Articles from the SPORT magazine archive
So You Think You Know Ted Williams
By Harold Kaese, as featured in the August, 1947 issue of SPORT magazine. *** To most baseball fans, the Red Sox slugging star is a moody, arrogant character who shuns contact with his fellow men like a plague. But there's one group of followers who'll tell you he's a prince. Joe Cronin's wife, Mildred, turned on the radio in the den of their Newton, Massachusetts home one day last May. To the baby of the family, three-year-old Maureen, she said, "Shhh! Now we'll hear the ball game, honey." As the radio warmed up, the words of the announcer filled the room: "... broadcasting this after noon's game between the Red Sox and the Yankees from Fenway Park, Boston. The Red Sox are about to bat in the last half of the first inning. In the third-base coaching box is Manager Joe Cronin, who..." At this point, Maureen clapped her little hands, danced up and down, and cried, "That's my Daddy winning. What's Meathead doing?" Meathead, which is baseball's delightful way of calling someone a dope, has been Ted Williams' nickname with Cronin children ever since Tommy was trademark high to a Louisville Slugger. And since Ted himself started it, 'way back there in 1941 when Tommy was not quite three years old, he has never been able to object to the title. "Hello, Meathead," Williams would greet little Tommy some six years ago, and the youngster would giggle happily, and say, "Hiya, Ted." But one day a Red Sox player told Tommy that he should turn the tables and call Ted by his favorite nickname. Thus, when Williams came striding into the hotel lobby at Sarasota, tall, handsome, and confident, there came the shrill salutation from the rear, "Hiya, Meathead." Williams' back stiffened, the hair bristled on the back of his neck, and a growl seemed to grow in his throat. He swung around and confronted the kid. The kid was grinning. People in the lobby were grinning. And in another instant, Williams was grinning. He had received as good as he had sent. Ever since, Meathead has been a term of endearment be tween Williams and all children he has liked, including the various Cronins as they have come along – Tommy, Corky, and Maureen. When Tommy was three years old, he was interviewed with these results: Q – Where will the Red Sox finish this season? A – Fwirst p'ace. Q – Who will be their best hitter? A – Yimmie Foxxie and my Daddy. Q – What about Ted Williams? A – Who? Q – Ted, the big skinny guy. A – Oh, Ted. Him's Meathead – Meathead! Tommy then struck a left-handed batting pose, swung furiously, and shouted, "Go for two, Meathead. Go for two!" That ended Tommy Cronin's first interview, at the age of two years and 10 months. It made a good story. Williams does not reserve his affections for the young Cronins. He likes all children, and all children seem to like him. He acts their age. Grownups may say, ''Williams is a big kid," but children do not hold that against him. A child may be Julius or Lispenard to his parents, but to Williams he is Butch, Bush, or Meathead. Children who meet Ted like him because he hits home runs, calls them by extravagant nicknames, listens to their troubles, tosses winning smiles at them, and outrageously orders them around. On exhibition trips in Florida last Spring, the Cronins and other small fry appointed Williams, the $75,000-a-year slugger and peer among modern hitters, their own personal secretary. Tommy would sit with nobody but Williams on the bus trip to Tampa. "Now light someplace, Meat, and don't be squirming around like a worm on hot ashes," Williams commanded. Then he tried to answer the bombardment of questions to be expected from a nine year old boy speeding through strange territory: Are there fish in that river? How big are they? Do snakes eat oranges? Why do tires sing? What is in that barn? But asked what he talked about to Ted on bus trips, Tommy replied, "We didn't talk. I was too busy with my bubblegum." Besides Tommy and Corky, there was a youngster from Ohio, Bobby Corey, who was a sort of honorary bat-boy at Sarasota. He too, attached himself tenaciously to Williams. When the Red Sox ate at the Columbia Restaurant in Tampa, after playing the Cincinnati Reds, big steaks were ordered for the boys, just as for the players. And who cut the steaks so the boys could chew them? Ted