Editor's note: Sixty years ago, Willie Howard Mays signed his first professional contract with the New York Giants at age 19. The next year he played his first game for the Giants, beginning one of the greatest careers in major league history.
Two on, nobody out, and Vic Wertz was the batter.
He was in many ways a prototype of the stodgy long-ball era -- "muscular men not long in grace nor noted for acceleration, but men who commanded large salaries for occasional home runs," according to Bill James. Wertz was 6 feet tall and 186 pounds, a big man for his day, with a burly torso, quick wrists, and a chaw of tobacco in his mouth. By 1954, he had been a three-time All-Star with the Detroit Tigers and may have been the most grateful player in the World Series. He had begun the season with the Orioles and was traded to the Indians after twenty-nine games. The Orioles lost a hundred times and finished fifty-seven games out of first place.
The Giants wished he had stayed in purgatory. New York had a good read on all the Indians thanks to spring training, but they had never seen the left-handed-hitting Wertz. His three hits, all smoked, had come off a high fastball, a slider down and away, and an outside fastball.
[Giants manager Leo] Durocher was not going to let Maglie face Wertz again, so he dispatched his coach, Freddie Fitzsimmons, to the mound to change pitchers. Maglie, tall and brooding, took his long walk across the outfield to the clubhouse and was replaced by Don Liddle, a southpaw not quite 5-foot-10, with a narrow, pallid face and quick motion. He had come with Johnny Antonelli in the Bobby Thomson trade and had performed admirably as a spot starter and reliever, with nine wins and a 3.04 ERA. His best pitch was his curveball.
Mays knew that, so he was cheating in. Hitters tended to pound Liddle's curveball into the ground, and Mays wanted to cut down the runner at the plate on a single. He was shading him to right and assumed that Wertz, like most hitters, would be swinging at the reliever's first pitch. Wertz indeed swung but missed, and Liddle was soon ahead in the count: one ball, two strikes. Wertz guessed he would see a high, tight fastball, which is what most lefties threw him with that count -- drive him off the plate to set up the curveball. Liddle threw his fastball but aimed it poorly. The ball stayed over the plate, almost at the shoulders. Wertz extended his thick arms, rotated his wrists, and hit the ball squarely. Ball game, thought Roger Kahn, who was standing in the lower deck between third and home.
Wertz thought so too as he watched his blazing line drive sail just to the right of second base. He put his head down and began pumping his stubby legs, confident he would end up on second or third or, if the center fielder misplayed it, all the way back at home.
Alvin Dark spun to his left. At shortstop, his first reaction on any ball hit straightaway was to spin and look over his left shoulder at the center fielder. In his fourteen years in the majors, Mays was the only center fielder who would be in full stride the moment he peered over his shoulder. (All other fielders were still picking up speed.)
Now Dark saw Mays at full speed and thought, two runs. The ball's distance wasn't the only problem. Mays had no angle on it. The ball was winging directly over his head, which is one of the toughest catches in baseball.
Al Rosen, nearing second base, was certain he would score. Monte Irvin sprinted over from left field to prepare for the carom off the wall, hoping to deter an inside-the-park home run. Liddle jogged, head down, toward the third base line to back up any errant throws to third or home.
The Giants in the dugout stood on the top step.[+] EnlargeAP PhotoWillie Mays prepares to make "The Catch," running down a towering blast off the bat of Vic Wertz.
Leo Durocher retained hope, believing that any ball that stayed in the yard could be caught by Mays. He just wasn't certain if the outfield was big enough.
[Mays biographer] Arnold Hano, sitting in the right field bleachers, later wrote that the ball was hit "about as hard as I have ever seen a ball hit," but he was not immediately "perturbed" because it was hit to the deepest part of the Polo Grounds, Mays's territory. He had seen other center fielders catch majestic drives in those distant recesses.
"Then I looked at Willie," Hano wrote, "and alarm raced through me, peril flaring against my heart. To my utter astonishment, the young Giant center fielder -- the inimitable Mays, most skilled of outfielders, unique for his ability to scent the length and direction of any drive and then turn and move to the final destination of the ball -- Mays was turned full head around, head down, running as hard as he could, straight toward the runway between the two bleacher sections. I knew then that I had underestimated -- badly underestimated -- the length of Wertz's blow."
