From the June, 1956 issue of SPORT Magazine
By ROGER KAHN
THE BEWILDERING WORLD OF WILLIE MAYS
It’s been a hectic five years for Mays. He’s had it all—sudden stardom, unbridled worship, bitter raps. The wonder of Willie is that he’s done so much so well.
Mostly, this is for people who have seen Willie Mays play baseball. People who haven’t can only begin to sense, in some vague, cloudy way, what all the excitement is about. When you’ve said Willie Mays is an exciting ballplayer, you’ve said it all. Except you really haven’t said a thing.
Joe Louis was a hard puncher. Winston Churchill was a smoothie with a speech. Jascha Heifetz plays a nice violin. Franklin Roosevelt was a hard man to beat. That’s what it means to say Willie is exciting. It means everything and nothing.
“Listen,” a Giant fan will tell you, “Willie can run and throw and catch better than anyone who ever lived and he’s the guy who’s gonna break Babe Ruth’s record.” You nod, figure the fan’s been eating opium and hurry on your way to the ballpark. If the uptown traffic is light, you arrive in time to see Willie slam a first-inning homer that carries 450 feet. So you’re still in shock when he steals a base in the fourth inning, and you’re groggy when he throws a man out at home in the sixth, and when he makes that catch in the ninth, you want to look up the Giant fan and apologize, even if you were born and bred in Brooklyn.
But you don’t have to apologize. When Willie Mays is right, he is a Giant fan’s implausible dream come to life.
This month (May), it is five full years since Willie first hit the majors. He was just 20 when he arrived, and almost unlettered. Willie has learned rapidly in the intervening time. He has married and grown well-to-do. But explaining and understanding him now is no easier than it was when he arrived, mute, nervous and confused.
The private world of Willie Mays often looks like the most bewildering canvas in baseball. Of course, it depends upon how carefully you care to look.
“Willie,” reports one Giant teammate, “is great with the jokes when he’s going good. That’s when everybody starts figuring he’s a great guy. But anybody can joke when he’s hitting. I’ve seen Willie when he doesn’t go good. He isn’t laughing then. He’s crying.”
“Willie,” says Barney Kremenko, a New York baseball writer who travels with the Giants, “is a genius. What Einstein was in his field, Willie is in baseball. That’s all. He’s a genius.”
“Willie,” says Tris Speaker, one of the finest centerfielders of all time, “has a lot of ability, and a lot to learn.”
“Willie,” says Duke Snider of the Dodgers, “is a helluva centerfielder.”
“Willie,” says Leo Durocher, “is the greatest outfielder I’ve ever seen.”
Seems fairly clear, doesn’t it? Mays has occasional moods which trouble a teammate, has occasional lapses which trouble a perfectionist, but for the most part, in the field, he is above reproach.
“But I can handle him at bat,” a Cincinnati pitcher once boasted. “I’ve been throwing at him and that’s done it. I’ve got him ducking high outside pitches.” (The pitcher is no longer in the majors.)
“Say,” argues Roy Campanella, “you may be gonna stop Willie some times, but you ain’t gonna stop him all the time, no matter what you try to do.”
“The book on the kid is murder,” a scout reports. “Pitch him high and you’re pitching to his’ power. He hits a lot of homers off high pitches. Pitch him low and you’re pitching to his average. He gets a piece of the low ones most of the time. He makes most of his singles off low pitches.”
Again, there should be no confusion. Willie at the plate is formidable. The occasional rumors that a batting weakness has been discovered have always been greatly exaggerated.
“Willie is wonderful to me,” Mrs. Sara May, an aunt who raised Mays, confided before her death in 1954. “He’s always sending me money and things. Only trouble he ever gave me raising, him was when he used to run off and play ball and leave the dishes he was supposed to wash and dry. At night, if I told him to be home, he was never late.”
“Willie is a really nice boy,” says Mrs. Ann Goosby, a matronly widow who was a virtual foster another to Mays in New York. “When he was living with me, he liked what I cooked and he was cheerful and he stayed around home quite a lot.”
“People have asked me,” reports Marghuerite Wendelle, who became Mrs. Mays last February, “what I thought about marrying a famous ballplayer. But I didn’t feel I was marrying a ballplayer. I know Willie. I was marrying a man.”
Now a third image of Mays begins to come clear. He is a young man of matchless kindness and virtue.
Obviously, it is not that simple. Controversy seems to be the handmaiden of success. Assuredly, Willie has been successful. Among the negative results; a New York lawyer says Willie is thoughtless, a magazine editor says he is money-mad, and an outfielder says he is pigheaded. The three have reasons which they sometimes cite at length.
Perhaps Mays’ kindness and virtue are not really matchless, but neither is he thoughtless, money-mad or pigheaded. He is, first of all, a pleasant youngster with good instincts. How much more he will become in 15 years is a fine question because his potentialities—off the field as well as on it—are so vast. In five years, he has had so much to learn, so many situations to handle, so many people to meet, that the real wonder of Willie is that he has done so much so well. Of all the great and little characters in the bewildering world of Willie Mays, it is Mays himself who often seems to be the clearest thinker.