Williams. When Tommy's appetite began to lag with his steak only half gone, Williams began to steal some of the meat off the boy's plate. "Look there, Meathead. What's that waiter carrying?" Williams would ask. And as the boy glanced across the room, Ted would spear another piece of meat off his plate. This went on for 10 minutes, with Red Sox players laughing so uproariously that Tommy turned to Williams and asked, "What's everybody laughing for?" Then a player told Tommy, “ Look. Meathead has stolen all your steak. You're not going to let him get away with that, are you?” The youngster gazed down at his empty plate, frowned, and then floored his audience by saying, "Oh, that's all right. I don'l like steak. I like sandwiches." Williams has three strong competitors for the affections of the two Cronin boys – cowboys, Indians, and Rudy York. Asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Tommy answered, "I want to be half cowboy, half Indian, and half ballplayer." Advised that it was impossible to be half of all three, Tommy objected, saying, "Why can't I? Rudy York is.” Corky, who is seldom called Mike, although christened Michael, is six years old, and not quite so sold on cowboys and Indians as his older brother. He is pretty sure that he wants to be a ballplayer when he grows up, and, if possible, another Ted Williams. “But you bat right, Ted bats left,” argued Tommy. "I have to be Ted Williams, because I bat left. You bat right, so you will have to be Rudy York, Corky." Corky objected to his brother's conclusion, and intimated strongly that he would be a right-handed Williams, leaving Tommy, if he wished, to be a left-handed Rudy York. The young Cronins agree that their Daddy is the champion of all champions, that the Red Sox are the best team there ever was, that Ted Williams is the greatest of hitters, and that they don't like kids at school who continually pester them for passes to games. The Cronin boys like to pose for pictures with the photogenic Williams. They were posing last Spring to duplicate a picture of which nobody seemed to have the negative, when Corky called a sudden halt, saying, "Wait a minute, Meat, my elbows should be back just a little more." "Okay, okay," said Williams impatiently. "Make up your mind, Meathead." A friend of the family, watching Corky pose, remarked in an undertone, "That Corky – he’s a better actor than his old man." Williams, like Babe Ruth, has given generously of his time to children. Adults who have been resisted in their efforts to patronize him have classified him as a loner and a crank, but this picture leaves unexplained the many favors he has done children. Each season he visits many sick children. Invariably he tries to keep secret such errands of mercy. He argues, "People will think I'm doing it just for publicity. If it doesn't get in the papers, nobody will know anything about it, and people won't be saying, 'There's that Williams trying to make everyone think he's a great guy.'" But there are too many keen reporters watching Williams for him to escape entirely such publicity. Thus, when Williams was absent from the victory party after the Red Sox clinched the pennant on his home run inside the park in Cleveland last September, the story leaked that he was visiting a dying soldier in a nearby Army camp. Williams often answers the pleas of fathers and friends to visit ailing children. When the Red Sox reached Chattanooga on their trip north ward last Spring, Williams was approached by a man who said his son, after talking for weeks of seeing Williams play, now had the flu and could not go to the game. Would Ted come home with him and say hello to the boy? Ted went with the stranger. He was asked by little Tommy Seessel, the sick boy, "Will you hit a home run for me today, Ted?" "How far is it to the right field fence?" "It's 350 feet," answered the boy. "Then I'll hit one for you all right," promised Williams. In the game that afternoon, Williams hit a home run that carried over a row of houses beyond the fence. It traveled about 475 feet, said Joe Engel of the home club, and only Babe Ruth had ever hit a ball as far in Chattanooga. Of course everyone wrote that Williams had hit the homer for Tommy Seessel, as if visiting the sick boy had given him superhuman power. A more dramatic story deals with his visit to 