From the August, 1969 issue of SPORT Magazine
By ROGER KAHN
WILLIE MAYS, YESTERDAY AND TODAY
The author and the great ballplayer go back a long way together, and the memories of those years are rich and vivid. Here is a warm and very special look at Willie Mays as he was then, and as he is now.
He is sitting on the three-legged stool they give to ballplayers and milkmaids, and he looks enormous and supple and strong. He has a massive flat chest and bulging arms and shoulders and the kind of muscled stomach I remember from comic-book drawings of Tarzan. Still, he is 38 years old.
“What do you do to stay in shape, Will?” I say.
“Nothin' special,” Willie Mays says. “I walk a lot and I play golf now, 'sted of pool. And I don't eat too much and I never did drink, except three times, when we won pennants.” A smile briefly lights the handsome brown face.
“Well, you look like you can go on forever.”
“I won't lie to you,” Mays says. “It gets to be work. Sometimes when I get tired and all that pressure, it gets to be work. I knew when I was 16 years old, I never did want to work for a living.” Again the smile.
“You want to manage?”
“Yeah. I think I'd like to.”
“What about handling pitchers? Could you do that?”
“You're a manager,” Willie says, “man, you get to hire help.”
It is 11 o'clock the morning after a night game and Willie will play this afternoon. The team is not going well and last night in the ninth inning, with the count threeandtwo, he guessed curve. Then Ron Taylor of the Mets threw a fastball by him. Willie is not playing for fun today, but from a sense of obligation. He has come out early so we can talk in an empty locker room, and the conversation sweeps across a broad range. We go back a way together and when Willie trusts you, he is warm and open and droll and humorously sly. Together, we consider divorce and alimony and childraising and financial security and how time, the subtle thief of youth, steals from you, me and even Willie Mays.
A spring, 15 years ago, comes back in a rush and I see again the wide pellucid sky, the baked hills wanting grass, and the desert winds blowing whirls of sand. I hadn't wanted to come to Phoenix. I hadn't wanted to cover the Giants. For two previous years I'd been assigned to the Dodgers. This nurtured a condition, described in a general way by the late nonpareil of sports editors, Stanley Woodward. “Baseball writers,” Woodward observed, “always develop a great attachment for the Brooklyn ballclub if long exposed to it. We found it advisable to shift Brooklyn writers frequently. If we hadn't, we would have found that we had on our hands a member of the Brooklyn ballclub rather than a newspaper reporter. You watch a Brooklyn writer for symptoms, and, before they become virulent, you must shift him to the Yankees or to tennis or golf.” Woodward was gone from the HeraldTribune by 1954. I was shifted, under protest, to the Giants.
The ride from New York to Phoenix was interminable. We had to change trains in Chicago, wasting time, and somewhere near Liberal, Kansas, we stopped dead for ten or 12 hours in a snowstorm.
Perhaps 50 hours after we had left New York, the train pulled into Phoenix and we stepped out into a cool and cloudless morning. Louis Effrat of The Times alighted with me, and looked about the station. A few Indians were sleeping. In the distance lay brown hills. “Three thousand miles,” Effrat shouted. “I leave my wife, my daughter, my home and travel 3,000 miles.” He inhaled before bellowing, “For what?” He was making a joke, but that was the way I felt.
My outlook did not improve immediately. The Giant manager, Honest Leo Durocher, offered me tidbits on his swelling romance with a postvirginal actress, but was more devious when asked about the club. The ballplayers were decent enough, but I didn't know them, or they me, and I was starting from scratch, building up confidences and new sources. And aside from that, the team bored me. I was used to the explosive Dodger atmosphere, with Jackie Robinson holding forth and Charlie Dressen orating and Roy Campanella philosophizing. The Giants seemed somber as vestrymen.
While I struggled and wrote a story a day, plus an extra for Sunday, Willie Howard Mays, Jr., was struggling with an Army team at Fort Eustis, Virginia, hitting, as he later put it, “.470, or something like that.” They were all waiting for him. The Giants had won in 1951 with Mays. Without him in 1952 and '53, they lost. Each day in the press room, one of the regular Giant writers or one of the officials would tell anecdotes in which Willie was always superman. In exasperation, I sat down and wrote a story for the Sunday paper that began:
“Willie Mays is 10 feet 9 inches tall. His arms reach from 156th Street to 154th . . . . He has caught everything, hit everything, done everything a center fielder can possibly do.”
