Tired and sick, an aging Willie Mays struggles to finish a season that has already lasted too long
August 06, 1967

Sitting there in the Giant clubhouse in Candlestick Park, Willie Mays looked old and sick. His eyes were like road maps—Route 1 from San Francisco to Santa Cruz—and the circles beneath them said that Willie does not sleep too well at night anymore. His voice was somewhat muffled and restrained—the vigorous "Say hey" is only a memory. There still was an hour before the start of the game with the Philadelphia Phillies, and most of the Giants were shooting pool in the back room or signing baseballs or reading mail, but Mays sat in his locker cubicle hunched on a four-legged stool.

"These kid pitchers," Willie was saying, "they're all so big and strong and throw the ball so hard they make you feel old too soon." Gary Nolan of the Cincinnati Reds, who is just 19 years old, had struck out Mays, who is 36, four times in one game. Bill Singer of the Dodgers, who was just out of kindergarten when Mays was playing center field for the New York Giants in the 1951 World Series, did it three times in one night. Then, a few weeks later, he struck out Mays in the first inning, and suddenly Willie left the game complaining of a cold.

Ferguson Jenkins of the Chicago Cubs knocked Mays down with a fast ball tight to his chin. Willie jumped up and glared menacingly at the young pitcher, and he dug in to get a firmer stance. There had been a time when everyone knew what was going to happen next. But now, when Jenkins threw again, Willie backed away—like a Little Leaguer bailing out the first time he sees a curve ball. The pitch was across the outside corner. Willie swung and missed. He stepped over the plate and walked head down to the Giant dugout. The next inning, complaining that he felt sick again. Mays left the game.

"I still feel sick. I know it," he said last week. "I had the flu, you know, and I just got out of the hospital. The doctor says I could have a relapse at any time. You're not seeing me at my best. If in September I see we're out of the race and can't finish in the money I think I'll go to Herman and tell him that maybe I should stop playing and get myself ready for next year."

Since it seems highly improbable that the Giants will be actively involved in the National League pennant race this September, Mays most likely will be able to get an early start for Acapulco or Europe and the long vacation his doctors have prescribed. "I just want to forget all about this year," he says, "because I've never had a year like it before—it's the first year I've really been sick—and I don't want to have another one like it again. Ever."

The type of season that Mays has endured so far is reflected not only in the statistics but also in his actions on the field and in the words of Philadelphia Manager Gene Mauch, who says succinctly, "Willie Mays is not Willie Mays four times a game anymore." Mays is hitting in the .280s, but the long ball comes with increasing irregularity. He has hit only 13 home runs this year after hitting 37 last season and 52 in 1965. In a private batting-practice session one night last week, facing a plump left-hander who probably pitches in the San Francisco Park League, Mays did not hit one home run in 20 minutes. He left the batting cage disgusted.

On the field Willie still runs from under his baseball cap—but not as fast as he used to—and he still catches fly balls with his glove open and practically resting on his left hip. "I don't think I've slipped in the outfield," he says, but now every so often someone hits a triple over his head.

It was quite apparent at the All-Star Game in Anaheim last month that there was something wrong with Mays. "He looked tired and weak and sick," says Ernie Banks of the Cubs, "and he told me that was just how he felt." The following Thursday, playing against the Houston Astros in Candlestick Park, Willie went hitless in four at bats and looked at a called third strike from Bo Belinsky. Left-handers like Belinsky don't throw called third strikes past hitters like Willie Mays. The next evening Willie struck out twice and played poorly in the field. The Giants sent him to St. Mary's Hospital.

"I just stayed in bed until Monday," Mays said, "and then the doctors gave me a complete examination. They said I had had the flu for about 10 days and should've been resting all that time." The doctors originally decided not to permit Willie to play for at least a week, but four days later he was released from the hospital. In San Francisco it was announced that Willie would rejoin the Giants on Friday in Chicago and that he had doctor's orders to take it easy and play only six or seven innings a game until he once more felt perfectly fit physically.

For Mays it was a testy weekend in Chicago. On Friday, during batting practice, a reporter asked Mays if he could talk to him for a second. "I ain't got nothing to say," said Mays. The reporter mentioned that the doctors said they had been checking Willie's eyes. Mays snapped back, "There ain't nothing wrong with my eyes. I was just sick—sick for 10 days." Then Herman Franks, the Giant manager, stepped over and said, "What are you doing? Trying to get him all upset?"

Willie was in the starting lineup that afternoon, but it was expected that he would play only a few innings and then retire for the day. However, the Cubs and Giants went on to play 12 innings in very humid weather—and Mays played all 12. The next afternoon it was just as humid, and again Mays played the entire game. It was inconceivable that a player just out of the hospital and with orders to take it easy would play 21 innings in two days.

"I can't think just of myself," said Mays. "A lot of guys on this club don't make too much money, and I've got to think of them. If they can make money for finishing in fourth place, then I've got to help them make it. I am getting paid a lot of money to play baseball, so I think I've got to go out and play. The Giants need me. It might be bad to think like this, to be playing when I'm not really ready to play—I don't know. But when the club's losing I feel I have to do something.

