MLB History: “The Say Hey Kid” Willie Mays

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With Spring Training underway, teams are starting to prepare for Opening Day, but that does not mean we cannot take a stroll down MLB History lane and talk about “The Catch.” Willie Mays was one of the most electrifying centerfielders ever to play the game of baseball.

MLB History: Early Years

Willie Mays was born on May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama. The game of baseball ran thru his veins before he could even walk. Mays’ father, Cat Mays, played baseball in the Birmingham Industrial League, which consisted of players who also worked at the local iron plants in the South. Since the age of ten, Mays was exposed to the greatest game to be played by having a front-row seat in the dugout next to his father. What more could a kid as for?

From the age of ten, Mays was always playing against players that were older than him. He started his playing career with the Chattanooga Choo-Choos, a Negro minor league team in 1948. By this time, Mays was already in high school which allowed him to play during the summer while he was out of school. Mays would often fill in when the team did not have enough players.

Later in 1948, Mays would play for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League. Major League Baseball teams noticed Mays due to excellent defensive skills and lightning-fast baserunning. In 1950, once Mays had graduated high school, he signed a contract with the New York Giants. He spent the rest of the 1950 season working his way through the Minor leagues before finally getting called up in May of 1951.

The Catch

Fast forward to the 1954 World Series. Mays had already established himself as a perennial all-star in just a few short years in Major League Baseball as one of the most dynamic and electrifying centerfielders. The New York Giants were headed to the World Series for the first time in MLB history. The New York Yankees were the team in New York during the early 1950s, after winning four in a row, but now it was Mays’ Giants who finally had an opportunity to win it all.

The 1954 World Series was set as the Cleveland Indians, and New York Giants were set to face off in Game 1 at the Polo Grounds, home of the Giants. The Polo Grounds was a very unique and oddly shaped stadium. The stadium had a very short distance from the home plate from both left and right field, averaging around 275′-285′ and around 480′ to centerfield. Centerfield played very well for Mays as he covered a lot of ground due to his incredible speed.

Game 1 of the 1954 World Series was a back and forth game for the most part. The score was tied 2-2 going into the Top of the 8th inning. With the first two Indians batters getting on base via a walk and a single, the Giants manager Leo Durocher brought in left-handed pitcher Don Liddle to face left-handed hitter Vic Wertz.

Wertz got ahold of a pitch with runners on first and second and drove it to deep Centerfield. Mays read the ball perfectly and started tracking the ball, but Mays seemed to keep running and running before eventually making the remarkable over-the-shoulder catch that was one of the greatest catches in MLB history.

Now, the catch was pretty amazing, but remember there were runners of first and second. Now, in today’s baseball world, analytics would suggest that the runner on second would tag up, and the runner would probably have scored a run while the runner on first would probably have ended up at third base.

Mays had an instinct on where the cut-off man would be, so he immediately turned and fired the ball back to the infield before the runners could attempt to take extra bases. In John Shea’s book 24, Mays said, “Yeah, I wasn’t worried about catching that ball. I was worried about getting the ball back to the infield.”

Because of Mays’ quick action, the runners could only advance one base, and the Giants would end up getting out of the inning with the score still tied 2-2. The catch and the throw saved the Giants that game as they were able to win the game in extra innings, 5-2. The Giants would go on to win the World Series in four games to give Mays his first World Series Championship.

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Jeff "Rip" Griffin is a current MLB writer covering the Houston Astros. Rip is also the host of The Rip Griffin Show on Apple Podcasts. Rip holds a Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology, focusing in Sports Management from the University of Houston - Victoria.