“Look,” I told Charles Feeney, the Giant vice president, amid the amber torrents of the Phoenix press bar. “There are a couple of other center fielders, too. Ever hear of Mickey Mantle or Duke Snider?”
Mr. Feeney erupted in song. “In six more days,” he choired, to the tune of Old Black Joe, “we're gonna have Willie Mays.” He may have sung it “going to.” He is a Dartmouth man.
Each day Feeney warbled, amending the lyrics cleverly enough, say changing the word six to the word five. The song, like the sandy wind, became a bane.
M Day, as I came to call it, dawned like most other days, with a big bright sky. Durocher had scheduled an intrasquad game and was elaborately underplaying things. The postvirginal movie star was gone, making him somewhat irascible.
“Nothing unusual,” Leo announced in the lobby of the Hotel Adams early M Day. “Just a little intrasquad game, boys, that's all.” Then he walked off, barely able to keep his footing for his swagger.
The Phoenix ballpark was typical medium minor league. Old stands extended part way down each foul line. A wood fence ringed the outfield. The players, Monte Irvin, Whitey Lockman, Alvin Dark, were in uniform and, as always in spring, it seemed odd to see great majorleaguers in a minorleague setting.
Willie was coming by plane, we all knew that, and in Phoenix you can see great distances. Whenever an airplane appeared, one of the writers or Giant officials leapt up with a cry, “Willie's plane.” Two Piper Cubs, four Beechcrafts and one World War I Spad were positively identified as the transcontinental Constellation bearing Mays.
“Feeney,” I said, “this is ridiculous.”
This time he chose the key of Csharp minor.
“In no more days.
“We're going to have Willie Mays!”
The athletes were still playing catch, the intrasquad game had not started, when a trim figure in slacks and a dark opencollared shirt appeared in the dugout. He was blinking at the sunlight, mostly because he had not been to sleep, and seemed to be trying to hide, to be as unobtrusive as possible. “There's Willie,” someone cried in ecstasy, and the sportswriters swarmed.
Mays stood next to Irvin, probably the closest friend he has had among ballplayers in a curiously lonely life. Irvin was very poised, very strong, very sensible.
“Hey, Willie,” someone shouted, “what you got in that bag?” He had dropped off his large suitcase, but clung to a smaller one.
“Not much,” Willie said. “A couple things.”
“Just my glove and my jock.”
Durocher hugged him repeatedly for joy and for the news photographers. Monte, who felt like hugging him, shook his hand.
“He's shaking hands with the pennant,” Barney Kremenko, one of the baseball writers, proclaimed.
“Hi, roomy,” Irvin said.
Irvin smiled. “Roomy,” he said, “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, as if surprised there should be a question. “My baseball. I'm ready any time.”
A few minutes later, when the intrasquad game began, Mays remained on the bench. Durocher, with his sure sense of drama and his always-brilliant sense of handling Willie, was letting the elements cook. The game proceeded without much excitement. The most interesting thing at the Phoenix ballpark was watching Number 24, striding back and forth, looking at Durocher, asking with his eyes, and being ignored.
Halfway through the game, he was sent in to hit. Willie sprang from the dugout. He ran to the batter's box. He took a tremendous swing at the first pitch. His form was flawed. There was a little lunge in the swing. But I don't believe I have ever seen anyone swing harder. Three swings, and mighty Willie had struck out.
“The thing about Snider,” I told Kremenko in the press box, “is that his butt doesn't fly out of there when he swings.”
“Now, listen,” Kremenko began, as though I had assailed the family honor. And I suppose I had.
The first unusual thing that Willie did was snatch a sinking liner off the grass. The ball came out to center field low and hard and Willie charged it better than anyone else could have and dove and made a graceful somersault and caught the ball. “Nothing,” Kremenko shouted. “For Willie that's absolutely nothing.”
The next time he came to bat, I resolved to look for specific flaws in his form. I was doing that when he hit a fastball 420 feet and out of the park. An inning later, and with a man on first, someone hit a tremendous drive over Willie's head. He turned and fled and caught the ball and threw it 300 feet and doubled the runner. Pandemonium. The camp was alive. The team was alive. And Willie had gone through the delays of a discharge, then sat up all night in a plane. I conceded to Kremenko that given a little rest, he might show me something.
