Friday, May 6, 2016

This Day in Baseball History (Willie Mays, Bicoastal Giant Legend, Born)

May 6, 1931—Swift, smooth-fielding slugger Willie Mays was born in Alabama, in America’s most viciously segregated era—a long way from the East and West Coast cities where he broke through as perhaps the greatest in the first generation of African-American players.

Gotham fans of a certain age—or even those just fascinated by sports history—would tell you that the golden age of New York baseball lasted for a decade, from 1947 to 1957, and especially the last six years of that period. The city was big enough to hold three franchises: the Yankees in the American League, and, over in the National League, the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. One, sometimes two, of these teams made it to the World Series in each of these 10 years. Not so coincidentally, all three teams had sluggers in center field, each with their own rabid fans: the oldest, Duke Snider, for the Dodgers; Mays, for the Giants; and a player who, like Mays, entered the major leagues with rookie travails in 1951, Mickey Mantle.

All these years later, I am not going to choose a “best” among these three magnificent center fielders who inspired countless arguments among midcentury New York fans about who was the greatest. I simply want to celebrate the achievement of one, Mays, who made a difference in the life of baseball and in two great American cities.

(One of those cities, let it be noted, was NOT Boston. While still holding out against integrating their team—a stance they would maintain until a dozen years after Jackie Robinson came to Brooklyn--the Red Sox sent a scout to assess Mays, then playing not far from where he grew up, with the Birmingham Black Barons. Mays, the scout reported, was not the Sox kind of player.  Undoubtedly, at least part of the reason why the Curse of the Bambino extended longer than it had to was because of the Curse of the Color Line in Beantown).

In one of his great columns in which he summed up a sports figure by addressing him in the second person, sportswriter Jimmy Cannon conveyed the magic that this gifted ballplayer held for countless city youths:

“You're Willie Mays of Fairfield, Ala., who is part of the small talk of New York. This shall be your city as long as your talent lasts….Kids forget the squalor of their childhood as they emulate the shambling urgency of your gait. They speak as though you lived on the same block with them.”

When you think about it, the time that Mays had to make his mark as a member of the New York Giants was relatively short compared with his entire career. He missed the 1952 and 1953 seasons entirely because of military service, and after 1958 he followed when the Giants left the Polo Grounds for San Francisco’s damp, foggy, windblown, altogether miserable Candlestick Park. He was not part of a New York team again until 1972 and 1973, when he played for the New York Mets, at a point when his considerable awareness of the subtleties of the game could not compensate for his declining physical skills and injuries.

That left 1951, when he earned National League Rookie of the Year honors despite not being called up till late May (and not getting a hit in his first 12 a-bats); 1954, when he became Most Valuable Player; and only three more full seasons in which he played the game with a flair never seen before and seldom if ever glimpsed since. 

Here was a player who could not only slug the ball out of the park but also run so fast that he’d lose his cap, who could catch flies with his unorthodox but devastatingly effective “basket catch,” and—in the 1954 World Series—sprint into the canyon of center field in the Polo Grounds to catch a line drive by Vic Wertz, haul it in with his back to the infield, then whirl around to fire perfectly to the cutoff man. (It’s a sign of Mays’ consistent brilliance that he doesn’t even regard this play—one so iconic that it’s known simply as “The Catch”—as his best.)

The fans could see what he was like on the field, where his skill was evident. What they could not see was his leadership in the clubhouse, where his ebullience, pragmatism, even temperament and intelligence at least kept teams from self-destruction, and occasionally (as in the ’62 and ’73 pennant races) helped his squads reach the World Series. A few examples will suffice:

* He helped the San Francisco Giants come from behind in the pennant race, then defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in a best-two-of-three playoff series, in 1962, despite having to be hospitalized down the stretch from exhaustion;

*He staved off a rebellion two years later by African-American and Hispanic players angered by racially insensitive remarks by manager Alvin Dark, successfully arguing that, no matter how angry they might feel, forcing a mid-season managerial replacement could only lead to catastrophe;

*He was virtually the only player on the field to keep his head a year later when a benches-clearing brawl broke out between teammate Juan Marichal and Mays’ friend on the Dodgers, Johnny Roseboro—eventually managing to separate the two before a riot could have broken out; 

*He made a key speech to the executive board of the baseball players union in 1972, urging them to stick together on the eve of their strike; and 

*He joined teammate Tom Seaver and manager Yogi Berra, among others, in persuading Mets fans to allow the game to proceed after a nasty slide by Pete Rose into Bud Harrelson led to a bottle being thrown at Rose from left field and to the umpires threatening the Amazin’s with a forfeit in this bitterly contested 1973 playoff game.

There was another quality, over and above all of his leadership qualities, even, which Mays summed up this way during his induction speech into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979:

“This country is made up of a great many things. You can grow up to be what you want. I chose baseball, and I loved every minute of it. I give you one word –love. It means dedication. You have to sacrifice many things to play baseball. I sacrificed a bad marriage and I sacrificed a good marriage. But I’m here today because baseball is my number one love.”

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