A trip into this other world begins most properly at the office of Art Flynn, a New York advertising man who is Mays’ agent and business manager.
“Willie,” Flynn said, at the start of one trip not long ago, “is out in East Elmhurst in Queens. Give him a call out there.”
I spent a spring covering Mays’ daily routine for a newspaper once, but names are not Willie’s strong suit. So on the phone there was the customary problem. “Who?” Willie asked. “Who? What you wanna see me ‘bout?”
“What kind of a story?” Willie asked. He was on his guard.
“A story about you.”
“Well,” Willie said, suddenly genial, “I’d like to see you but I ain’t dressed, so I can’t pose for no pictures.”
“I just want to talk,” I said. That knocked the props out from under Willie’s case. An hour later, I was tapping on the door of an upstairs bedroom at the East Elmhurst house into which Willie moved soon after his marriage.
The cab driver had gotten lost, running up the meter, during the trip out, and what with Willie’s lack of enthusiasm on the phone, an expensively wasted day loomed as I stood there in the hall. But as soon as Willie shouted, “Come in,” and I opened the door, the situation brightened. “Hey,” he said, “I didn’t know that was you on the phone. That your name? How you been?”
I congratulated Willie on his wedding, sat down and looked around the room. It was a memorable sight. Mrs. Mays was out shopping and Willie, sitting alone in the center of a large bed, seemed almost regal. He was wearing pale ivory pyjamas as he rested lightly against’ a red satin headboard. A half finished glass of orange juice was on the night table. At Willie’s feet, a big television set boomed unnoticed.
“Man, I been busy,” Willie said. “But it’s time for me to be settling down. I’m 24 years old.” He was 25 on May 6.
For some reason, I thought of cold cash. “You’ll make a fortune,” I found myself saying, “if you don’t get hurt.”
“I won’t get hurt,” Willie said. “You can bet on that.”
“What if they throw at you?”
“They can throw at me,” Willie said, “but I ain’t gonna be where they’re throwin’ when the ball comes.” Willie giggled. His voice is generally a respectable tenor but it goes up an octave when Willie is excited about something, or when he giggles.
“What about running into fences?”
“I practice,” Willie said. “I practice not running into ‘em. It ain’t easy. I bet you never seen me do it.”
He paused, then continued. “First couple of weeks of training, I go out to the outfield and run at the fences. fast as I can. Then I stop. That way, I get used to running near the fences, know what I mean, but I get used to stopping just in time.”
By reputation, Mays is a natural, which means baseball comes naturally to him. The value of running at fences as a training maneuver may be questionable, but it illustrates another fact: Willie’s basic attitude toward the game.
“You got to practice,” he said. “First you got to love the game, so’s you’ll want to practice, but you got to go out and try to do different things like I did and you got to practice doing them.”
Mays naturally realizes that natural ability, in itself, is not enough. It may be sufficient for a Mickey Mantle to hit 30 home runs; it is not sufficient for Willie to hit 50. Like all great baseball “naturals,” Mays studies the game with more than natural intensity.
“Take grounders,” he said. “You got to charge ’em if you’re an infielder, so you ought to charge ’em in the outfield, too. But man, that ain’t real easy. I mean it ain’t catching no pop fly.” (Mays is easily the best outfielder of the last decade in charging grounders.) “I practice running in on ‘em,” he said. “I practice that all the time. ‘Course, once in a while, one gets by me, but that’s a chance you got to take if you want to charge ’em like you should.”
When Mays broke in, he had the face of a small boy. Now, as he sat in bed and talked about his profession, what looked almost like the beginnings of jowls were visible. But more apparent was the face- splitting smile and the , uniquely eager expression that he had from the day he joined the Giants. A bell tolled softly and Willie answered a stylish tan telephone that rested on the night table.
“Newsreel pictures?” he said. “What kind of newsreel pictures?”
Willie listened intently. “Well,” he said, “I don’t know nothing about newsreel pictures in the house. You better arrange it with my agent, Art Flynn.”
Again Willie listened hard. “Is there money in it?” he said.
The voice on the other end talked quickly.
“Well,” Willie said, “like I say, I don’t know nothing about newsreels. You call Art Flynn. Yeah, ‘right, ‘bye.”
As Willie hung up, he seemed embarrassed. “Hey,” he said, “I know about newsreels. I was just telling him I didn’t know.”
“There’s no money in newsreels, Will,” I volunteered. “They can take pictures of you on the field any time they want.”
“I know,” Willie said., “but this is different. If they come to the house and take up a day and maybe want to use the pictures for advertising, it’s different. Art Flynn, he tells me if they use my picture for advertising, there should be something in it. I don’t know. I just let him handle it for me, things like this.”
Once a famous theatrical agent was bellowing about the actors he represented. “They’re all too damn proud,” he said, “to admit that there is anything in heaven or earth they don’t know. So they keep getting themselves involved in dumb deals and I keep having to get them out.” Willie may not be much at recitations from Macbeth, but he is wise enough to know when to plead ignorance. There is a little native shrewdness in him, yet it is almost totally concealed by his basic naiveté. To this day, in some ways, he is innocent beyond belief.