Then I sat down and wrote an account that began, “This is not going to be a plausible story, but then no one ever accused Willie Mays of being a plausible ballplayer. This story is only the implausible truth.” It ran quite long and I had no idea whether the Tribune copydesk would eviscerate it, until a day later when a wire came from Red Smith in Florida. Red was the columnist in the Tribune, a thoughtful man, and his telegram, a personal gesture, was the first indication I'd had in a month that my stuff was getting printed and was syntactical.
That night Feeney, selecting the rather cheerful key of D Major, honored me with the final version of his aria.
“Gone are the days,
“When we didn't have Willie Mays.”
After Willie's debut and Red's wire, I was genuinely surprised to hear how much Feeney's voice had improved.
Willie conquered me. I had not come to praise him and sycophancy annoys me, but he brought to the game the outstanding collection of skills in our time and the deepest enthusiasm to play I've seen. He was the ultimate combination of the professional full of talent and the amateur, a word that traces to the Latin amator, lover, and suggests one who brings a passion to what he does.
They used to play pepper games, Leo and Willie, sometimes with Monte Irvin as the straight man. Willie has what his father, Kitty-Kat Mays, described as oversized hands, and Durocher was one of the finest defensive shortstops. They'd stand quite close and Leo would hit hard smashes at Willie's toes, or knees, wherever. May's reflexes were such that he could field a hard line drive at ten or 15 feet. And he liked to do it. He threw, and Leo slugged and Willie lunged, and threw and Leo slugged again. Once in a while Willie bobbled a ball. Then he owed Durocher a Coke. Durocher made great shows of cheating Willie. One morning he hit a hard smash on one hop, well to Willie's right, and Willie knocked the ball down with a prodigious lunge.
“Coke,” Leo roared. “That's six you owe.”
“Ain't no Coke for that,” Willie said. His voice piped high and plaintive. “That's a base hit.”
“Six Cokes you owe,” Leo insisted.
“Monte,” Willie pleaded at Irvin. “What you say, roomy?”
“Six cokes,” Irvin said, solemnly. Willie's mobile face slumped into a pout. “I'm getting the short end,” the expression said, “but I'll get you guys anyway.”
Sometimes Irvin hit, and then there was added byplay. Not only did Durocher and Mays stab smashes, they worked to rattle each other. Durocher seized a line drive, wound up to throw to Irvin, and with a blur of elbows and hands tossed the ball to Mays at his left. Leo has the skills and inclinations of a juggler. Willie caught the toss, faked toward Irvin and there was the ball floating down toward Leo. Durocher reached and Mays slapped a glove into his belly.
“Goof,” Leo grunted. Willie spun off, staggering through his own laughter. It wasn't long before people started coming to the ballpark long before the game, just to watch the pepper. The clowning would have done honor to Chaplin.
Willie ran and threw and hit and made his astounding catches and slowly that spring I began to get to know him. I was the youngest of the baseball writers and that helped. We had little conversations after the workouts and the exhibition games, and he always became very solemn and gave me serious answers. “Who suggested,” I asked one day, “that you catch fly balls that way?” The technique is famous now: glove up, near the belt buckle.
“Nobody,” Willie said. “I just started it one day. I get my throw away quicker.”
“Nobody taught you?”
Willie's eyes, which sometimes dance, grew grave. “Nobody can teach you nothing,” he said. “You got to learn for yourself.”
On another afternoon we were talking and Ruben Gomez, a pitcher from Puerto Rico, came up and said, “Willie. That man in New York. I forget the name. I sign a paper for him.”
Willie mentioned a New York agent.
“That's him,” Gomez said.
“You sign a paper,” Willie said, “and you worried because you haven't got your money.”
“Well, don't worry,” Willie said. “Long as you sure you signed. It may come soon, or it may come late, but long as you sign something, you'll get money.” He looked at me. “Ain't that right?” I thought of leases, installment contracts, and overdue bank loans, but I said, “Yes.” Maybe it would always be that way for Willie, spring and youth and plenty of cash and laughter. But it wasn't, not even that spring.