11-year-old Glenny Brann in Malden, Massachusetts Hospital in May. Glenny had had both legs amputated. He was still on the danger list, and knew nothing of the loss of his legs when Ted visited him, giving him an autographed bat, a ball signed, "To my pal, Glenny, from Ted Williams," and a promise that he would try to hit a home run for him that afternoon. After Williams had left the hospital, doctors felt that the boy's morale had improved so much that they could safely tell him that his legs had been amputated. Williams did not hit one home run for Glenny. He hit two – and both sailed over Fenway Park's left-field fence. Ted had never hit a home run over that fence before. After visiting Glenny, he hit two in successive innings. Here, indeed, was evidence of inspiration, and Williams quipped, "Maybe I should visit a hospital every day." On the way to a meeting of the Rhode Island School boys' Association in the Brown University gymnasium, Providence, Rhode Island, Williams said, "Now let's get this over with. I want to get home as soon as I can." But when he reached the meeting, he forgot about his hurry to get home. The place was swarming with boys, one of whom asked him a simple question: "How do you hold the bat?" For nearly two hours, Williams talked to the boys about hitting and demonstrated his grip, swing, and followthrough. Always to be mentioned among Williams' worshippers are boys who have worked for the Red Sox as bat-boys and clubhouse boys – Freddie Stack, Frankie Kelly, Red Kelly, and Mac McGrath. They and their boss, Johnny Orlando, can tell you of Williams' magnanimity. "Ted is the best tipper baseball ever had,'' says Orlando, who is rumored to have received something like $2500 from Williams during the 1946 season. Besides tipping the boys generously, Williams sometimes invites them on fishing trips, buys them ice-cream sodas, and takes them to shows. Strangers may doubt, but these boys believe stories of Williams giving away World Series tickets last Fall to people he had never met. They believe stories like this one: A truck driver stopping at a roadside stand for a cup of coffee late one night got into a conversation with the counterman, and told him how hard he had tried to buy World Series tickets, and how disappointed he had been when he failed. Within a few moments, a young man sitting a few seats down the counter finished eating, paid his bill, and rose to leave. "So you can't get World Series tickets, eh?" he asked the truck driver. "Nope – no place." "Well, try these for size.'' The young stranger tossed two tickets at the astonished truck driver and quickly left. As the driver numbly fingered the tickets, the counterman explained simply, "That was Ted Williams." Red Sox clubhouse boys believe that story, because, to them it is just like Ted Williams. He has done them similar favors. He has never been unkind to them, and for a very good and characteristic reason: they have never been unkind to him. The only children Williams does not like are "fresh kids." It is a sad fact that children, especially noisy adolescents, have brought Williams much of the grief he has had from baseball. Abnormally sensitive to jibes from the stands, Williams has suffered from the abuse of juvenile nitwits jeering him from the convenient left-field stand in Boston. Instead of staying home and pulling the wings off flies, these little sadists visit Fenway Park just to torment Williams. Because of them, Williams does not tip his cap. Let 35,000 fans cheer themselves hoarse when he hits a home run, Williams will not flash them a courtesy "Thank you," because a few of them jeer when he strikes out. But even the fresh kids sometimes submit to his prowess. When he smashed a home run with bases full off Walter Brown of the St. Louis Browns last May, Williams as usual ignored the thunderous applause. "Tip your cap," the kids in left field yelled. But Ted would not tip his cap. When he trotted out to his position, his tormentors arose and solemnly salaamed, as if to say, "Okay, Ted, you're the king." It was a nice touch, and even Williams grinned. But kids who know Ted Williams, like Tommy and Corky Cronin, do not salaam him. Instead, they punch him in the ribs, muss his hair, and call him Meathead. Above all others, children subscribe to the theory that to know Williams is to love him.
