Story of the Week
In 1951, Willie Mays chased a 457-foot shot to dead center in Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, hit the warning track, saw the ball hook to the right, and, with no time to reach across his body, made the catch bare-handed. Pirates general manager, Branch Rickey, the same Branch Rickey who signed Jackie Robinson to a Dodgers contract, now in his 48th. year of baseball, sent Mays a note: "That was the finest catch I have ever seen, and the finest catch I ever hope to see."
Mays started with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro League, and after hitting .477 in the opening months of the 1951 season with the Minneapolis Millers, he was called up to the New York Giants. Mays had a problem with big-league pitching, but his astute manager, Leo Durocher, promptly assured Willie that center field was his period, and he responded with a Rookie-of-the-Year performance.
He spent most of 1952 and all of 1953 in the service, returning in 1954 to win his only batting title (.345), and to belt 41 homers. The Giants won the pennant and World Series, and Mays was voted MVP of the National League. He was also voted Pro Athlete of the Year in winning the Hickok Belt.
The 1954 World Series was played against the Cleveland Indians. Mays will always be remembered for the catch he made off the bat of Vic Wertz in the opening game of the Series at the old Polo Grounds, snaring Wertz’s drive to deep center-field over his shoulder to keep the game tied at 3-3. (In later years, Mays looked back to comment that the greatest catch he ever made was robbing Ted Williams of a home run in the 1955 All-Star game at Milwaukee’s County Stadium.)
Mays only got better as time went on. He won the first of four home run titles in 1955, and in 1957, he won a Gold Glove, led the league in stolen bases, and became the best all-around player in baseball.
Later accomplishments included hitting four home runs in a game in 1961, and winning the All-Star MVP in 1963 and 1968. He accumulated 11 Gold Glove awards, set records for career put-outs and total chances, was the first man to hit 300 home runs and steal 300 bases, hit 660 lifetime homers, and sported a lifetime batting average of .302.
Leo Durocher’s five key ingredients to judging excellence in a player were 'hitting for average, hitting for power, running, fielding and throwing.' Durocher maintained that Willie Mays was the greatest player he ever saw. He is certainly one of the best players I have ever seen, if not the very best.
Willie Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1979.
Last Week’s Trivia
In 2001, Randy Johnson won three games in the World Series. Who was the last pitcher to accomplish this feat? Mickey Lolich did it for the Detroit Tigers in 1968.
Trivia Question of the Week
Two boxers have won an Olympic gold medal and a world championship, both in the heavyweight division. Who are they? See next week’s Sports Junkie for the answer.