A happy start for a happy new Willie

Free at last of off-the-field worries, San Francisco's magnificent Willie Mays hit six home runs in his first six games as the leader of the most powerful attack in the National League
Free at last of off-the-field worries, San Francisco's magnificent Willie Mays hit six home runs in his first six games as the leader of the most powerful attack in the National League
April 26, 1964

It was 85° and the sun was shining in San Francisco on Opening Day. Russ Hodges, the voice of the Giants, was at home plate introducing the players to the fans. "And next," he announced, "comes the oldest Giant in point of service." Out he jogged, No. 24, with his tapered pants hugging his calves, veteran Willie Mays, age 33 in two more weeks and one of the oldest Giants on the team. It seemed as incongruous as finding Peter Pan collecting social security in Sun City, but there was Willie Mays, the Say Hey Kid, now an elder statesman.

Still, though the Giants long ago moved to San Francisco and took the Say Hey out of the boy—"You just can't say that out here, you know? They just don't say that out here"—nobody has yet taken the boy out of the Say Hey. The laugh, high-pitched and real, the constant clowning, the catering to children—they are all still there. And so, too, are the bat and the swing. Willie Mays hit six home runs in the Giants' first six games, carrying a team that was not hitting to three wins and dominating the first week of baseball as surely as if the whole thing had been rigged for him.

On Opening Day Mays hit two home runs as the Giants beat the Milwaukee Braves and Warren Spahn 8-4. The next night he added a three-run home run as the Giants again beat the Braves 10-8. Two nights later he hit a second three-run homer to beat the Cardinals 5-4. The following afternoon he hit his fifth, but it was not enough to keep the Giants from losing to St. Louis. Finally, on Sunday, Mays capped an amazing first week by hitting his sixth home run in six games as the Giants beat Cincinnati 13-6.

Mays has had a lot of good starts. He has, in fact, now hit home runs in his last three Opening Day games, and two years ago he had four homers in his first seven games. But he never had a start quite like this. No one, of course, can expect him to keep it up. But then, the truth is that this is not just a good first week—Willie is taking up where he left off. He hit .383 the last two months of last season. Significantly, Willie is a much happier man than he has been in recent years, and the happiness is as much cause as effect.

All this bodes well for the Giants. They are the most powerful team in the league, and Mays is certain to be getting more help soon, particularly from San Francisco's other two home run champions, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda. McCovey was just in a good old-fashioned slump this past week, along with most of the rest of the team. Cepeda was slowed by a bad knee, missed one game and was hitting mostly singles. The Giants will take singles, but they are a home run team.

Whether he leads them in home runs or not, Mays is still the star of the Giants. "And he's the same boy I knew in 1951," says Manager Al Dark. "Nothing has ever gone to his head—and I mean in any way. He has some influence over some of the boys on the team, but he leads in the same way he always has, like tonight. By hitting the ball out of the park."

Over the years, though, much has happened to Mays. He had a marriage that ended in divorce, and despite his high salary—he is advertised as a $100,000-a-year player, but actually he is paid more than $105,000—he has always had financial problems. Willie likes to buy things. He has always been an extremely intense athlete. "It is unbelievable," Trainer Frank Bowman says. "Unbelievable that a man that plays as hard as he does has never really been hurt. Unbelievable." Mays did collapse in the dugout at Cincinnati two years ago and in San Francisco last year, but since there was nothing organically wrong either time it was finally assumed that the collapse was as much the result of mental stress and fatigue as anything else.

Although he is still in debt, Mays is now in a position where no pressure from any of his creditors gives him any concern. He is unquestionably the favorite player on the Giants, and an accepted member of his community—San Francisco and the Forest Hill area, where he lives in a beautiful $100,000 house. Even before he moved in, the Forest Hill Property Owners Association invited his membership. This was a far cry from his first attempt at home ownership, when neighbors did not want a Negro in the area.

Mays's son, Michael, lives with him during the winter. A kindly and efficient housekeeper protects him and looks after him all year. Mays has taken up golf during the off season and, more important, he is learning the banking business. He reads introductory books on finance now, and this winter he plans to take extension courses in banking. He already has done public relations work for the Golden Gate National Bank. "People worry more about me than I worry about myself," Willie said last week. In short, he is as happy as he always has appeared to be, and his only real concern now is with things like hitting baseballs and catching them. "It makes a little difference," he says, "when all you have to do is play. Nothing to worry about. Just go out there and play."