Muhammad Ali Then and Now
From the March, 1971 issue of SPORT Magazine By DICK SCHAAP MUHAMMAD ALI THEN AND NOW In some ways, it seems so long ago: John F. Kennedy was a handsome young Senator, starting to campaign for the Presidency of the United States. In some ways, it seems like yesterday: Richard M. Nixon was starting to campaign for the Presidency of the United States. It was August, 1960, when I first met Cassius Marcellus Clay, when he was 18 years old and brash and wide-eyed and naive and shrewd, and now more than a decade has elapsed, and John F. Kennedy is dead, and Richard M. Nixon is President, and those two facts, as well as anything, sum up how much everything has changed, how much everything remains the same. It is ridiculous, of course, to link Presidents and prize fighters, yet somehow, in this case, it seems strangely logical. When I think back to the late summer of 1960, my most persistent memories are of the two men who wanted to be President and of the boy who wanted to be heavyweight champion of the world. And he was a boy—a bubbling boy without a serious thought in his head, without a problem that he didn't feel his fists or his wit would eventually solve. He is so different now. He is so much the same. We met a few days before he flew from New York to Rome to compete in the 1960 Olympic Games. I was sports editor of Newsweek then, and I was hanging around a Manhattan hotel where the American Olympic team had assembled, picking up anecdotes and background material I could use for my long-distance coverage of the Games. I spent a little time with Bob Boozer, who was on the basketball team, and with Bo Roberson, a broad jumper who later played football for the Oakland Raiders, and with Ira Davis, a hop-step-and-jump specialist who'd played on the same high school basketball team with Wilt Chamberlain and Johnny Sample. And then I heard about Cassius Clay. He was a light-heavyweight fresh out of high school in Louisville, Kentucky, and he had lost only one amateur bout in two years, a decision to a southpaw named Amos Johnson. He was supposed to be one of the two best pro prospects on the boxing team, he and Wilbert McClure, a light-middleweight, a college student from Toledo, Ohio. I offered to show the two of them, and a couple of other American boxers, around New York, to take them up to Harlem and introduce them to Sugar Ray Robinson. Cassius leaped at the invitation, the chance to meet his idol, the man whose skills and flamboyance he dreamed of matching. Sugar Ray meant big money and fancy cars and flashy women, and if anyone had told Cassius Clay then he would someday deliberately choose a course of action that scorned those values, the boy would have laughed and laughed and laughed. I wasn't just being hospitable, offering to show the boxers around. I figured I could maybe get lucky and pick up a story. I did. And more. On the ride uptown, Cassius monopolized the conversation. I forget his exact words, but I remember the message: I'm great, I'm beautiful, I'm going to Rome and I'm gonna whip all those cats and then I'm coming back and turning pro and becoming the champion of the world. I'd never heard an athlete like him; he had no doubts, no fears, no second thoughts, not an ounce of false humility. “Don't mind him,” said McClure, amiably. “That's just the way he is.” He was, even then, an original, so outrageously bold he was funny. We all laughed at him, and he didn't mind the laughter, but rode with it, using it to feed his ego, to nourish his self-image. But there was one moment when he wasn't laughing, he wasn't bubbling. When we reached Sugar Ray's bar on Seventh Avenue near 124th Street, Robinson hadn't shown up yet, and Cassius wandered outside to inspect the sidewalks. At the corner of 125th Street, a black man perched on a soapbox, was preaching to a small crowd. He was advocating something that sounds remarkably mild today—his message, as I recall, was simply buy black, black goods from black merchants, but Cassius seemed stunned. He couldn't believe that a black man would stand up in public and argue against white America. He shook his head in wonderment. “How can he talk like that?” Cassius said. “Ain't he gonna get in trouble?” A few minutes later, as a purple Lincoln Continental pulled up in front of the bar, Cassius literally jumped out of his seat. “Here he comes,” he shouted. “Here comes the great man Robinson.” I introduced the two of them, and Sugar Ray, in his bored, superior way, autographed a picture of himself, presented it to Cassius, wished the kid luck in the Olympics, smiled and drifted away, handsome and lithe and sparkling. Cassius clutched the precious picture. “That Sugar Ray, he's something,” he said. “Someday I'm gonna own two Cadillacs—and a Ford for just getting around in.” I didn't get to Rome for the Olympics, but the reports from the Newsweek bureau filtered back to me: Cassius Clay was the unofficial mayor of the Olympic Village, the most friendly and familiar figure among thousands of athletes. He strolled from one national