It’s early May 2020 and the only baseball that’s being played is in Taiwan and South Korea. Major League Baseball is shut down --- maybe until July, if baseball fans are lucky. That’s sad but it’s the reality of our pandemic world. This past week, on May 6th, Willie Mays celebrated his 89th birthday. Younger readers may only know Willie Mays as one of those “old” Hall of Fame ballplayers, like Mickey Mantle, or Sandy Koufax (his contemporaries). Those of us who are old enough to remember Willie in his prime will recall a man who was a sheer joy to watch --- and who may have enjoyed playing baseball more than anyone who ever stepped on the field (see Mike Lupica: https://www.mlb.com/news/willie-mays-goat-baseball). An enduring image of Willie is him dashing around the bases, or after a deep drive to centerfield with his cap flying off!
Before the Giants and Dodgers fled New York City in 1958, one of the great debates each 1950s summer was: who was the best center fielder. The New York Giants had Willie, the New York Yankees had Mickey Mantle, and the Brooklyn Dodgers had Duke Snider. All three players made it into the Hall of Fame and Mays’s statistics eclipse the other two by significant margins (Mantle might have challenged Mays more if he hadn’t been punked by Joe DiMaggio during his rookie year and destroyed his knee on a sprinkler in right-center field --- but that’s a story for another time). If you look at Willie’s final statistics (.302 average, 660 HR’s, 1903 RBIs, 338 stolen bases, 12 Gold Gloves, one batting championship, 4 HR championships, 4 stolen base ltitles, Rookie of the Year 1951, 4 HR’s one game, 2-time MVP and 3283 hits) you only get a glimpse at how great the man was. Henry Aaron’s statistics rival Mays (more hits, more home runs – fewer stolen bases & far fewer Golden Gloves --- however, Aaron played Right Field, competing with Roberto Clemente!) but there is a factor that, to me, makes Mays far and away the most impressive player.
Technically, Willie Mays currently sits 5th on the All-Time Home Run leaders list with 660 (only 4 ahead of Albert Pujols who, given a chance this year, will probably pass him) BUT, I would contend, two of those ahead of him on the list (Barry Bonds with 762 and Alex Rodriguez at 696 are cheaters. In fact, SIX of the top 15 All-Time HR leaders were PED-users. Aside from Bonds & Rodriguez, #9 Sammy Sosa with 609, #11 Mark McGwire with 583, #13 Rafael Palmeiro with 569, and #15 Manny Ramirez with 555 are all known or seriously suspect players. I would also contend that #17, David Ortiz, with 541 HRs, is someone I have serious suspicions about.) As significant, though, is where Willie Mays played baseball throughout his career. From 1951 through 1957 he played in the Polo Grounds in New York City. The original Polo Grounds was an outdoor stadium built for POLO in 1876 in Upper Manhattan (Coogan’s Bluff). The ballpark that Willie Mays played in was the 3rd incarnation of the Grounds (renovated in 1911 and located on West 155th Street in Washington Heights, Manhattan)and served as the home field for not only the New York Giants baseball team but also the New York Football Giants (1925 to 1955), the New York Jets football team (1960-1963) and the New York Mets baseball team (1962-63), the team Mays finished his career with. The Polo Grounds, as a baseball field had the following dimensions:
Left Field: 279 ft (85 m)
Left-Center: 450 ft (137 m)
Center Field: 483 ft (147 m)
Right-Center: 449 ft (136 m)
Right Field: 258 ft (78 m)
Unless a player could manage to consistently pull a baseball right down the line in left or right field (as Mel Ott did for the Giants where 63% of his 511 homers came at the Polo Grounds --- down that 258 foot right field line), you can see that hitting a home run in the Polo Grounds was a Herculean challenge! As bad, when the Giants moved to San Francisco they occupied Candlestick Park. Here’s what you should know about that ball field, according to Wikipedia:
As a baseball field, the stadium was infamous for the windy conditions, damp air and dew from fog, and chilly temperatures. The wind often made it difficult for outfielders trying to catch fly balls, as well as for fans, while the damp grass further complicated play for outfielders who had to play in cold, wet shoes. Architect John Bolles designed the park with a boomerang-shaped concrete baffle in the upper tier in order to protect the park from wind. Unfortunately, it never worked properly. For Candlestick's first 10 seasons, the wind blew in from left-center and out toward right-center. When the park was expanded to accommodate the 49ers in 1971, it was thought that fully enclosing the park would cut down on the wind significantly. Instead, the wind swirled from all directions, and was as strong and cold as before. Giants Hall of Fame center fielder Willie Mays claimed the wind cost him over 100 home runs. (It may be noted that in the 12 years he played at Candlestick Park, from 1960 through 1971, Mays hit 396 home runs, 203 at Candlestick and 193 on the road.) Nonetheless, he had less difficulty fielding balls in the windy conditions. Mays was used to playing in difficult conditions. He'd begun his career at the Polo Grounds in New York, which featured an enormous outfield.
Despite playing in two ballparks that were horrendous for hitting home runs, Mays spent HALF his playing career on those fields --- and still hit 660 Home Runs.
Mays finished his career in New York, playing for the Mets, and actually had his last Major League at-bat in the 1973 World Series (he grounded into a force play) and hit his 660th home run at Shea Stadium. But anyone who saw Willie in those last two years in New York --- and knew the ballplayer he had been --- was aware they were seeing the shadow of his former self. It reminded me of the opening of W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (the book behind the movie Field of Dreams). That book opens with the following statement about the ballplayer Shoeless Joe Jackson:
My father said he saw him years later . . . “He’d put on 50 pounds and the spring was gone from his step in the outfield, but he could still hit. Oh, how that man could hit.” (p.3)
On October 15, 1973 Phil Pepe, writing about the World Series in the New York Daily News, noted:
What you can say is that he (Mays) looked every bit of his 42 years and had people feeling sorry for him as he floundered around under two fly balls in the sun. And you can say that he battled back to drive in the go ahead run off Rollie Fingers as the Mets scored four runs and punched out a 10-7 victory over the A's in game No. 2 here Sunday.
Indeed, the “spring was gone from his step” but he could still hit. Despite a somewhat ignominious exit, Willie was, nonetheless, in my mind, the Greatest.
Mickey was a hero with the Yankees, “the Duke” was a hero with Dodgers. The Mick won 7 World Series, Duke won 2, Willie only won once. But he represented everything that is great about baseball --- his fielding, his hitting, his running the bases were second to none and he never gave less than 100%, every time out.
So, in these days without baseball, where we can only see past/old games on ESPN or the YES network or SNY here in the New York Metro area, it doesn’t mean we can’t reminisce and appreciate a player like Willie Mays who may not have gotten the recognition he deserved in his time. Playing on the West Coast (like today’s best player, Mike Trout), he was not Center Stage the way a Mickey Mantle or Derek Jeter or Alex (A-Fraud) Rodriguez --- and that’s a shame. Celebrating Willie’s 89th birthday, I simply want to remember what a great player he was and how he made all of us who saw him play appreciate what a great game baseball can be.
Stay home. Stay safe.