When the conversation drifted to contracts, Willie said he disapproved of ballplayers who worried about salary. “You shouldn’t fight about how much you gonna get,” he said. “You love the game and practice it and play it good and you don’t have to worry. The money, it’ll come.”
To Willie’s left was an open closet door that revealed a vast assortment of suits. “I been lucky,” Willie said. “Mr. Stoneham is my friend. I don’t know about anybody else. I mean I don’t know if they’s not my friend. It’s just Mr. Stoneham who signs me. We never argue how much I’m gonna get. Whatever he says is right is okay with me, because he’s my friend.”
When Willie was discharged from the Army in 1954, Leo Durocher reported that he signed without even bothering to look at the figure in the contract.
“I showed him where to sign and he signed,” Durocher told an audience at a Phoenix hotel that included, if memory serves, four sportswriters, two actors, one insurance man, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. “What a kid. I yelled what the hell was he doing signing without looking at the figure and Willie says, ‘I trust you, Mr. Durocher. You say sign, I sign. You say don’t sign, I don’t sign.’ What a kid.”
Because of Durocher’s tendency to exaggerate, particularly in the presence of Hungarian blondes, the story seemed worth further checking. But at the time, it withstood all tests, except that Willie called his manager “Leo,” or “Skip,” not “Mr. Durocher.”
“I’ll tell you about that,” Willie offered as he sat straight up in his bed. “Sure I signed without looking. I was getting out of the Army and when you get out, you always get the same pay you got before you went in. That’s one time they ain’t gonna cut you. But they ain’t gonna give you no raise, neither. I knew the money was gonna be the same. What was the sense of looking?”
There is, of course, a law against reducing the salary of a returning serviceman but Mays’ continuing faith in the fairness of baseball club owners is both a compliment to Horace Stoneham and a symptom that causes alarm. His wife, older than he and twice divorced, has been judged by some as a woman whose chief marital aim may be to help Willie spend money. According to this picture, Willie is a child in the hands of a femme fatale. As delicately as possible, I mentioned this impression. Willie’s answer was instantaneous and frank.
“Look,” he said, “I don’t know what’s gonna be for sure, but I think Marghuerite can help me and I can help her so we can help each other. Sure, they’re gonna talk about her and me. Same people was talking and writing columns last summer, about how I was gonna marry this girl and that girl. Well, they was, wrong then like they is wrong now. Oh, I don’t know for sure, but I think I know and I think it’s gonna work out.” He pointed to his chest. “I’m the only guy knows what’s in here,” Willie ‘said, gallantly.
When we parted, Mays leaned forward in bed and extended one of his large, strong hands. The pyjamas were carefully tailored and a monogram stood out from the ivory. “Anytime you wanna talk, you call me up,” Willie said. “Good luck to ya, buddy.” At that moment, we were great friends. Future phone calls probably will present the same problems as calls in the past.
Charles Einstein, a writer who collaborated with Willie on the book, Born To Play Ball, spent countless hours with Mays during the two weeks he probed for material for the book. The sessions were held in a yellow Lincoln, Mays’ car that year, and while Willie drove fast Einstein labored tirelessly to keep his subject talking. This is a soul-searching sort of relationship and one in which two people can become very close very quickly.
Less than a week after the Mays sessions had ended, Einstein found himself stuck at one point in the story. He needed a fact and so, he telephoned Willie.
“Hi, Willie,”’ Einstein began, expansively, “this is Charley.”
“Who?” Willie said.
“Charley. Charley Einstein.”
“Oh,” Willie said, so flatly that it was obvious the name had not registered.
“Willie,” Einstein shouted. “Charley Einstein. Two weeks in the car–the book.”
“Oh yeah,” Willie said. “How ya doin’, Charley?”
I thought of this going down the stairs. As I passed the living room, I looked in and there, poised gracefully on a window seat, Mrs. Mays sat, doing her nails. We had not been introduced, but she nodded, with a kind of gracious aloofness. Then I passed out of the bewildering world of Willie Mays into a quiet street in East Elmhurst. It took a long tune to find a cab.
Whatever clues exist to Mays’ future, as he continues to grow and continues to learn, probably lie in the immediate past. There is a lot to be found in places like Powderly, Ala., where Willie’s stepfather and mother live, in a bleak house on a dusty, unpaved street. There is more to be found in Fairfield, Ala., a steel-mill town where Willie’s Aunt Sara lived and where Willie grew up. But the first hints of what’s ahead for Willie lie in bigger towns, like Minneapolis and New York.
For one thing, it is doubtful if he will become overly impressed with himself. That became apparent on they day in 1951 the Giants pried Willie loose from Minneapolis.
This was in the second month of Willie’s second season in organized ball and he had played 35 games for Minneapolis. Willie was doing fine but the Giants were doing very little, or so it seemed. (Actually, they were jockeying for position with the Dodgers, craftily moving 13-1/2 games behind in order to set up their late-season drive.) When the call came, Willie was at a movie house, one of his favorite haunts, and after getting no answer at his hotel, the telephone operator traced Willie to the theater. Mays was already a big man in Minneapolis and there was no question what the call was about. So the theater manager stopped the film and walked on to the stage.