Along with the Cleveland Indians, a team wealthy with pitchers, the Giants flew to Las Vegas for an exhibition game late in March. The Giant management did not want the ballplayers spending a night in Las Vegas. The Stoneham regime is paternalistic and the idea of a troop of young ballplayers abroad among the gamblers and the bosoms of Vegas was disturbing. The team would play its game with the Indians. The players would be guests for dinner at one of the big hotels. They would watch a show and seek as much trouble as they could find up until 11 p.m. Then a bus would take them to the airport for a flight to Los Angeles, where two other exhibitions were scheduled. We wouldn't get much rest. It was a gray, raw afternoon in Vegas, and Bob Feller pitched for the Indians. Sal Maglie opposed him. My scorebook is lost, but I believe the Giants won by one run. Afterwards we wrote our stories and took a bus to the hotel that invited us all. We ate well, and I caught up with Willie in the hotel theater, where Robert Merrill, the baritone, was to sing. As I joined Willie's table, Merrill began Vesti la Giubba, the famous aria from Pagliacci in which Canio, the clown, sings of having to make people laugh, although his own heart is breaking.
Merrill gave it full voice and all his passions. When he was done, Willie turned to me amid the cheering, “You know,” he said, “that's a nice song.”
An hour later, he was in a gambling room. He was standing quietly amid a group of people close to a dice table. Monte Irvin and Whitey Lockman were fighting a tencent onearmed bandit. Sal Maglie, looking like Il Patrone of Cosa Nostra, was losing a steady 50 cents a game at blackjack. I walked over to Willie. “How you doing?”
“Oh,” Willie said, “I'm just learnin' the game.” We both grinned.
I moved on. A stocky gruff man grabbed me by the arm. “Hey,” he said. “Wait a minute.”
I shook my arm free.
“That guy a friend of yours?” said the man. He pointed to Mays.
“I know him.”
“Well, get him the hell away from the dice tables.”
“You heard me. We don't want him mixing with the white guests.”
“Do you know who he is?”
“Yeah, I know who he is, and get that nigger away from the white guests.”
If there was a good answer, except for the obvious short answer, I didn't come up with it. Very quickly I was appalled, unnerved, and angry. What unnerved me was the small significant bulge on the man's left hip.
“Do you know that boy just got out of the Army,” I said.
“That don't mean nothing. I was in the Army myself.”
“You bastards invited him down to your hotel.”
“Who you calling a bastard?”
We were shouting and Gary Schumacher, the Giants' publicity director, suddenly loomed large and put a hand on my shoulder. “What's the trouble?” Gary said.
“This guy,” the tough began.
“I asked him,” Gary said, nodding at me.
I had a sensible moment. “No trouble, Guv,” I said to Gary. I took my wallet out of a hip pocket and withdrew the press card. “This joker has just given me one helluva story for the Sunday New York Herald Tribune.”
The hood retreated. I walked over to Irvin and told him what was happening. Lockman listened briefly and then, taking the conversation to be personal, stepped back. “Maybe Willie and I'll get on the bus,” Irvin said. It was his way, to avoid confrontations, but he was also worried lest Willie be shocked or hurt.
Now a hotel vice president appeared, with a girl, hardfaced but trimly built. He asked if, “my assistant and I can buy you a drink, Mr. Kahn.”
We went to the bar and the man explained that he had nothing against a Negro like Irvin or Mays playing one-armed bandits. It was just that the dice table was a somewhat different thing. As far as he, the vice president, was concerned, Negroes were as good as anybody, but he had to concern himself with customers. That was business.
“We're really in the South here,” said the brunette.
“I thought the South was Alabama, Georgia, Texas.”
“That's it,” the brunette said. “We get a lot of customers from Texas.” She glanced at the bartender, and I had another drink. “We're really a very liberal place,” the girl said, “even though we are in the South. We not only book Lena Horne to sing here, but when she does, we let her live on the grounds. We're the only hotel that liberal.” She leaned toward me, a hard handsome woman, working.
“Why did you invite him if you were going to crap on him?” I said, and got up and joined Monte and Will in the bus.
Later Irvin asked me not to write the story. He said he didn't know if it was a good idea to make Willie, at 21, the center of a racial storm. That was Monte's way and the Giants' way and Willie's way, and you had to respect it, even if dissenting. I never did write the story until now.