area to the next, spreading greetings and snapping pictures with his box camera. He took hundreds of photographs—of Russians, Chinese, Italians, Ethiopians, of everyone who came within camera range. Reporters from Europe and Asia and Africa tried to provoke him into discussions of racial problems in the United States, but this was eight years before John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Cassius just smiled and danced and flicked a few jabs at the air and said, as if he were George Foreman waving a tiny flag, “Oh, we got problems, man, but we're working 'em out. It's still the bestest country in the world.” He was an innocent, an unsophisticated goodwill ambassador, filled with kind words for everyone. Shortly before he won the Olympic light-heavyweight title, he met a visitor to Rome, Floyd Patterson, the only man to win, lose and regain the heavyweight championship of the world, and Cassius commemorated Patterson's visit with one of his earliest poems: “You can talk about Sweden, You can talk about Rome, But Rockville Centre's Floyd Patterson's home. A lot of people said That Floyd couldn't fight, But they should've seen him On that comeback night . . .” There was no way Cassius could have conceived that, five years later, in his most savage performance, he would taunt and torture and brutalize Floyd Patterson. The day Cassius returned from Rome, I met him at New York's Idlewild Airport—it's now called JFK; can you imagine what the odds were against both the fighter and the airport changing their names within five years?—and we set off on a victory tour of the town, a tour that ranged from midtown to Greenwich Village to Harlem. Cassius was an imposing sight, and not only for his developing light-heavyweight's build, 180 pounds spread like silk over a six-foot-two frame. He was wearing his blue American Olympic blazer, with USA embroidered upon it, and dangling around his neck was his gold Olympic medal, with PUGILATO engraved in it. For 48 hours, ever since some Olympic dignitary had draped the medal on him, Cassius had kept it on, awake and asleep. “First time in my life I ever slept on my back,” he said. “Had to, or that medal would have cut my chest.” We started off in Times Square, and almost immediately a passerby did a double-take and said, “Say, aren't you Cassius Clay?” Cassius's eyes opened wide. “Yeah, man,” he said. “That's me. How'd you know who I is?” “I saw you on TV,” the man said. “Saw you beat that Pole in the final. Everybody knows who you are.” “Really?” said Cassius, fingering his gold medal. “You really know who I is? That's wonderful.” Dozens of strangers spotted him on Broadway and recognized him, and Cassius filled with delight, spontaneous and natural, thriving on the recognition. “I guess everybody do know who I is,” he conceded. At a penny arcade, Cassius had a bogus newspaper headline printed: CASSIUS SIGNS FOR PATTERSON FIGHT. “Back home,” he said, “they'll think it's real. They won't know the difference.” He took three copies of the paper, jammed them into his pocket, and we moved on, to Jack Dempsey's restaurant. “The champ around?” he asked a waiter. “No, Mr. Dempsey's out of town,” the waiter said. Cassius turned and stared at a glass case, filled with cheesecakes. “What are them?” he asked the waiter. “Cheesecakes.” “Do you have to eat the whole thing,” Cassius said, “or can you just get a little piece?” Cassius got a little piece of cheese cake, a glass of milk and a roast beef sandwich. When the check arrived and I reached for it, he asked to see it. He looked and handed it back; the three items came to something like two and a half dollars. “Man,” he said. “That's too much money. We coulda gone next door”—there was a Nedick's hot dog stand down the block—“and had a lot more to eat for a whole lot less money.” From Dempsey's, we went to Birdland, a jazz spot that died in the 1960s, and as we stood at the bar—with Cassius holding a Coke “and put a drop of whisky in it”—someone recognized him. “You're Cassius Clay, aren't you?” the man said. “You know who I is, too?” said Cassius. Later, in a cab heading toward Greenwich Village, Cassius confessed, at great length, that he certainly must be famous. “Why,” he said, leaning forward and tapping the cab driver on the shoulder, “I bet even you know that I'm Cassius Clay, the great fighter.” “Sure, Mac,” said the cabbie, and Cassius accepted that as positive identification. In Greenwich Village, in front of a coffeehouse, he turned to a young man who had a goatee and long hair and asked, “Man, where do all them beatniks hang out?” In Harlem, after a stroll along Seventh Avenue, Cassius paused in a tavern, and some girl there knew who he was, too. She came over to him and twirled his gold medal in her fingers and said that she wouldn't mind if Cassius took her home. We took her home, the three of us in a cab. We stopped in front of her home, a dark building on a dark Harlem street, and Cassius went to walk her to her door. “Take your time,” I said. “I'm in no hurry. I'll wait with the cab.” He