“Call for Willie Mays,” he announced, prouder than a midget bellowing cigarette commercials.
Mays, who was with a date, sheepishly left his seat and took the call in the theater office. He had been happy in Minneapolis and, at the moment, playing for the Giants seemed a little beyond him.
“Willie,” Leo Durocher was roaring over the long distance lines, “pick up your ticket, hop a plane and I’ll see you here tomorrow.”
Willie didn’t want to go. He thought fast. “You’re making a mistake,” he said. “You don’t want me.”
“Course I want you,” shouted Durocher, who has been known to compare even Class D ballplayers with Charlie Gehringer when under a full head of enthusiasm. “You’re just the man I want, Willie.”
“No,” Mays pleaded. “You’re making a mistake.”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t want me,” Willie said, “cause I’m not good enough.”
Now it was Durocher thinking quickly. “Willie,” he said. “What, are you hitting?”
“.477,” Mays confessed.
“So,” Durocher said, “you pick up your ticket, hop a plane and I’ll see you here tomorrow.”
Actually, Willie has never been plagued by self-doubts but he has tended somewhat to underestimate his own ability: A good many major-leaguers have a habit of falling back on stock, phony phrases such as, “and then I was lucky enough to hit a 400-foot home run.” Willie’s appraisals of his own shortcomings are more sincere. At Minneapolis, he did not really believe he was going to be overwhelmed by the majors. But neither did he think he was ready to make them with a splash. “Experience,” he says. “There was so many fellows in the league with so much more experience than me, how could I be as good as they?”
Willie was called by the Giants on May 24 and the reporter who covered the story for the New York Herald Tribune wrote that Willie was “a preposterous rookie.” The man in the Daily Mirror, Leonard Lewin, had more to say. “Amazin’ Willie Mays,” Lewin wrote, “who apparently does nothing short of amazing, wrote another amazing page into his short, amazing career yesterday . . . Today he is a Giant. Not only that, he’s the regular centerfielder, shoving Bobby Thomson, the best fielding CF in the NL, to left field for tonight’s game in Philly. It’s amazin’.” Lewin was writing with some skepticism, of course. How could anyone have known at the time that Mays was going to be an outfielder of such defensive talents that nobody in baseball save possibly Duke Snider could even make it close?
As Willie can be both shrewd and naive, so he is often both humble and arrogant. He made that emphatic before long. Mays joined the Giants in Philadelphia, where the left-field stands are 334 feet away at the foul line, but fall off quite sharply, and on his first batting practice swing he reached the upper deck. He did the same thing on his next two swings, but in the three games the Giants played at Philadelphia, Willie didn’t manage to make a hit. In his fourth game, he came to bat at the Polo Grounds for the first time and hit a home run over the left-field roof. But that was his only hit in his first 26 times at bat. Willie, who’d been a humble .477 hitter, now was arrogant at .038. “It’s only a slump,” he said. “I been taking a lot of pitches because I want to see what they throw up here. Now I’ve found out. They’re throwing me the same stuff I was belting in Minneapolis. Not many curves, either. They’re giving me, the sort of stuff I want.” By June 15, Willie had pretty well proven his case. He was batting .314.
Two months later he made a play which established him more than any other single thing he ever did in the majors. The Dodgers were tied with the Giants, it was the eighth inning, runners were at first and third, one man was out and Carl Furillo was the batter when Mays came through. Furillo lashed a long drive into right center field and it was only after a long, frantic sprint that Willie was able to spear the ball. The catch was spectacular in itself but Billy Cox, the Dodger on third, had chosen to play it safe. He held up. When Willie caught the smash, Cox broke promptly for the plate.
Willie had made the catch facing the right-field foul line, about as poor a position from which to throw home as can be imagined for a right-handed outfielder. But Willie pivoted violently to his left and without a pause or a look, whipped his arm around and cut loose. The throw carried to the plate on a fly and Cox, who could run well, was retired on the end of an impossible double play. The Giants won the game, 3-1.
Furillo, himself the possessor of a great throwing arm, underscored the wonder of Willie when he grumbled: “He’ll never make a throw like that again.” He may never have to. The point is, when he had to, he did. It was, by Willie’s own description, “the perfectest throw I ever made.”
About that time Leo Durocher took a flying leap onto the Mays bandwagon. “He’s good for the team,” Durocher began a lecture one day. “He kids the guys and they kid him. He’s always saying ‘say-hey,’ and some of the guys are calling him that. He gets out to the ball park hours before a game and he grabs everyone. ‘Say-hey,’ he says, ‘you wanna have a catch?’ That’s good for a club, all that eagerness.”
“So you really think he’s great,” prompted a writer.
“I wouldn’t trade him for Stan Musial, Ted Williams or even DiMag,” Durocher said. “They’re great, sure, but Willie’s only 19 or 20. Look. I been around the big leagues about 25 years. This kid’s the bestlooking rookie I’ve ever seen.”
