May 6, 2011
BASEBALL: Say Hey
Great SI photo essay of Willie Mays, who turns 80 today. Mays almost certainly would have been the third player to 700 homers if he hadn't missed 1953 and more than half of 1952 in the Army.
How ready was Mays for the big leagues? Even at age 20, he was batting .477/.524/.799 in 164 plate appearances at AAA Minneapolis (the same place where Ted Williams finished his minor league career in 1938).
On returning from the military in 1954 at age 23, Mays batted .315/.390/.601 (OPS+ of 165) from age 23-35, averaging 661 plate appearances per year - his low in games played in those years was 151.
Mays is best remembered for his prime, but as far as his Mets tenure goes - as broken down as he was in 1973 (.211/.303/.344 at age 41 that season), it's still a shame that Mays didn't get one last chance to end with glory. Mays started Game One of the 1973 World Series in center field and singled in the first inning off Ken Holtzman. In Game Two, Mets up 6-4, he was inserted as a pinch runner for Rusty Staub (who was 12 years younger and already one of the slowest men in the game) in the ninth inning, and Yogi put him into center field. The A's tied the game in the bottom of the 9th in a rally that started with a Deron Johnson double to center; Mays apparently looked terrible on the play, as he often did afield that year, but it was the only hit they got to center the rest of the game (Sal Bando did single to center in Game One). In the top of the twelfth, Mays singled in the ultimate winning run off Rollie Fingers - his last major-league hit - and came around to score on a Mike Andrews error. In Game Three, he grounded out pinch hitting against Paul Linblad in the 10th. And that was it: Yogi didn't use him again the rest of the series. In Game Seven, which the Mets lost 5-2, the Mets used three pinch hitters - Jim Beauchamp, Ken Boswell and Ed Kranepool. Certainly defensible hitters to prefer to 1973 Mays on purely statistical grounds (Kranepoll was by then one of the NL's best pinch hitters, and both Kranepool and Boswell were left-handed hitters facing Fingers (Beauchamp, also playing his last major league game, hit against Holtzman with the bases empty). Boswell singled and Kranepool reached on an error. Still, the Mets were down 4 runs from the fourth inning on, and none of those guys had any power. You wonder, if Willie had gotten to take one more swing in Game Seven, if he had one more longball in him.
At this point probably the greatest player to play the game.
It was sad watching Willie Mays play in that series. He looked really old and was a shell of his self.
Given Ted Williams' years away form the game while serving in the armed forces, he might have gotten to 700 also.
One other memory of that Mets era. Jon Matlack was on the verge of being a star. He had a curve the equal of Blyleven's and it is a shame his career petered out.
Williams would have been pretty close, but (if you include the 13 homers he hit in 1953 and the one in 1952) he'd have had to average almost 39 homers a year those five seasons, and he only hit that many once. Possible, certainly, since he missed age 24-26 and 33-34 - the WWII seasons were right in his power prime and (more importantly) his prime for staying healthy.
If you assume Williams hits 35 a year for those seasons, he ends up at 682. Which is still damned impressive for a guy who would probably only have improved his career .344/.482/.634 line by playing those years.
I was lucky enough to see Mays play in the 60s. He was, without question, no issue, no compromise here, the smartest player on a diamond there ever was. You say no, it simply means you didn't see him. The other thing that is never remembered is that Mr. Mays had the greatest outfield arm ever. Ever. Clement might have thrown farther in a contest, but nobody threw strikes home when they counted like 24 could. There wasn't a thing on the diamond he couldn't do brilliantly.
Good point about Mays' throwing. Everyone raves about Clemente, but as strong as his arm was it also was wild at times. Mays throws always went to the right place.
Why this sticks in my mind I don't know, nor do I remember the year, probably from 1968-70. The Mets were playing the Pirates at Shea, tie game, bottom of the 9th, man on third, clearly less than 2 outs. Lindsey Nelson was the announcer, mentioning how the outfielders were pulled in, "...except for Clemente, he has that great arm..." Anyway, there was, of course, a middling fly ball to right, Clemente caught the ball and threw home. Ten feet up the first base line, Mets win.
The two most complete defensive center fielders I ever saw were Willie and Junior (because few had their equal in terms or range, ability to catch everything, and throw anybody out). In right, I give that nod to Al Kaline, then maybe Tony Gwynn, but Kaline is so underrated as a superstar it's sad. Only Stan is more underrated, because Stan is an inner circle immortal, and too many fans don't know.
