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The legend of Willie Mays

Excerpted from How the Weather Was by Roger Kahn, with permission from Diversion Books | © Copyright 2012

The Giant manager, Leo Durocher, offered me tidbits on his welling romance with a wide-hipped actress, but was more devious when asked about the club. The ball players 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 rose, mighty and godlike. 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, then 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 had come to call it, dawned like most other days, with a big bright sky. Durocher scheduled an intrasquad game and began elaborately underplaying things. The loose-hipped 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 ball park was typical medium minor league. Old stands extended partway 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 major-leaguers in a minor league 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 leaped 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 C-sharp minor:

In no more days,

We're going to have Willie Mays!

*****

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 assembling a book with articles by All-Star ball players 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's 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. "That 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 Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, where center field ran 457 feet deep. 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 correct 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 line-up 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.

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