A Portrait of the Say Hey Kid

"There's a long drive way back in center field . . . way back, back! It is . .

. oh, what a catch by Mays! The runner on second, Doby, is able to go to third. Willie Mays .

. . just brought this crowd to its feet . .

. with a catch . . .

which must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people. Boy!" - Jack Brickhouse, NBC-TV In Game One of the 1954 World Series, 450 feet from home plate Willie Mays turned his back on the infield and ran towards the wall. Over his shoulder, he made "The Catch," immediately turned and whipped the ball back to the infield, loosing his hat in the process.

Four game sweep. Giants win. The "Say Hey Kid" did it all. With a career batting average of .

302 and 660 homeruns, at the plate Mays was an offensive powerhouse. He had 339 stolen bases and 12 consecutive Gold Glove awards at the end of his career making him a defensive force to be reckoned with. The all-around go to man for the New York Giants. Following in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, Mays continued to push baseball's color line and make a name for himself in the big leagues. In 1950, the New York Giants snatched Mays up from the Negro Leagues where he was playing for the Birmingham Black Barrons.

The Giants sent Mays down to their Class B affiliate Trenton and then to the AAA Minneapolis Millers. Hitting .477 in 35 games, Mays was a fan favorite for the Millers. So much so, that when Giants owner Horace Stoneham called Mays up to the majors, he had to take out a full page ad in the newspaper apologizing to Millers fans for taking him away.

But the majors turned out to be quite different than the minors for Mays.at least at first. Mays didn't have a single hit in his first 13 at bats. He asked Giants manager Leo Durocher to send him back to the Millers. But Durocher refused telling Mays he would remain in centerfield as long as he was manager.

The next day Mays hit a homerun off Boston Braves pitcher Warren Spahn. The year was 1951 and despite a 4-2 loss to the New York Yankees in the World Series, Mays would go on to win Rookie of the Year honors that year. He also took the field for the first time against 19year-old Mickey Mantle, whose career was comparable to Mays' by their retirement.

Mays served in the Korean War and missed the 1952 and 53 season. In 1953 he returned to the Giants roster, batting .354 with 41 homeruns, and made "The Catch" that helped the Giants sweep Cleveland Indians in four games.

The next few years remained difficult for African American players, despite the strong advances of integration on the field. In 1960, Durocher's replacement Bill Rigney was fired halfway through the season, and replaced with Mays' former teammate Alvin Dark. Dark immediately made Mays captain. However off the field Dark had a very different view of African American players. As a Southern Baptist he was prone to making comments to the media about the "unsuitability of black players for leadership roles." After one incident, a potential strike was developing among African American and Puerto Rican players.

Mays managed to defuse the strike, but did never spoke to Dark again outside the dugout. (Wikipedia) But Mays continued to earn the respect and support he deserved from fans and rival ball clubs in the majors. Mays earned considerable respect from Dodger fans and the baseball community on August 22, 1965.

At Candlestick Park, Giant's pitcher Juan Marichal Dodger batters Maury Wills and Ron Fairly with brush back pitches. When Marichal stepped up to bat in the third inning, Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax refused to retaliate, but his catcher Johnny Roseboro got even with Marichal by returning Koufax's pitches just shy of Marichal's head. Marichal turned around and clubbed Roseboro over the head twice with his bat. A 14 minute brawl broke out as Mays and other players attempted to restore order. Mays helped Roseboro off the field in a gesture that gave Dodger fans a heightened sense of respect for Mays. Mays played for the Giants until 1972 when a tight financial situation sent him to the New York Mets.

The Mets offered Mays a coaching position after his ball playing days were over and he viewed the position as a wise financial move for some unwise investment decisions he had made in the past. He remained in the Mets organization until 1979 and was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame that same year. He is the only MLB player to have a 4-home-run game and a 3-triple game in a career. His baseball career and exceptional character are immortalized by players and fans of today. The San Francisco Giants retired his number (24) and he was ranked second on the Sporting News' list of 100 Greatest ball players. Philadelphia based Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co.

, which specializes in authentic throwback apparel and vintage jerseys, counts Mays' 1954 home jersey as one of their most popular among fans. His legacy is immortalized at SBC Park, 24 Willie Mays Plaza, surrounded by 24 palm trees near the right field wall which stands 24 feet high. Mays' celebrated career has made generations of fans "Say Hey," setting the bar for a new set of players to take the field and continue the game the way it was meant to be played.

"Wertz hits it. A solid sound. I learned a lot from the sound of the ball on the bat. Always did.

I could tell from the sound whether to come in or go back. This time I'm going back, a long way back, but there is never any doubt in my mind. I am going to catch this ball. I turn and run for the bleachers. But I got it. Maybe you didn't know that, but I knew it.

Soon as it got hit, I knew I'd catch this ball."- Willie Mays .

By: Nina Nocciolino


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