The first nine months of 1973 were part of my lost year in the Aleutian Islands. In October I had a PCS move from Shemya to Langley AFB, Hampton/Newport News, Virginia. While home on leave prior to my drive cross country I went to Games 6 and 7 of the World Series. Before Game 6 I was outside the press entrance brandishing my Tustin News (California) press credentials. I accused the Oakland A's of losing my editor William Moses (only Moses knows us!) press credential letter request. After ten minutes a light green cardboard press badge on a string was handed to me.
I made my grand entrance, went to the press box level, received a free box lunch and a World Series program. After quickly eating a ham and cheese sandwich I shared an elevator ride down to the field level with Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Armed with two Minolta cameras with long lenses (one was 200 mm, the other a 90 to 230 mm zoom lens) I went onto the field. I stood behind the batting cage snapping pictures. I went over to the Mets dugout and got Willie Mays' autograph on the World Series program cover. On the first base side of homeplate I got Rusty Staub's autograph. I had to ask Staub to get my pen back.
Finally batting practice ended. I had to find a seat. I found an old wooden Coke crate. I propped it on end and sat behind the homeplate screen three people to the left (third base side) of the NBC camera behind homeplate. To my left was a Sports Illustrated photographer who sported a 600 mm lens on a camera with a tripod. I looked through his camera lens at the bleachers in rightcenter field and could zero in on nine fans (three rows each with three fans looking like a human tic-tac-toe board). My Coke crate was in front of the first row of fans in the field box seats.
I am an Angels and Dodgers fan. In 1973 I was rooting for Oakland because they were the west coast team. I doubly wanted the Athletics to win Game 6 because my press credentials were also good for Game 7. I wanted to do it all over again.
Twice Reggie Jackson bested Tom Seaver with rbi doubles. That was enough for Catfish Hunter to triumph 3-1 in Game 6 to set up a winner take all game. In Game 7 Bert Campaneris and Reggie Jackson solved Jon Matlack with two-run home runs in the third inning. Ken Holtzman made that stand up in a 5-2 Series clinching win.
In Game 7 Don Hahn went 3-for-4 (all singles) as the Mets centerfielder. Everyone around me was hoping Willie Mays would get one last at bat. Was there any magic left in Willie Mays' gas tank? Alas, it was not to be. We will never know.
After the Athletics clinched and celebrated on the field I attended the press conference where Dick Williams effectively said take this job and shove it while resigning as Oakland's manager. That was an apt response to the Mike Andrews affair. In Game 2 Andrews had made two errors in the 12th inning that contributed to three Met runs in a 10-7 New York victory. After the game Charles O. Finley tried to get Andrews cut from the team. Dick Williams stood up for Andrews. Andrews remained on the team but Finley forbid Williams to use him. Williams should have used Andrews late in Game 7 just to snub Finley. Of course, if Williams had done that Finley would have fired Williams before Williams could announce he was quitting.
At Williams press conference I had to stand up. Jerome Holtzman (a wonderful sportswriter with bird nests for eyebrows) shouted "down in front!" I moved to the side. There was an open bar at the back of the room. Mr. Holtzman had his first drink long before the game had ended. I did not touch a drop as I had to drive home. Mr. Holtzman was welcome to my share of the booze. I was content to settle for the best seat in the house all weekend.
While stationed at Offutt AFB, Omaha, Nebraska I drove to Chicago to see the Mets and Cubs play two games in Wrigley Field. August 12, 1972 was my first game at Wrigley Field. A couple sold me a field box seat in the second row near the Cubs on deck circle slightly to the third base side of homeplate. The woman had been on the 1936 United States Olympic swimming team. She did not win a medal in the Olympics but did participate. She told me about Adolf Hitler having to present a gold medal to Jesse Owens (who was definitely not Aryan) in Berlin. That was the first time I heard about that medal presentation.
That game turned out to be Willie Mays' last great game in the major leagues. Mays had a home run, two doubles, and a flyout to the ivy wall in rightcenter off of Burt Hooton. One of Mays' doubles landed in the wire basket at the top of the ivy wall and bounced out. It should have been ruled a home run. Tommie Agee homered in the top of the 10th inning for the game winning rbi. Paul Popovich led off the bottom of the 10th with a triple off of Tom Seaver. Tug McGraw came out of the bullpen to nail down the save. The second out was a foul out to first base by ex-Dodger Tommy Davis. Was Tommy D furious with himself over that!
Willie Mays homered again the next day off of Ferguson Jenkins. In that August 13th game Mays proved he was human by dropping a flyball attempting a basket catch. The last drops were poured from the vintage Mays wine bottle the day before. Happy 80th birthday Willie!