appearances. The latter will never be broken, the former is worn all the time in homage.

Interestingly, the true greatness of Willie Mays—in numbers—didn’t reveal itself until decades after he retired, when WAR (Wins About Replacement) was created. It’s supposed to take in all aspects of a player’s game. Mays won two MVPs, in 1954 and 1965, but by bWAR he was the best position player in the National League for 10 seasons, and the best in the entire Majors for eight seasons. In the integrated era of baseball, no one’s close.

Then there’s the catch off Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, now just known as “The Catch,” and the stories surrounding it. It was the top of the 8th, tie score, 2-2, and Cleveland got the first two guys on: walk, single. So Durocher called for reliever Don Liddle to face Wertz, who hit a shot into deep, deep center field. Mays runs back, his number 24 visible to all, and makes a catch “that must’ve looked like an optical illusion to some people,” according to  Giants’ announcer Russ Hodges. So Durocher makes another pitching change, and as Liddle hands the ball to reliever Marv Grissom, he shrugs and says, “Well, I got my guy.”

I also like the exchange between left fielder Monte Irvin and Mays as they trotted in after the Giants held the line.

Irvin: Nice going, roomie. Didn’t think you’d get that.
Mays: You kidding? Had that one all the way.

Sidenote: Wertz went 4-5 that day, with a double, a triple and two singles. He should’ve gone 5-5 in a Cleveland romp. He should’ve been the star player of the game and the series. Instead, he’s the sidenote: the guy who hit the ball that Mays caught.

In Donald Honig’s oral history “Between the Lines,” Irvin recalls another Mays catch, in Pittsburgh, that some say is greater:

He was playing in close and Rocky [Nelson] got hold of one and drove it way out into that big center field they had in old Forbes Field. Willie whirled around and took off after it. At the last second he saw he couldn't get his glove across his body in time to make the catch, so he caught it in his bare hand.

That one made the Times obit, too, for the practical joke Durocher played on Mays afterward. Leo told everyone in the dugout to not say anything, to ignore him, and so instead of back claps Mays was greeted with silence. “Leo,” Mays wound up saying, “didn’t you see what I did?” “No,” Durocher replied. “You’ll have to go out and do it again.”

The stories could go on forever. One hopes they will.

Posted at 09:19 AM on Sunday June 30, 2024 in category Baseball