In the visitor's locker at Shea Stadium 15 years later, the headline on a folded newspaper cries out: “City College Torn by Black and White Strife.” The times are different and I have heard a prominent Negro criticize Mays as self-centered. It was the job of every black to work for a free society, he said. To the militant—a Stokely Carmichael or a Rap Brown—Willie is the embodiment of the well-fed declawed Tom.
“They want me to go out on some campus?” Willie says. “Why should I lie? I don't know nothin' about campuses. I never went to college. I wanted to play ball.”
“Well, what about the whole black movement.”
“I help,” Willie says. “I help in my way.” His face becomes very serious. “I think I show some people some things. I do it my way.” He is a good fellow, serious and responsible, never in trouble, never drunk, never in jail.
“Do you speak out?”
“On schools, or full employment or whatever?” He eyes me evenly. “I don't think I should. I don't know the full value of these things. I'm not the guy to get on the soap box.” He pauses, then announces with great assurance and pride, “I'm a ballplayer.”
In the autumn of '54, after Willie led the Giants to the pennant and a sweep over the Indians in the World Series, our paths crossed again. I was putting together a book featuring articles by all-star ballplayers on the qualities that make one an all-star. I sent questionnaires to many, like Ted Kluszewski and Bob Lemon. I telephoned Stan Musial. I went to see Willie in the flesh. He had made his classic World Series catch, running, running, running, until he was 460 feet out and grabbing Vic Wertz' liner over his head. He had taken Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too, and was in demand. At the Giants, someone gave me the name of his agent.
After hearing what I could pay, the agent said Willie would let me have three to four minutes on a slow Tuesday afternoon, but while we talked he might have to sign four endorsements, accept six speaking engagements, get his shoes shined and telephone for a date. His business was being handled brusquely, although not, we were to learn, very well.
A few seconds before the appointed minute I appeared in the agent's office. Willie was in an anteroom, only signing endorsements. When I appeared he waved and smiled, relieved to see a familiar face. “Hey,” he said, “Roger Kahn, is that you? I didn't know that was you. What you want to talk to me about?”
“You writin' a book?” Willie said. “That's real good, you writin' a book.”
Disturbed by gratuitous friendliness the agent vanished and Willie held forth on playing center field. “The first thing,” he said, “is you got to love the game. Otherwise you'll never learn to play good. Then, you know, don't drink, and get your sleep. Eight hours. You sleep more, you get to be lazy.
“Now in Trenton, where I played when I first signed, I was nowhere near as good as I am now, but I have my way to learn things. People tell me, 'Willie do like this, like that,' but that ain't the way.”
He sat in a swivel chair, which he had tilted back. His considerable feet were on a desk. “Well, how do you learn?” I said.
“Some things maybe when you're real little, you got to be told. But mostly you got to be doing it yourself. Like once I was a pitcher and now I'm in the outfield. Watch me after I get off a good throw. I look sort of like a pitcher who has thrown.
“You got to be thinking, 'What am I doing wrong?' And then you look at the other two outfielders and think, 'What are they doing wrong?' And you're thinking and thinking and trying not to make the same mistake three times, or four at the most, and you're also thinking what you'll do if the ball comes to you. Understand?”
“You don't want to be surprised,” Willie said with finality.
But on what Branch Rickey called the best catch in baseball history, Mays was indeed surprised. The Giants were playing in Pittsburgh, where center field runs 457 feet deep, a good stage for Willie. Rocky Nelson, a left-handed hitter, smashed a tremendous line drive and Willie, calculating at a glance, turned and sprinted for the wall. Nelson had hit the ball so hard that there was a hook to it. While Willie ran, the ball drifted slightly to the right.
At precisely the right instant, Willie looked. He had gotten back deep enough, a mini-miracle, but now the ball was to his right and sinking fast. He might have been able to reach across his body and glove the ball. Or he might not. We will never know. He simply stuck out his bare right hand and seized the liner at the level of his knees. Then he slowed and turned, his face a great, wide grin.
“Silent treatment,” Durocher ordered in the dugout. “Nobody say nothing to him.”
Willie touched his cap to acknowledge the crowd and ran down the three steps into the Forbes Field dugout. Everyone avoided Willie's eyes. Durocher was checking the lineup card. Bobby Thomson was pulling anthracite from his spikes. Hank Thompson was taking a very long drink. The silence was suffocating.