From a somewhat cynical point of view, Durocher’s relationship with Mays is not hard to fathom. Durocher saw a good thing and moved in. Such is his way. Nor is Willie’s fondness for Leo puzzling. “He never yelled at me,” Willie recalls, “and if I did something wrong, he’d come tell me nice and quiet. He was a good manager and he was my friend.” Almost from the first, in fact, Durocher made Mays his private project.
Leo has hands as quick as a pickpocket’s. As a result, he could battle Willie in pepper games—one man throws, the other hits grounders—and almost hold his own. The two played for soft drinks, often bringing in Monte Irvin as a third man, and Durocher ad-libbed the rules as the game went along. Theoretically, a fielding muff cost a bottle of soda but Durocher, usually with one eye on the crowd, made great shows of racking up soda bottles whether or not Willie had muffed anything.
“That’s eight Cokes you owe me,” he would yell.
“No,” Mays would squeal, “that wasn’t no miss.”
“Monte,” Willie would plead. “He’s cheating.” Irvin, a dignified player and a man of great reserve, usually said nothing, offered only a smile.
“C’mon,” Durocher would bark and Mays, his face twisted like a sorry clown’s mask, would resume the game.
The pepper game was the showpiece. Behind it there grew a personal relationship that was a prominent factor in Willie’s development. Mrs. Goosby remarked about it before the 1951 season was over. “Willie takes that man’s word for just about everything,” she said. “He almost won’t make a move unless he’s talked to him first.”
During Willie’s rookie big-league season, as he opened eyes all around the National League, Leo Durocher must have been an eye-opener to him. Here, after all, was a man who had started out almost as humbly as Willie, with no money and precious little education. He had come a long way. His wife was a movie actress and he was a terrific dresser, always wearing flashy clothes, and he drove a nice car. Besides, he liked Willie. He never gave it to Willie the way he gave it to some of the other guys on the club. All you have to do for him is hustle and he looks out for you and tells you things and helps you get so’s you can make it big like he did.
One unfortunate aspect of the Durocher success story is its hallmark: ruthlessness. A great manager, an able promoter, Durocher still owes a great deal of what he has achieved to his first rule: Don’t clutter your brain with ethics. If Leo Durocher had been the only force brought to bear on 20-year-old Willie Mays in 1951, Mays might today have a great many odd ideas. But happily, Durocher was only one of his close friends. Another was Monte Irvin.
What Irvin was to Willie is probably best illustrated by an incident that occurred three years later when the Giants were playing an exhibition game in Las Vegas. After the game, the team was scheduled to fly out of town immediately, which would give the players no more than a brief chance to lose money at the gambling tables. But one of the engines on a chartered DC3 developed bugs and as a result the team was unable to get away until a scheduled airliner, with space available, came through at midnight.
One Las Vegas hotel owner, aware of a lively promotion, invited the Giants en masse for a dinner party and promised them the courtesy of the house up to, but not including, the one-armed bandits. After dinner, Mays headed for the floor show which on that particular night featured an operatic tenor of some talent, who poured out his woes through Vesti la Giubba, the most dramatic of all the arias in Pagliacci.
In case you haven’t been spending your spare time at the Metropolitan Opera House, the pitch of Vesti la Giubba is that the show has to go on, even when a clown feels like crying, which, by the way, he does, three-quarters of the way through the song. At any rate, Willie listened; enraptured by the aria, announced that it was “real nice” and, after the tenor was through, moved along to the gambling room. He checked a dime slot machine, where Whitey Lockman and Irvin were striving frantically to keep even, then walked over to the dice table.
“You going to play dice?” a reporter in the Giant party asked him.
“No,” Willie said, with that inevitable mixture of wisdom and boyishness. “I’m just learnin’ the game.”
Willie had not been standing at the table for two minutes before a hotel official walked over to the reporter.
“Tell your friend to move away from the dice table,” the official said.
“You know why. They can go anywhere they want, but we’ don’t want ’em mixing with white folks at the tables.”
The conversation grew steadily uglier until the reporter pulled a press card and the hotel, not eager for the sort of publicity it was courting, sent out fresh officials to counter the demands of the first. The reporter sought out Irvin, who by this time had run out of dimes and was awaiting the start of the second floor show.
“When did this happen?” Irvin asked.
“Right now,” the reporter said.
“Still at the dice table, I guess.”
“He’ll only get hurt,” Irvin said. “I’m going to get him.”
Without another word, Irvin turned, sought out Mays and led him toward the nearest exit.
“Plane ain’t gonna leave for two hours, roomy,” Willie protested. “What we gotta go for?”
“Come on, Willie,” Irvin said. “We’ll get the bus lights on and you and me can play some cards.”
How much the incident would rankle a man of Irvin’s intelligence can be guessed, but rather than make Willie, who was then not emotionally mature, the center of a nasty scene, Irvin avoided a scene altogether. When it came to Willie, Irvin was always gentle.
It must have been puzzling for Mays, at 20, to compare his two friends, Durocher and Irvin. Leo was a lot of fun but Monte was quiet and everybody seemed to respect him. Monte was fun to kid with because he always looked so serious, but once in a while he would get real glum and there was no sense horsing around. Anyway, it was a terrific year. It was a good thing he had come up from Minneapolis. The Giants won the pennant with the most exciting drive in history and everybody, Leo mostly, said they couldn’t have won it without Willie.