Watching this powerful tracer forty feet above Mays's head, Hano reached a quick, mournful conclusion: it will beat him to the wall. Rosen had pushed ahead and reached second base, but Doby, himself a center fielder, had hesitated and begun to retreat to second. He realized the ball could be caught, and if so, he would still have time to tag up and score.[+] EnlargeAP PhotoMays makes the catch short of the center-field wall and prepares to turn and throw the ball back to the infield. Many considered the throw more impressive than the catch.
Mays, barreling toward the bleacher wall, looked over his left shoulder, slowing a bit, then continued with his head straight, arms thrashing, legs churning.
The center field wall, at its deepest, is 483 feet. This area is an alcove, created by a gap in the center field bleachers, and in the alcove are the stairs that lead to the two clubhouses. The bleachers themselves did not have markers on them; their distance has been estimated from 450 to 460 feet. Wertz's drive was not the farthest to have been hit to center field in the Polo Grounds. At least one ball had been hit into the bleachers, and two others had been caught at the foot of the clubhouse stairs.
What made Wertz's hit so startling was its low, tailing trajectory. No ball, it seemed, had ever traveled so far on such a low arc.
The bleacher wall was 8½ feet high, concrete with no padding, but the image on television made it appear that Mays was running toward something much bigger. To create a dark green background for hitters, large screens were attached to the top of the concrete wall closest to the alcove. On television, the wall and the screen were indistinguishable, so it looked as if Mays were just running toward an impenetrable barrier.
He ran past the farthest edge of the outfield grass, veering slightly to his right as his spikes touched the narrow cinder strip near the base of the wall. At the last moment, he looked up, extended his arms like a wide receiver, and opened his Rawlings Model HH glove. The ball fell gently inside. He had ten feet to spare.
Jack Brickhouse, the usually understated announcer who was calling the game for NBC, conveyed his surprise in his call: "There's a long drive way back at center field way back, way back, it is a -- Oh, my! Caught by Mays! Willie Mays just brought this crowd to its feet with a catch which must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people. Boy!"
The film clip shows a fan slapping his forehead, mouthing the words "Oh, my God."
But the play wasn't over.
Doby, seeing Mays's catch, completed his retreat to second, touched the bag, and took off for third. With Mays on the fringe, his momentum carrying him away from the plate, Doby, a fast runner, could score by advancing two bases.
But Mays whirled and threw "like some olden statue of a Greek javelin hurler, his head twisted away to the left as his right arm swept out and around," Hano wrote. His hat flew off in perfect sync with the corkscrew motion, and it was "the throw of a giant, the throw of a howitzer made human, arriving at second base just as Doby was pulling into third and as Rosen was scampering back to first."
Second base umpire Jocko Conlan saw the ball coming in and said to himself, "This has to be the best throw anybody could ever make."
Television viewers at the time, and the millions who watched the film clip in years to come, couldn't admire the throw; it had been hurled out of the frame. But they saw something just as good: Mays from the ground, propped up by his arms, hatless, clean cut, his eyes squinting, scanning, trying to determine if his catch and throw had restored order to the infield. It had, for Doby stopped at third. Rosen later said, "Normally, an outfielder has to make two or three more steps, but not Willie."
Vic Wertz never saw the catch. In all the crazy movements of baserunners and cutoff men and amid the gasps and cheers of the fans, he had passed the retreating Rosen and, finally at second base, saw the incoming throw and realized what had happened. He looked at Mays in disbelief, returned to the dugout, cursed, and kicked the water cooler.
No one thought about the historical significance of the catch. All it meant was that the Indians were now on first and third with one out.
Cleveland manager Al Lopez sent up right-handed pinch hitter Hank Majeski, so Durocher countered with right-hander Marv Grissom, a screwball pitcher. Liddle was done after one hitter. On his way off the mound, he said something to Grissom, which was reported as: "I got my man." (Liddle's son, Craig, later said that his father would never have made such a comment on the field but said it to Durocher in the clubhouse.)
Lopez then pinch-hit Dale Mitchell, who walked to load the bases.
