When baseball’s brightest gather in San Francisco for Tuesday night’s All-Star game, they’ll bring along a buzz of anticipation, the kind of excitement that only the game’s top players can generate.
Willie Mays would know all about that.
In his time, the golden age of Aaron and Aparicio, Kaline and Koufax, Musial and Mantle, Mays collected superlatives. He defined baseball greatness, a man equipped with unsurpassed natural skills and a pure zest for the game that made him one of the most dynamic players in history.
“What made Willie different was his desire,” Hall of Famer Ernie Banks said. “A lot of folks have talent. It takes more. It takes focus and dedication. It takes heart. Willie had all that.
“He played the game as if he was the only one out there. His eyes would light up. His energy would kick in and he’d be ready to go. I had the privilege of watching and playing against a great talent.
“He played so hard, it inspired me to get out there every game. I couldn’t wait to play the Giants and watch him.”
Mays once owned San Francisco, much the way Barry Bonds does today. He was the centerpiece of the Giants team that moved from New York to California in 1957, but he was not embraced at the start because he was imported from the East.
The city wanted homegrown stars such as Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda, who, like Mays, all wound up in the Hall of Fame. Eventually, though, Mays won the hearts and minds of San Francisco fans.
Tuesday night’s game will display new stars from the raw power of Prince Fielder to the blinding speed of Jose Reyes to the overall excellence of Ichiro Suzuki.
Mays combined all those skills.
Simple statistics do not do him justice. There was a .302 lifetime batting average and 660 home runs, 1,903 runs batted in and 3,283 hits, substantial numbers that were skewed because he missed two seasons serving in the Army and then played much of his career in a wind tunnel called Candlestick Park.
“He played in some unusual parks,” Banks said. “The Polo Grounds had strange dimensions for a power hitter. Candlestick was so windy. Willie adjusted to wherever he was playing. He hit the ball everywhere. He adjusted to the park and the team he was playing.
“I once asked him what he thought about when he was at bat. He said, ‘I don’t think. I just see the ball and I hit it.”‘
Simple as that.
Mays was as much of a force on defense as he was with a bat in his hands.
“There was nothing he couldn’t do,” said Dick Groat, the longtime Pittsburgh and St. Louis shortstop who beat Mays for the batting title in 1960. “He played as well as anybody who ever played the game. He had no shortcomings. You knew in the clutch, he was always going to hit the ball hard. In the field, he was instinctive. He got a great jump on every ball.
“I was surprised when he didn’t make the play.”
So were Mays’ teammates.
“He played with a flair,” teammate Monte Irvin said in the Hall of Fame yearbook last year. “I played with him almost six years and some of the catches he made were just unbelievable.”
Mays is best remembered for the catch he made in the opening game of the 1954 World Series against Cleveland’s Vic Wertz. In the cavernous center field at the Polo Grounds, Mays turned and ran down the ball with his back to the plate.
Years later, he was matter-of-fact about the play that has become a permanent World Series highlight.
“I was playing very shallow,” Mays said. “I always played shallow. Ninety percent of balls are bloopers, balls hit in front of you. You’ll give those one or two hits over your head. I was lucky enough, speedy enough to catch those balls.
“I picked it up across the infield,” he said. “I was like a wide receiver catching a pass. I did that in high school many times. I caught the ball over my left shoulder so I’d be able to throw. When you look at the film of the play, it seems like I’m throwing before I catch the ball. The big thing that I was thinking about was the two guys on base. When you think that way, some things happen good.”
“That was about his third-best catch,” Irvin said.
Mays believed the best one came against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbets Field when he ran down a line drive by Bobby Morgan, launched himself through the air, speared the ball and was knocked unconscious when he landed.
“He backhanded the ball with the bases loaded,” Irvin said, “fell down and knocked himself out. But he still held on to the ball. Incredible.”
Another time against the Dodgers, in the heat of the 1951 pennant race, Mays drifted into right field for a fly ball hit by Carl Furillo, did a 360-degree turn and launched a perfect throw to nail Billy Cox, trying to score after the catch.
Brooklyn manager Chuck Dressen scoffed at the magical play, saying, “I’d like to see him do it again.”
Dressen notwithstanding, the Dodgers knew Mays could. They recognized what a special player he was.
“Willie was a little like Jackie (Robinson),” Brooklyn pitcher Carl Erskine said. “When he played, it was exciting. He did things to energize the game. And he was so innocent.
“I always imagined Willie was like Babe Ruth, from what I heard about him. They said Babe Ruth had such perfect instincts. He never threw to the wrong base. He never made a bad baserunning mistake. Well, Willie was like that. Willie just played all out all the time. And if you happened to get him out during the ball game, he’d beat you with his glove or his throws.
“Willie never got hurt. He just played every day. Willie was just an exciting player and made plays that you couldn’t practice.”
It was in the All-Star setting that Mays did some of his best work.
Typical was the 1968 game at Houston. In a season when pitchers dominated hitters, Mays built the only run of the game when he led off the first inning with a single, took second on an error, went to third on a wild pitch and scored on a double play grounder. At age 37, he earned his second All-Star game MVP award.
Five years earlier, Mays drove in two runs and scored two others and was the MVP in the NL’s 5-3 victory.
Mays played in 24 All-Star games over 20 years and set records for at-bats, hits, runs, extra-base hits, triples and stolen bases.
“I think it was Ted Williams who said they invented the All-Star game for Willie Mays,” Banks said. “He was right about that.”
So how good was Mays?
A man not given to hyperbole, Mays once considered his skills and said, “I was the best player I ever saw.”
Longtime manager Leo Durocher put it more bluntly.
“If he could cook,” Durocher once said of his center fielder, “I’d marry him.”