“Hey, Leo,” Willie piped. “You don't have to say 'Nice play, Willie.' I know that was a nice play.”
A minute later a note from Rickey arrived. “That,” Rickey wrote, “was the finest catch I have ever seen and the finest catch I ever hope to see.”
I finished the story by Willie with a comment that he offered in the agent's office. “You got to learn for yourself,” he said, “and you got to do it in your own way and you got to become much improved. If you love the game enough you can do it.” It reads right after all the years, and true, but even as I was finishing I understood that no book was likely to help a young man play center field like Willie Mays.
In Shea, we start talking about the old times. “New York was a good town for center fielders,” I say, “when you were here with Mantle and Snider.”
“Yeah,” he says, “Mick and I broke in together, but he had a real bad body. Legs.”
“How do you feel being the only one left?”
“Proud. Proud that I'm still playing.”
“There's more new faces, but . . .” He turns his palms up and shrugs. “That doesn't bother me none.
“I worry, though,” he says. “I get worried now that I can't do the job. 'Course I always was a worrier. I get the ball out, but I can't get it out as often as I used to.”
“About old friends,” I say.
“You know,” Willie says. “I don't have many friends. People I know, people to say, 'Hi, Willie,' there's a million of them. My friends, I could count them on a few fingers.”
I went calling in 1956, four days after Willie had taken a wife. Because he is handsome and country slick, and also because he is famous and well-paid, he does not lack for feminine attention. Joe Black, the Dodger relief pitcher, told me Willie was getting married. We played winter basketball together and after one workout, Joe said he hoped Willie knew what he was getting into.
“I'm sure of that,” I said.
“I mean I hope he doesn't get hurt.”
“What's the girl like?” I said.
“The girl,” Joe said, “is older than Willie and has been married twice before.”
A number of people counseled Willie against getting married, but he doesn't like to be told how to run his life, and each bit of counsel was a shove toward the altar. Then, in February, he gathered Marghuerite Wendelle, stuffed her into his Lincoln, and set off for
Elkton, Maryland, where one can marry in haste. On the way, he picked up a $15 fine, for driving 70 in a 60 mile zone.
He set up housekeeping in a tidy brick home not far from LaGuardia Airport. East Elmhurst was one of the early colonies open to the black middle class and I remember the white taxi driver looking at the clean streets and detached houses in surprise. “Colored people live here?” he said.
Mrs. Mays received me with a cool hand, tipped with pointed fingernails. She was a beautiful woman, who stared hard and knowing when she said hello. It was midday, but Willie hadn't come downstairs. “Just go on up,” Marghuerite Mays said. “I have to go out to the beauty parlor.”
I found Willie sitting in an enormous bed, gazing at morning television, a series starring Jackie Cooper and a talking dog. Willie was wearing tailored ivory pyjamas. “Sit down,” he said, indicating a chair. “What you doing now? How come you don't come around? You okay?”
I had left the newspaper business and gone to work as a sportswriter for a news magazine. The salary was better and the researchers were pretty, but the magazine approached sports in an earnest, sodden way. One of the supervising editors had been a small-town sportswriter once and then become a sportswriter on the news magazine. The change of fortune downed poorly. He alternately tried to relate great events to his own experiences, perhaps covering a playoff game between Bridgeport and Pittsfield, or he demanded scientific analyses of the events and men. A great story on Mays, he told me, would explain in complete technical detail how Willie played center field.
In the bridal bedroom, I told Willie I was fine. I was wondering how to swing the conversation into a technical analysis. I asked what had made him decide to marry.
“Well,” Willie said, “I figured that it's time for me to be settling down. I'm 24 years old.”
“You figure being married will affect your play?”
“I dunno,” Willie said. “How am I supposed to know? I hit 51 home runs last year. Man, if you come to me last spring and tell me I was gonna do that, I woulda told you you were crazy.” Willie shook his head and sat straight up. “Man,” he said. “That's a lot of home runs.”
On top of the TV set rested three trophies. The largest was a yard-high wooden base for bright gilt figurines of ballplayers running, batting and throwing. It bore a shiny plaque which read: “To Willie Mays, the most valuable player in baseball.”
“What are you hoping to do this year?”
“I dunno,” Willie said. He frowned. “Why you askin' question like that?” he said.