"I've been the guy on the Giants who's supposed to do so much. Just like Mickey in New York. For 14 years we've been the big guys. We got to play because the big guys are supposed to get the big hits and pick up the club. If the Giants were winning, then maybe it would be different. But they're losing, and I think they need me. As long as they know I'm not going to dog it, as long as they understand that, that's what I want."

On Sunday afternoon, however, when the Giants—who had just lost seven of their last 10 games—and the Cubs were playing a doubleheader, Mays played only four innings of the first game. Jenkins knocked him down and then struck him out, and the next inning Mays, incensed, left the game and did not play again the rest of the afternoon.

It has been Mays's contention the past few years that the Giant pitchers do not protect him against opposing pitchers who constantly brush him back. Leo Durocher, who was Mays's first manager in the major leagues, theorized that you answer a brush-back pitch with a similar pitch against the opposition's most respected hitter. Bill Rigney, who succeeded Durocher when the Giants were still in New York, agreed with Durocher's philosophy for the most part. When Alvin Dark took over, he had his pitchers retaliate for a knockdown with a similar tactic against the opposing pitcher. But under Herman Franks the Giants have no official retaliatory tactic, and this irritates Mays, who is, of course, a frequent target for high, inside pitches.

Last year Mays had words with one of his own pitchers, Juan Marichal, on opening day. The Cubs were playing under Leo Durocher for the first time, and Chicago Pitcher Bill Faul knocked Mays down. Mays was infuriated. Marichal, who had been involved in a beanball incident with John Roseboro and the Dodgers toward the end of the 1965 season, felt he could not afford to respond with a knockdown pitch, although he did lob a high floater over Ernie Banks's head.

In the dugout Mays asked Marichal why he had not sent Banks down.

"Banks is a nice guy," answered Marichal.

"Well, so am I," said Mays.

After Jenkins knocked him down in Chicago, Mays again wanted the Giant pitcher, who happened to be left-hander Mike McCormick, to send Jenkins down in turn. But McCormick, who had to go nine innings that day because the Giant bullpen was bare, reasoned that it would be too obvious for a left-handed pitcher to knock a right-handed hitter down and, furthermore, he did not want to risk any pitch that might disrupt his rhythm and prevent him from continuing the game with a five-run lead.

"I've got to be protected," says Mays. "I tell that to all my pitchers. I think you get back at their pitchers—not their big hitters, because then the umpires will step right in and give their warnings and right away it's all over and they stop it. Knockdowns are baseball, I know. But you can't knock someone down three or four times and never worry about getting knocked down yourself. We don't knock anyone down."

The Giants returned to San Francisco after splitting the doubleheader with the Cubs. Mays arrived at Candlestick Park for a private batting session before the Giants played the New York Mets on Tuesday night, and then he played all nine innings—crashing into the right-center-field fence in the top of the ninth in a futile attempt to catch a fly ball that drove in two runs. "I've never crashed into too many fences," he said, looking at the bruises on his side. The next afternoon he quit after five innings when the Mets had a 9-3 lead.

Because of the cold and windy weather that strikes San Francisco every afternoon around 3 o'clock, the Giants schedule mostly 1 p.m. games when they are at home. Even then, the last two or three innings are usually played in the chilly gusts that come off the Bay.

"These day games after a night game, all these day games, I don't like them," says Mays. "I'd like to play all night baseball—like the Dodger schedule. Some guys can go 0 for 4 the way I have and lose the way the Giants have and then go home and sleep. Not me. I worry. They pay me to win, and when I don't win I worry and don't sleep. When I finally get to sleep it's time to get up and come to the ball park for an afternoon game."

Because of his attack of the flu and his inability to sleep these past few weeks, Mays has lost weight—about eight or 10 pounds. Some people, including medical men, think Willie should eat more than he does, but he disputes their reasoning that the more you eat the more weight you will put on.

"I have two meals a day," he says, "and I make myself eat both of them. Three or four eggs, ham or bacon, orange juice and toast in the morning, and then meat—most likely steak—and maybe some salad later. I know my own body. I know how much I can eat. I go to medical people when I'm hurt or sick. They don't know how I should eat. And as you get older I think you should eat less because it's harder to take the fat off."

Despite all this, Willie has not even thought about retirement. "I'd like to play for a long time more," he said, "but I'll stay around only if I do a good job. I'll have to make some adjustments, maybe bat second and hit more to right field. Maybe I'll have to play left or right so I won't have to run so much. But I won't play first base like Mickey—not for the Giants. If I played first and McCovey went to the outfield, we'd weaken ourselves at two places. They tried him in the outfield before."

It did not take long for Herman Franks to make one of the adjustments that Mays figures is part of old age. Against the Phillies last Friday night Willie batted second for the first time this year, and in the first inning he tried to go to right field for a base hit. He would have had it, too, except that Johnny Callison made a difficult catch going toward the right-field line.

But Willie Mays playing left field or right field? Never.