But the next year made up for the good one. Irvin shattered his ankle during spring training and all of a sudden there was an Army call for Willie, despite his dependents back in Alabama. In the Army, Willie matured a good deal.
Others have had rougher Army hitches, but Mays, like any other private, simply did what he was told.
Principally, he was told to play baseball for the Fort Eustis Wheels. He batted .420 for the Wheels in 1952, .389 in 1953 and covered so much of the outfield that the other fielders complained about his poaching. But for the most part Willie was a popular soldier. He was not wildly enthusiastic about military life but a rumor that he went AWOL for a week wasn’t fair.
He left his company after getting permission from someone further up the chain of command, who neglected to tell the company commander until a few days had passed. By that time there was speculation that Willie had sneaked back to the Polo Grounds.
On his Army discharge, Willie made a quick and remarkable impression. “I hope to bat maybe .300,” he told reporters, “but I never been no .300 hitter in the majors before and that big-league pitching is a lot different from what I been seeing.”
“There’s a report, Willie, that you’re going to ask for a $20,000 salary,” a newspaperman said.
“That Mr. Stoneham,” Willie said, in apparent terror, “would take a gun to me if I ever asked him for $20,000.”
“Well, how did the report get started?”
“You know the way writers are,” Willie said, ‘echoing an old Durocher saying. “It don’t matter what you say. They gonna write what they want to write anyway.”
A columnist moved in. “You mean,” he said, confidently, “that you’d be just as happy playing baseball for nothing.”
Willie was silent for a moment. “Now,” he said, finally, “remember you’re saying that, not me, if you’re going to write it.”
Willie had been thinking in the Army, despite numerous military rules against it. When he reached spring training in Phoenix, he was ready for every press conference. He was even ready to offer advice.
“Hey,” Ruben Gomez, the Puerto Rican pitcher, called to him one day. “I sign some paper for that man. You know who I mean?”
“Art Flynn,” Willie suggested.
“Yeah,” Gomez said. “I sign but I not get money.”
“You sure you signed?” Willie said.
“Yeah,” Gomez said.
“Well, then don’t worry,” Willie said. “Long as you signed something, you’re gonna get money. Sometimes, it takes a little time, but I find that whenever I sign something I get paid.” It’s almost a tribute to the human race that somebody can be alive for 22 years of the 20th Century and cling to such a doctrine. For Willie Mays, at any rate, the doctrine applied.
After his two years in the Army, Willie was bound for greater stardom than he ever suspected. Everything seemed to mesh at once: the basket catch, seven more pounds of home-run muscle, more consistency against curve balls. Before spring training ended, he was being billed as the star from outer space. Before the season ended, he had locked up the Most Valuable Player award. But he had also run into a sort of personal crisis.
“Willie,” Art Flynn once explained it, “suddenly stopped being just another good ballplayer. He became the hottest thing since Babe Ruth. DiMag was extremely popular. Musial and Williams are consistently big. But no one gets the concentrated rush for appearances and everything else Willie got when he got hot in 1954.”
Frank Forbes, a New York state boxing judge who is one of the Giants’ numerous liaison men to Willie, hinted at another aspect of the problem. “When he first came to New York, he was nothing but a kid,” Forbes said, “but he had a likeable, wonderful personality. He was a little bewildered because you don’t get much sophistication in a southern state, but by 1954 I don’t think anything scared him.
“But I remember one week when reporters started asking him a lot of statistical things like will he break ‘Babe Ruth’s record and things like that. He didn’t come out and say anything but these questions put things in his head and I noticed that week he was trying for the long ball more often and so he was striking out more than usual.”
The transformation to superstar was not painless. The better Mays got, the greater the fuss Durocher made about him: By midseason there were resentments on the club so obvious that even casual observers noticed.
Once after one of Willie’s best days, two newspapermen sought exclusive interviews at the same time.
“I’ll talk to Willie when you’re through,” the first one said.
“The hell with that,” said the second. “I won’t talk to him with you around.”
Pretty soon, the journalism seminar ‘turned rough and Willie scooted off to Durocher in honest distress. “I’ll talk to ’em, I’ll talk to ’em,” he said. “What they fighting about me for?”
“Don’t worry about the writers,” Durocher said, generously. “The hell with them. Get dressed and go home.”
The tableau was enacted before most of the Giant squad. Willie wasn’t the only man on the team but to some of the players it seemed that impression was spreading. “Look,” Willie said, “when I worry I don’t play good and when I read the papers too much I worry, so I don’t read the papers; ’cept once in a while.” This sort of talk struck some of the Giants as a little precious; particularly those Giants who were getting their names into newspapers only in fine print.
There was a coterie of Mays detractors on the club, small but bitter. What prevented them from getting more numerous was Willie’s wonderful talent. It is Chuck Dressen’s favorite race-relations theory that no white ballplayer ever resents a Negro helping him to a World Series share, even if the white is a volunteer worker for the Klan back home in Dixie.