I stopped and after a while we were talking about marriage. “You hear some people say they worried 'bout me and Marghuerite,” Willie said. “Same people last summer was saying I was gonna marry this girl and that girl. But they was wrong then, like they're wrong now.” He thumped his heart, under the ivory pyjamas. “I'm the only guy knows what's in here.”
They didn't know what to make of my story at the news magazine. They cut out chunks of it, and devoted equal space to the picture of a 2-to-5 favorite winning a horse race. Willie's love-song was not news magazine style.
The marriage went. I like to think they both tried. They adopted a son and named him Michael, but some years later they were divorced. “Foundered on the rocks off the Cape of Paradise,” is how the actor Mickey Rooney likes to put it, but there is nothing funny about the failure of a marriage or having to move out from under the roof where lives your only son.
In Shea before the game against the Mets, Willie is talking about the boy. “He's with me, you know,” Willie says.
“He was with Marghuerite, but when he started gettin' older I guess he missed me and we kind of worked something out.
“Michael is ten years old,” Willie says, “and there's a lady who keeps house and she looks after him when I'm away. A real nice boy. I send him to a private school, where they teach him, but they're not too hard with him.”
I think of the iron worker's son with a boy in private school.
“I've made a deal with him,” Willie says. “He needs a college degree in times like these, and the deal is I send him to good schools, put it all there for him, and after that it's up to him to take it.”
“You think he will?”
“He's a real good boy.”
Two men have come into the Mets' clubhouse to see Willie. Paul Sutton is a patent attorney and David Stern is a vice-president of Sports Satellite Corporation. Willie hopes that these men and a Salt Lake businessman named Ernie Psarras will build his fortune up to seven figures. For now Willie is concerned about filling the house he is building on an acre, in Atherton, down peninsula from San Francisco. He stands to greet Sutton and Stern and says, “Hey, what about the furniture?”
“We're seeing about it,” David Stern says.
“Man,” Willie says. “I got to stay on you guys.”
“Willie doesn't like to pay retail,” Stern explains.
“I don't like to pay,” Willie says, and he laughs.
Larry Jansen, a coach who pitched for the old Giants, approaches and asks Willie about a doctor or a dentist. Willie gives him a telephone number. Willie owns the keys to the kingdom in New York.
When the Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season, I lost touch with Willie. I read he was having problems. He moved into a white neighborhood and a Californian threw a soda bottle through his living room window in protest. It was a good thing for the Californian that Willie didn't grab the bottle and throw it back. With that arm, he would have cut the man in half. Later, at least as we got word in New York, some San Francisco fans felt disappointed in Willie. They didn't appreciate him as we had; a number said they preferred Orlando Cepeda.
I was paying less attention to sports, and writing more about other things, but I knew Willie was not disgracing himself. He kept appearing in All-Star Games and driving homers into the high wind over Candlestick Park. But I wondered if the years and the franchise shift and the divorce had dampened the native ebullience.
It was 1964. Forces that would explode into Black Revolution were gathering and an editor asked me to spend a few months in Harlem, “a part of New York that white New Yorkers don't know.”
“I don't know it,” I said.
“You've been there,” the editor said.
“Sure. Whenever I took a taxi to the Polo Grounds, I'd ride right through.”
This time I got out of the taxi. I went from place to place on foot, trying to grasp the bar of music, the despair, the life and death, the sour poverty, the unquenchable hope of a black ghetto. It was different than living in a press box.
To shake off the grey ghetto despair, a man can stand a drink, and one evening I walked into Small's Paradise, with my new blonde wife on my arm. Across the bar a major-leaguer was drinking hard, although he had a girl with him. She was quite young, a soft off-tan, and wore an enormous round black hat. The athlete and I raised glasses to each other's ladies. Suddenly Willie walked in.
It was a cold day in January, but his stride was bouncy. Willie wore a beautifully tailored topcoat of herringbone charcoal. He has unusual peripheral vision and he covered the bar with a glance. Then he bounced over with a smile.
“Buy you a Coke?” I said.
Willie shook his head. “How are you? You okay? Everything all right? What you doing around here? Who's that girl over there with . . .” And he mentioned the other major-leaguer's name.
“I don't know.”
“You sure you okay, now?” Willie said.
“Fine.” I introduced him to my wife.