The man most responsible for restoring financial sanity and real peace of mind to Mays is Jacob Shemano, the president of the Golden Gate National Bank in San Francisco. Mays is close not only to Shemano, but to his whole family, and it is a very warm relationship. Last Friday at 11 o'clock Shemano got Willie on the phone. "Say, listen," he said, "you want to go to lunch with the attorney general today? O.K., meet you at the club at 12." Bank President Shemano, California Attorney General Stanley Mosk and Willie Mays had a good lunch together, while in Hollywood, Shemano's son Gary, 19, had a screen test arranged by Mays.

"Willie has been taken in by more people that he had confidence in," Shemano says. "He has a good, searching mind, but he just never paid any attention. He cared only about being a ballplayer. When I took him on I did it only with the understanding that he would also have the finest legal advice and the finest public accountant. I am not his financial adviser. I'm just the keeper of the keys. We've put Willie on a budget. We have made him prepare himself to live under a limited income, as he will have to do when he is through playing."

Mays has an office on the fifth floor of the bank, down the hall from Shemano's. "And here," Shemano says, opening the next door into the board room, "is where he talks to groups of kids when they come in. Willie is very concerned about education. He'll meet a kid and the first thing he'll say is, 'What school do you go to and what grade are you in?' And you know? Now he talks about saving money, too. When his son was out here this winter he was playing catch one day, and I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Right away, like most kids, he said he wanted to be a ballplayer. Willie came over and patted him on the head. 'No, Michael,' he said, 'be a doctor. We need them.' What has happened is that he has changed from Willie Mays the young man to Willie Mays the man."

Hitting home runs is not just happiness, though. There were a lot of happy Giants who could not hit the ball out of the infield last week, and the team—which must be considered a favorite in the close National League—was lucky that Mays had such an outstanding week. Otherwise the Giants would not have won a game. The slump was, in retrospect, to be expected. After all, this team hit .341 in spring training and slugged at .525. Part of this can be credited to the opposition, which was too often the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox. The giddy Arizona air also may have helped account for the amazing figures but, regardless of the circumstances, those percentages give some idea of how devastating the Giant lineup can be. The pitchers and fielders permitted five and a half runs per game, and the Giant hitters still won 25 of 33.

The Giants' personnel is geographically based on a Dixie-Latin America axis. To an outsider, the clubhouse sounds like a place that specializes in both enchiladas and hominy grits (the fare available actually includes dog food, since Reliever Bob Shaw's dog Beau has free run of the clubhouse).

The two important rookie additions continue this clubhouse duality: Third Baseman Jim Ray Hart comes from Lenoir, N.C., and Outfielder Jesus Alou from Haina, Dominican Republic. Alou, who is scheduled to be the leadoff man, though he literally never walks, was held out most of the first week because of a minor injury, but Hart started every game and hit a homer against Warren Spahn in the opener.

Controversy surrounding Alou was mostly about his Christian name, which is pronounced Hayzoos in Spanish. Nevertheless, some people, including several of the clergy, suggested that Jesus be called something else—"Jay" perhaps, which would be strictly manufactured, or "Chuchita," the common Spanish diminutive for Jesus that means, literally, Little Jesus. More sensible heads prevailed, and when Alou finally got into the fourth game he was introduced by his correct name.

By then the rookies and even Mays were overshadowed by a gray-haired newcomer, Edwin Snider of the Brooklyn Sniders. The Dook, handsome and a little bit fatherly, has crossed the continent three times—from Flatbush to Los Angeles with the Dodgers, back to New York with the Mets and now west to the Giants. Sentiment and the fabled Giant-Dodger feud notwithstanding, Snider was delighted to be with the Giants. "All the way out here on the flight from New York I practiced playing for the Giants." And how, exactly, does one go about doing that? "Easy. I kept yelling, 'You take it, Willie, you take it.' " Mays, near by, shrieked with laughter.

Snider's practice, as it developed, was of no immediate use. Indeed, bought for his left-handed hitting. Snider did not hit a lick—but helped win the first game he played for the Giants with his fielding. Snider was in left field in the 10th inning of the fourth game of the season. The score was tied. Cardinal Pitcher Bobby Shantz was on first with one out. With Dick Groat up, the Cards went to the hit-and-run, and Shantz took off. Groat hit a sinking liner to left center. Snider lost the ball in the lights but spotted it again just in time to throw out his gloved hand and spear it on the dead run. Mays had run over from center and screamed, "First base, first base." So without stopping to set himself, Snider threw the ball—away from his momentum—to first. He fell to the ground, but his off-balance throw was strong enough for a stretching McCovey to grab it on a long bounce and double up Shantz. The Giants, who had come back in the game on Mays's daily homer—this one worth three runs—then went on to win the game in the bottom of the 10th.

A continent away, as clippings taped on the Giant clubhouse walls told, they were tearing down the Polo Grounds. The Giants had lost an old stadium, they had gained an old Dodger, Mays had six home runs and the season was not yet a week old.