So what helped Willie withstand the growing pains of ’54 with his teammates was ability. What helped him with the press was his odd charm. After the first game of the World Series, when Willie saved the Giants victory by catching a drive Vic Wertz hit from home plate at the Polo Grounds into the shadow of Yankee Stadium, photographers ringed the steps that lead down from the shower room in the Giant clubhouse. When Willie emerged from the showers, the photographers began to shout in their traditional babel, “Hey kid—lookaheregimmeasmilewillya.”
The gibberish was deafening and Willie wanted time to size up the situation. He had a towel draped around his waist and with a big grin he let it slip off to the floor.
A platoon of photographers screamed more babel meaning, “Listen, Willie, put the damn towel back on. How can I take a picture of you when you’re naked? Please put the towel back on.”
With careful modesty, Willie gathered the towel about him again. Then the first flash bulbs began to pop and he let it fall. Willie laughed his high-pitched laugh, put the towel on once more and kept it there while the photographers snapped away. It had been a pleasant enough joke, even the photographers admitted. Willie just liked to have a little fun.
When the 1954 season was over Mays had batted .345, but when he started slowly last season after a winter of Caribbean baseball, he was put under continuing pressure.
“Some Hall of Famer,” a sportswriter jeered, as Mays went through a long hitless stretch early in the season. “Hold up that bus to Cooperstown.” This was inevitable. Mays had not boosted himself, but the Giants, desperate to build up their attendance, had promoted him with all guns. Over-promotion may be what ruined Clint Hartung and slowed the careers of Duke Snider and Mickey Mantle. Whenever the well-promoted athlete slips, there is always someone delighted to announce that he had known the fall was coming all the time. The announcement can be disturbing. Besides, there was a special situation with which Willie had to deal: Durocher was putting him on the spot.
One hot March day in Phoenix, the manager, playing a pepper game with Johnny Antonelli and Sal Maglie, decided Antonelli ‘was not bending for grounders with enough spirit. Just then Willie flitted by.
“That’s spirit, John,” Durocher said. “What Willie shows. Why, if it wasn’t for Willie, you wouldn’t have won ten games last year.” Durocher was referring to a season in which Antonelli had, in fact, won 21. “Johnny walked off the field,” Maglie remembers. “He wasn’t the same after that. I mean his heart wasn’t in it. Sure, pitching is a business, but you like to feel what you been doing is appreciated. The kid is great, don’t get me wrong. But so is Dark and a lot of the other guys. Willie didn’t win that World Series by himself.”
After the Giants shipped Irvin to Minneapolis, Mays roomed alone last year, but by then the initial threat of his learning the wrong things from Durocher appeared to have passed. When Willie was benched during a slump, he said simply, “Leo knows more ’bout me than I do,” which was a gracious way of handling a touchy question. And he did hit 51 home runs, so that he hardly staggered through a lost season. Willie now can take care of himself.
“I know Rigney,” he said, when someone asked him about the new Giant manager, “and he’s a smart man, a lot like Leo in some ways. I mean people think he’s careful all the time, but they’re gonna get a surprise. Rigney plays the game a lot like Leo.”
Occasionally, there is a search made of Willie’s earliest days in an effort to analyze the elements that mix in him. No search has been successful yet. It is a simple story of a poor boy with talent.
Willie Howard Mays, Jr. entered the world on May 6, 1931 in Fairfield, Ala., the son of a fair semi-pro ballplayer, Willie, Sr., who earned a living in a steel mill, and Annie Mays. Soon after the birth Willie’s father and mother split, and at the age of three Willie went to live with his Aunt Sara. His mother married again to a man named Frank MeMorris and it was probably fortunate that Willie moved in with his aunt. Before she died in childbirth, Willie’s mother had ten children by her second husband. They all existed in a five-room house. With his aunt Willie got a good deal more personal attention than his mother could possibly have given him and a good deal more in the way of living quarters as well.
Willie has accepted his rather confused family situation splendidly, assuming a fair share of financial responsibility: Says Frank McMorris: “Willie has always helped us and we needed it. Willie is a good boy.” His father is reluctant to discuss money, but friends have pointed out how much Willie has assisted Willie, Sr. “I know he’s given him plenty of money,” one says. “I remember once he gave him $200 and he’s always doing things for his father like putting a roof on his house and such as that.”
Willie knows about poverty because in his early life it was always there. He remembers playing ball when he was very young, “with older kids” because there was a neighborhood benefactor who provided bats and balls. But when Willie was a high school halfback, he also had to work in a steel mill. He was a star halfback but in 1948, when he was only a sophomore, he managed to win a job on the Birmingham Black Barons. At 16, that summer, Willie batted .311.
The Yankees sent a man to scout Mays two years later when he was becoming a baseball star and had graduated from high school. The scout reported that Mays was weak on curve balls.
Jackie Robinson knew about Mays. He recommended that the Dodgers sign him. A scout from Mississippi was dispatched. “Won’t do,” he reported to the Brooklyn office.
The Braves had a man watching Willie and even made an offer to the Black Barons. But there were strings attached: Willie had to make the majors or the purchase price was to be refunded. The deal, understandably, fell through.