was back in 30 seconds. “That was quick,” I said. “Man,” he said, “I'm in training. I can't fool around with no girls.” Finally, deep into the morning, we wound up at Cassius's hotel room, a suite in the Waldorf Towers, courtesy of a Louisville businessman who hoped someday to manage the fighter. We were roughly halfway between the suites of Douglas MacArthur and Herbert Hoover, and Cassius knew who one of them was. For an hour, Cassius showed me pictures he had taken in Rome, and then he gave me a bedroom and said goodnight. “Cassius,” I said, “you're gonna have to explain to my wife tomorrow why I didn't get home tonight.” “You mean,” said Cassius, “your wife knows who I is, too?” A few months later, after he turned professional, I traveled to Louisville to spend a few days with Cassius and write a story about him. In those days, we couldn't go together to the downtown restaurants in Louisville, so we ate each night at the same place, a small restaurant in the black section of town. Every night, Cassius ordered the same main course, a two-pound sirloin, which intrigued me because nothing larger than a one-pound sirloin was listed on the menu. “How'd you know they served two-pound steaks?” I asked him the third or fourth night. “Man,” he said, “when I found out you were coming down here, I went in and told them to order some.” In the few months since Jack Dempsey's, Cassius had discovered the magic of expense accounts. But he was still as ebullient, as unaffected, as cocky and as winning as he had been as an amateur. He was as quick with a needle as he was with his fists. One afternoon, we were driving down one of the main streets of Louisville, and I stopped for a traffic light. There was a pretty white girl standing on the corner. I looked at her, turned to Cassius and said, “Hey, that's pretty nice.” Cassius whipped around. “You crazy, man?” he said. “You can get electrocuted for that! A Jew looking at a white girl in Kentucky!” In 1961, his first year as a professional, while he was building a string of victories against unknowns, Cassius came to New York for a visit with his mother, his father and his younger brother, Rudolph. Rudy was the Clay the Louisville schoolteachers favored: he was quiet, polite, obedient. Later, as Rahaman Ali, he became the more militant, the more openly bitter, of the brothers. I took the Clays to dinner at Leone's, an Italian restaurant that caters partly to sports people and mostly to tourists. To titillate the tourists, Leone's puts out on the dinner table a huge howl filed with fruit. Cassius took one look at the bowl of fruit, asked his mother for the large pocketbook she was carrying and began throwing the fruit into the pocketbook. “Don't want to waste any of this,” he said. The first course was prosciutto and melon, and Cassius recoiled. “Ham!” he slid. “We don't eat ham. We don't eat any pork things.” I knew he wasn't kosher, and I assumed he was stating a personal preference. Of course, Muslims don't eat pork, and perhaps his Muslim training had already begun. I still suspect, however, that he simply didn't like pork. After dinner, we went out in a used Cadillac Cassius had purchased with part of the bonus he received for turning pro (sponsored by nine Louisville and one New York businessmen, all white), and Cassius asked me to drive around town. On Second Avenue, in the area that later became known as the East Village, I pulled into a gas station. It was a snowy night, and after the attendant, a husky black man, had filled the gas tank, he started to clean off the front window. “Tell him it's good enough, and we'll go,” I said to Cassius. “Hey, man,” Cassius said. “It's good enough, and we'll go.” The big black man glowered at Cassias. “Who's doing this?” he said. “You or me'?” Cassius slouched down. “You the boss, man,” he said. “You the boss.” The attendant took his time wiping off the front windshield and the back. “Hey, Cash,” I said, “I thought you told me you were the greatest fighter in the world. How come you're afraid of that guy?” “You kidding?” said Clay. “He looks like Sonny Liston, man.” During the middle 1960s, when Cassias soared to the top of the heavyweight division, I drifted away from sports for a while, covering instead politics and murders and riots and lesser diversions. I didn't get to see any of his title fights, except in theaters, and, of course, I didn't see him. But our paths crossed early in 1964; by then, as city editor of the New York Herald Tribune, I was very much interested in the emerging Black Muslim movement. At first, I didn't know that Cassius was, too. Through a contact within the Muslim organization, I learned that Cassius, while training in Miami for his first title fight with Sonny Liston, had flown to New York with Malcolm X and had addressed a Muslim rally in Harlem. As far as anyone knew, that was his first commitment to the Muslims, although he had earlier attended a Muslim meeting with Bill White and Curt Flood, the baseball players (all three attended out of curiosity), and he had been seen in the