"Do the Rookies Know How Willie Mays Played?"
Mays, in self-protection, has developed a selective memory and conversational openers from his visitors about his celebrated overhead catch against Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series or the four-homer game in 1961 no longer light up the Proustian hot stove. Nor do knowing references to any of the other lifetime six hundred and sixty dingers bring much response – not the homer that beat Warren Spahn, 1-0, in the fifteenth inning (eyeroll, with incomprehensible murmur), or the monster blow against the Astros’ Claude Raymond after Mays had fouled off thirteen consecutive fastballs (“Grmpf. How’d you know about that?”). This year, though, a visiting senior writer from back East got lucky when he brought up an early Maysian catch and throw against the Dodgers – the Billy Cox play.
“Damn!” Mays cried excitedly. “You saw that? You were there?”
Yes, the writer had been there – as a fan at the Polo Grounds. “August, 1951,” he said. “Cox was the base runner at third. You caught the ball running full tilt toward right, turned in midair, and threw him out at the plate. You threw before you could get turned around – let the ball go with your back to the plate. The throw went to the catcher on the fly – it must have been Westrum – and he tagged Cox out, sliding.”
“You got it!” Mays said. “I’ve been sayin’ this for a long time, and nobody here believes me.” He was kidding, of course, but his voice had come up at last, almost the old, high Willie piping. “Now, tell ‘em how it was.”
I told it again – it was easy because I’d never seen such a play, before or since – and, as I did, it seemed to me that Willie Mays and I could still see the long, curving flight of the white ball through the afternoon light, bang into the big mitt, and the slide and the amazing out, and together remember the expanding moment when the staring players on the field and those just emerging from the dugouts, and the shouting fans, and maybe even the startled twenty-year-old rookie center fielder himself, now retrieving his fallen cap from the grass, understood that something new and electric had just begun to happen to baseball.
- Roger Angell, “The Talk of The Town” (The New Yorker), 1998 via Sheila O’Malley
Photo from George Burke/George Brace Collection via Legendary Auctions