So, almost by default, the Giants landed the biggest gate attraction in baseball. They had assigned a man to watch a firstbaseman on the Black Barons. Instead, he watched Willie, and for a flat $10,000 the Giants obtained him. They shipped him to Trenton in 1950 and the first scouting report from there was modest.
“He’s a major-league prospect,” wrote Chick Genovese, the manager. “Possesses strong arms and wrists, runs good, has good baseball instinct. Wants to learn. Should play AAA ball next year.”
A year later, when Willie was playing AAA ball at Minneapolis, Hank DeBerry was sent to scout him further. DeBerry’s report is probably unmatched in any baseball files, anywhere. It goes like this: “Sensational. Is the outstanding player on the Minneapolis club and probably in all the minor leagues for that matter. He is now on one of the best hitting streaks imaginable. Hits all pitches and hits to all fields. Hits the ball where it is pitched as good as any player seen in many days. Everything he does is sensational. He has made the most spectacular catches. Runs and throws with the best of them. Naturally, he has some faults, some of which are: charges low-hit balls too much, runs a bit with his head down. There have been a few times when his manager needed a rope. When he starts somewhere, he means to get there, hell bent for election. Slides hard, plays hard. He is a sensation and just about as popular with local fans as he can be—a real favorite. The Louisville pitchers knocked him down plenty, but it seemed to have no effect on him at all. This player is the best prospect in America. It was a banner day for the Giants when this boy was signed!”
As a rule, scouting reports are pretty monotonous stuff, filled with such standard phrases as “could make it if he hits curve ball better.” Finding DeBerry’s report in the Giant file is roughly comparable to finding a sonnet in the files of an advertising agency.
No more reports followed DeBerry’s, for soon after it arrived, there came Willie in the flesh at the Polo Grounds to back it up. Ever since, Willie has been supporting the report and even at times making it appear to be an understatement.
With Babe Ruth, the image everyone recalls is a trot, pigeon-toed and mincing around the bases after each prodigious home run. With Stan Musial, it is the uncoiling of a swing, beautiful to everyone but pitchers. But with Willie, the image is a little more involved.
To begin, there is a faceless batter slamming a long drive to center field. Willie sprints, loses his cap, twists, turns, stumbles, pats his glove impatiently and finally, with a graceful little shrug, he catches the ball at his waist. No one ever caught fly balls quite like Willie Mays and few have caught them anywhere near as well. He has a ferocious swing and, of course, a great arm, but the thing that has set him apart from other fierce swingers and great throwers is his fly-catching. It is unique.
Mays feels much more sure of himself now than he did when he first hit the majors. “I think,” he says, “there is still things I got to learn, but nowhere near as much as there was.” In his dealings with people, too, he has grown more worldly. “I been learning how to get along and I got a lot of friends,” he says almost proudly. “I mean not baseball friends. Fellows I met up ’round Harlem in the ‘Y’ and all up there who really likes me.” But as he is developing talent, Willie is a developing person. It’s a long time since anyone has heard him say “sayhey.”
“You got to love the game,” he still insists. “Otherwise nobody can teach you nothin’. But I wish there was someone around who every time I made a mistake come to me and said, ‘Willie, you done this wrong. Do it this other way the next time.’ I never had much whatchucall coaching. I mean most of the things I had to learn myself. But I learned them ’cause I know that no matter how good you get there’s always somebody can help you get better.”
Mays still may antagonize people this season, as he did in others, by shrewdly wondering about money and naively playing practical jokes, even on teammates who are caught in grave batting slumps. He’ll kid a few times when he should be serious and be serious a few times when the occasion cries for humor. But then Willie is only 25 years old.
Like anyone else, Willie falters once in a while, only it usually costs him more than it does the other fellow. One day last summer, Duke Snider hit a shot that squirted through Willie’s hands and bounced toward the distant center-field fence in the Polo Grounds. Willie realized Snider would be home before he could even reach the ball, so he let it roll. But somebody has to chase a loose ball, and rightfielder Don Mueller made the long trot while Willie watched, his hands on his hips. Any player is scolded for standing around, but the storm that fell about Mays was fearful. When a hero gives up, the drums always roll.
No matter how far he goes, it’s doubtful if Willie will ever quite accept what is happening to him as entirely true. The dreams he had as a boy in Alabama could not begin to approximate the life that he has actually found with the Giants.
Back when Willie received his Army discharge and flew across the country to join the Giants at Phoenix, Leo Durocher hugged him repeatedly for joy and for the news photographers. When the hugging was over, Monte Irvin walked over and gave Willie his hand.
“He’s shaking hands with the pennant,” a Giant fan proclaimed in the wild enthusiasm of the moment.
“Hi, roomy,” Irvin said, quietly.
“Hey, Monte,” Willie said.
Irvin smiled at Mays, then said, “Roomy, how’s your game?”
Willie shook his head. “What you mean my game, Monte? You talking about pool?”
“No, Willie,” Irvin said. “I’m talking about your game, about baseball.”
“Oh yeah,” Willie said, a little surprised. “My game baseball. I’m ready any time.”
Of such is made the bewildering world of Willie Mays.