company of Malcolm X (but so had Martin Luther King). When the Herald Tribune decided to break the story of Clay's official connection with the Muslims, I tried to reach him by telephone half a dozen times for him to confirm or deny or withhold comment on the story. I left messages explaining why I was calling, and I never heard from him. The story broke, and I heard from mutual acquaintances, that Cassius was angry. The first time I saw him after that—by then, he had adopted the name Muhammad Ali—he was cool, but the next time, in St. Louis, where he was addressing a Muslim group, he was as friendly as he had ever been. He quoted Allah, he paid tribute to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad yet he still answered to the nickname, “Cash.” He even insulted me a few times, a sure sign that he was no longer angry. He had been stripped of his heavyweight title, and he was fighting through the courts his conviction for refusing induction into the armed forces. I could see him changing, but it was never the words he mouthed that signified the change. His logic was often upside-down, his reasoning faulty, and yet, despite that, he had acquired a new dignity. The words didn't make any difference; the actions did. He had taken a dangerously costly step because of something he believed in. I might not share his belief or fathom the way he arrived at that belief, but still I had to respect the way he followed through on his beliefs, the way he refused to cry about what he was losing. Yet it was during this period, when I sympathized with his stand, when I found that some segments of the sportswriting world were exhibiting more venom, more stupidity and more inaccuracies than I had thought even they were capable of, that Muhammad took the only step of his career I deeply resent. He turned his back on Malcolm X. I don't know the reasoning. I don't know why he chose Elijah Muhammad over Malcolm X in the dispute between the leader of the Muslims and his most prominent disciple. I can't, therefore, say flatly that he made the wrong choice, even though I believe he made the wrong choice; Malcolm was a gifted man, an articulate and compassionate man. But I can say that Muhammad showed, for the one time in his life, a totally brutal personal—away from the ring—side. It is brutal to turn on a friend without one word of explanation, without one word of regret, with only blind obedience to the whims of a leader. I have tried, since then, to bring up the subject of Malcolm X with Muhammad Ali several times, and, always, he has tuned out. His expressive face has turned blank. His enthusiasm has turned to dullness. Maybe he is embarrassed. He should be. During Muhammad's 43 months away from the ring, I bumped into him occasionally and found him still to be the only professional fighter who was, personally both likeable and exciting. (Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres, for example, are likeable, but not often personally exciting; lngemar Johansson was exciting.) At one point, David Merrick, the theatrical producer, professed an interest in sponsoring a legal battle to get Muhammad back his New York State boxing license; Merrick wanted to promote an Ali fight in New York for a worthy cause, which was not, in this case, David Merrick. I arranged a meeting between the two, and Muhammad swept into Merrick's office and stopped, stunned by the decor, the entire room done in red-and-black. “Man,” said Muhammad, “you got to be part black to have a place like this. You sure you ain't black?” It was the only time I ever saw David Merrick attempt to be charming. The legal fight never materialized, not through Merrick, and Muhammad continued his road tour, speaking on college campuses, appearing in a short-lived Broadway play, serving as a drama critic, reviewing “The Great White Hope” for Life. One night, I accompanied him to a taping of the Merv Griffin Show—he was a regular on the talkshow circuit—and during the show, outlining his Muslim philosophy, he spoke of his belief in whites sticking with whites and blacks with blacks. Afterward, as we emerged from the studio, he was engulfed by admirers, calling him “Champ” and pleading for his autograph. He stopped and signed and signed and signed, still soaking as happily in recognition as he had almost a decade earlier, and finally because he was late for an appointment—I grabbed one arm and my wife grabbed the other and we tried to shepherd him away. He took about five steps and then looked at my wife and said, “Didn't you hear what I said about whites with whites and blacks with blacks?” She dropped his arm and Muhammad laughed and danced away, like a man relishing a role. In the fall of 1969, when the New York Mets finished their championship baseball season in Chicago, Muhammad and I and Torn Seaver had dinner one night at a quiet restaurant called the Red Carpet, a place that demanded a tie of every patron except the dethroned heavyweight champion. The conversation was loud and animated, dominated by Muhammad as always, and about halfway