Another pinch hitter, Dave Pope, now had a chance to render Mays's catch meaningless, but he struck out. The next batter, catcher Jim Hegan, pulled a fly ball into left field, where the short fence and an overhanging facade allowed cheap home runs. Irvin ran to the 315-foot marker and a grand slam appeared imminent, but the ball dropped into his glove. Hano swore that the slight breeze had "developed a backbone" and pushed the ball back into play.
As Irvin jogged off the field with Mays, Irvin said, "That was a helluva catch, roomie. I didn't think you'd make it."
Mays said, "I had it all the way."[+] EnlargeLoomis Dean/Time & Life Pictures/Getty ImagesPlaying only his second full season in 1954, Willie Mays was named the National League's Most Valuable Player.
The game continued, but neither team could push a run across. Extra innings followed, and Wertz led off the tenth.
Grissom, still in the game, threw several screwballs low and away, forcing Wertz to foul them down the left field line. But the next screwball got too much of the plate, and Wertz shot it into left center, between the outfielders, down for extra bases. Mays raced to cut the ball off as it scooted toward the wall. Irvin had no chance for it. Mays had to decide: should he try to intercept the ball before it reached the wall and possibly hold Wertz to a long double -- a strong throw would still be needed -- or should he play it off the wall for a triple. If he tried to cut it off and missed, he would be out of position to retrieve it, and Wertz, given the deep alleys and angled wall that would kick the ball toward center, would circle the bases.
Mays gambled. He ran straight across the outfield, homed in on the ball, bent down, and scooped and hurled it in one flawless motion to third base, where Hank Thompson caught it on the fly one step before the bag. At least this time Wertz could watch Mays. He later recalled, "Willie came running in and grabbed it off the grass as he was skidding to the ground" and stopped him at second -- a four-hundred-foot double.
Mays later said that play was as good if not even better than the catch because it required an instant calculation -- could he or couldn't he reach the ball? -- and Wertz himself said, "I think Willie may have made a better play on me in the tenth."
Hano wrote, "At this point, I think, the Indians quit. It is not fair to say they quit in the eighth when Mays made his catch. They still had clawed away, stopping the Giants in the eighth and ninth, and they opened the tenth (or at least Wertz had) full of vinegar. But when Mays again indicated he was not Mays, but Superman -- they must have known they were through."
Mays's catch was the talk of the game.
Joe DiMaggio, who watched it from the press box, said what made it remarkable was Mays's courage in coming so close to the wall, refusing to slow down until he grabbed the ball. He called the catch "greater than Al Gionfriddo's in the 1947 Series," referring to the Dodger left fielder's brilliant grab of a DiMaggio hit deep in the corner at Yankee Stadium.
A reporter asked Durocher if it was the greatest catch he'd ever seen, and Durocher used the question to make it clear, however crudely, that Mays was not a one-catch wonder: "What the (expletive) are you talking about? Willie makes (expletive) catches like that every day. Do you keep your (expletive) eyes closed in the press box?"
When Lopez heard Durocher's comments, he grew indignant, saying, "I've been playing ball since I was a kid. I've been around the major leagues for thirty years. That was the greatest catch I've ever seen. Just the catch, mind you. Now put it all together. The catch. The throw. The pressure on the kid. I'd say that was the best play anybody ever made in baseball."
Al Rosen later said, "Nobody else could've made that play at that venue at that time. It was a catch for the ages."
Not every Indian was so generous. Bob Feller said bitterly, "We knew Willie had it all the way he was a great actor." Larry Doby, who would have scored had he anticipated the play at the outset, said that he would have made the catch as well "and without making it look so hard."
Several months later, Durocher claimed that Mays said after the game, "I don't rank 'em, I just catch 'em." These words cannot be found in a sampling of game stories, and Mays contends he never said them. In postgame interviews, he did convey a combination of confidence and humility. "I had the ball all the way," he said. "There was nothing too hard about that one. Did that save the game? Well, maybe it did. But what about my hitting? I wasn't any help up there at the plate."
He did, of course, contribute at the plate, with two walks, a run scored, and a pivotal stolen base, but he dwelled on his need to improve.
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