Willie put an elbow on the bar and placed a hand against his brow and fixed his gaze at the girl. “Who is that chick, man?” he said.
None of us knows what happened next. Willie was around the bar quickly, greeting the other ballplayer, talking very fast to the girl. Then he bounced out of the bar, calling, “See ya, man.” Five minutes later the other major-leaguer was drunker and the pretty girl in the big round hat was gone. “That,” said the blonde on my arm, “has to be the smoothest move I've seen.”
You don't judge a man's vigor only by the way he pursues fly balls.
Back at Shea, Willie is asking if he'd given me enough to write an article and I tell him I think so.
I find his father sitting in the dugout. Kitty-Kat Mays has his son's big grin and says sure, he'd like to talk about the boy. Kitty-Kat is smaller than Willie. He has a round belly. He was a semi-pro around Fairfield, near Birmingham, Alabama.
“I was down there, Mr. Mays, when Bull Connor was the police commissioner.”
“Things are a lot different now,” Kitty-Kat says.
“You still live there?”
“No. I'm up here. I've got a good job.”
The man knows baseball and I ask when it first struck him that his son was going to be a superlative ballplayer. Kitty-Kat screws up his face, and I can see that he is going backward in time. He says, “Well, you know we lived right across from a ball field, and when Willie was eight he had to play with older kids.”
“I mean even before that.”
“Soon as he started walking,” Kitty-Kat says, “he's about a year old, I bought him a big round ball. He'd hold that big round ball and then he'd bounce it and he'd chase it, and if he ever couldn't get that ball, he'd cry.”
“I knew he'd be a good one, with those oversized hands.” Mr. Mays extends his own palms. “I was pretty good, but my hands are regular size. Willie gets those big hands from his mother.”
Willie emerges, taps his father's shoulder, and goes out for batting practice. He does not take a regular turn in rotation. He hits for three or four minutes, then sits down. That way is a little gentler on the legs.
He doesn't dominate the series. The Mets do. In one game Ron Swoboda hits a 430-foot home run to left-center field. Willie sprints back, the way he can, but this is not the Polo Grounds. He has to pull up short. He is standing at the fence when the ball sails out. In his time, and in his park, he would have flagged it.
Later, he crashes one single to left so hard that a runner at second couldn't score, and then he says he wished he'd hit it harder. He hits a long double to left that just misses carrying into the bullpen for a home run. He leads off the ninth inning of a close game with a liner to left that hangs just long enough to be caught. The Giants lose three straight and, in the way of losing teams, they look flat.
When we say goodbye in the clubhouse, Willie seems more annoyed than depressed. The last game ends with the intense frustration of a Giant pitcher fidgeting, scrambling and walking in the winning run. “What can you do?” Willie says. “You got to play harder tomorrow.”
For an aging ballplayer, he seems at peace with himself. He went through money wildly in the early days, borrowing from the team, spending August money by April. “You're really okay financially?” I say.
“Oh, yes,” Willie says. “Very good.” His face was serious. “I ought to be, I've been working a long time.”
Back in the Arizona spring we wore string western ties and we worried about flying DC3s and we ate in a restaurant where a man dressed like a medieval knight rode a charger and pointed with his spear to show you where to park. Who would have thought then that the Giants would leave New York, and that my old newspaper would fold, and that in another spring, my hair showing grey, I would sit in a strange ballpark and ask Willie Mays about legs, fatherhood, investments and fatigue?
Driving home, while Willie flew to Montreal, the spring kept coming back. I saw in flashes a hit he made in Tucson, a throw he loosed in Beaumont, how Leo made him laugh, and I could hear how the laughter sounded. The racists were appalled that year. A Cleveland coach snapped at me for praising Mays and one writer insisted on betting me $20 Willie wouldn't hit .280. We made it, Willie and I, by 65 percentage points.
All this crossed my mind without sadness. Once Willie was a boy of overwhelming enthusiasm. He has become a man of vigorous pride. I don't say that Willie today is as exciting as Willie in '54, but what he does now is immeasurably harder. Playing center field at 38 was beyond the powers of Willie's boyhood idol, DiMaggio, or his contemporary rival, Mantle. Willie stands up to time defiantly and with dignity, and one is fortunate to write baseball in his generation.
I guess I'll look him up again next trip.