through the meal, pausing for breath, he turned to Seaver and said, “Hey, you a nice fella. You a sportswriter?” When we left the restaurant, we climbed into Muhammad's car, an Eldorado coupe, pink with white upholstery, with two telephones. Two telephones in a coupe! “C'mon, man,” he said to Seaver. “Use the phone. Where's your wife? In New York? Well, call her up and say hello.” Seaver hesitated, and Muhammad said, “I'll place the call. What's your number?” Seaver gave Muhammad the phone number, and Muhammad reached the mobile operator and placed the call, and when Nancy Seaver picked up the phone, she heard a deep voice boom. “This is the baddest cat in the world, and I'm with your husband and five hookers.” Nancy Seaver laughed. Her husband had told her he was having dinner with the champ. Later, we returned to my hotel room, and after a few questions about his physical condition, Muhammad took off his suit jacket and his shirt and began shadowboxing in front of a full-length mirror. For 15 straight minutes, he shadowboxed, letting out “Whoosh, whoosh,” the punches whistling, a dazzling display of footwork and stamina and sheer unbelievable speed, all the time telling Seaver his life story, his religious beliefs and his future plans. “I never saw anything like that in my life,” said Seaver afterward. Neither had anyone else. A few weeks later in the fall of 1969, Muhammad appeared as a guest on a sports-talk show, a show in which I served each week as sub-host and willing straight man for Joe Namath. For each show, we had one sports guest and one non-sports guest, and that week Muhammad was joined by George Segal, the actor. After the interview with Muhammad, Joe and I began chatting with Segal, and the subject of nudity came up. Segal had just finished filming a nude or seminude scene with Barbra Streisand in “The Owl and the Pussycat.” As the conversation about nudity began Muhammad visibly stiffened. “What's the matter?” Joe said. “Howyou feel about that, Muhammad?” Muhammad's reaction was immediate. He was affronted and insulted. He was a minister, and he did not know that the show was going to deal with such blasphemy, and he was about to walk off the stage rather than join in, or even tolerate, such talk. “Aw, c'mon,” Joe said. Muhammad sat uncomfortably through the remainder of the show, punctuating his distaste with winces and grimaces. It made for a very exciting show, and when it was over, Joe and I both sort of apologized to Muhammad for embarrassing him. “I gotta act like that,” Muhammad explained. “You know, the FBI might be listening, or the CIA, or somebody like that.” He is now 29 years old. He has been a professional fighter for a full decade and he has fought 31 times, and he has never been beaten. On March 8, he faces Joe Frazier, who has also never been beaten, who is younger, who is considerably more singleminded. Logic is on Frazier's side. Reason is on Frazier's side. But logic and reason have never been Muhammad Ali's strong suits. They were never Cassius Clay's either. His game always will be emotion and charm and vitality and showmanship. Eight weeks before the night of the Frazier fight, the telephone rang in my bedroom late one night. I picked it up. “Hello,” I said. “The champion of the world,” said the caller. “I'm back from the dead.” I hope so. The man-child should be the heavyweight champion of the world. It is the only role he was born to play.
"Willie Mays, Yesterday and Today"
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.” “What?” “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. “Hey, Monte.” 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.” Gomez nodded. “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.” “What?” “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?” “Like what?” “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?” I explained. “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?” “Pretty much.” “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.” “Lonely?” “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. “How come?” “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.
"The Bewildering World of Willie Mays"
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?” “A story.” “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.” “Eight Cokes.” “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. “Why?” “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. “Where’s Willie?” “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.
Jackie Robinson: The Great Experiment
Published in the October, 1948 issue of SPORT magazine, this feature profiles Jackie Robinson, who "paved the way for the rest, and he did it not only with his speed and power—but with his heart."
The Ten Years Of Jackie Robinson
From the October 1955 issue of SPORT magazine: Here is what has happened to the man, and to the game, in the decade since he broke the color line in organized baseball. From the early days of self-control to today’s battles and boos, Jack had to be – and was – a fighter. This is what he has won.