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Willie Mays Reflects On Legendary Baseball Career

A new authorized biography, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, has the baseball great, now 78 years old, back out mixing with his fans. At a tour stop in New York, he talks with NPR's Robert Siegel about his life, career and — inevitably — the famous play he made in the 1954 World Series, known in baseball lore simply as "The Catch."

The Entertainer

Mays was not only a great player, but he was also a performer. He took time to craft tricks to use on the field and amuse the fans.

"When I played ball, I tried to make sure that everybody enjoyed what I was doing," Mays says. "I made the clubhouse guy fit me a cap that when I ran, the wind gets up in the bottom and it flies right off. People love that type of stuff."

The author of his biography, James Hirsch, attributes much of Mays' creativity to the Negro League he played with before going to the major league. But Mays says this flair for entertaining comes from an even earlier influence: his father.

"My father was a steel mill worker, and he would teach me the game of baseball. So when I came to Birmingham Black Barons, I already knew how to play the game," Mays says. "My father had already taught me that you can do just anything in the outfield."

A Catch For The Ages

When he was just 20, he helped turn the hapless New York Giants into pennant winners in his rookie season, 1951, and into World Series champions in 1954, the year he returned from the Army.

And it was during Game 1 of the 1954 World Series against the Cleveland Indians when he made a play that has gone down in history books. There were two runners on base, and slugger Vic Wertz was at bat.

Willie Mays grounds out in February 1955.
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Willie Mays grounds out in February 1955.

Fred Wertheimer, now a prominent advocate for campaign finance reform, saw "The Catch" live.

"I was sitting in the bleachers in deep right center field," he recalls. "I remember an extraordinary crack of the bat."

Thom Ross, an artist who was inspired to create an installation of five plywood cutouts of Mays' famous play, recalls what came next.

"Mays turns his back, lowers his head and starts running after the ball," Ross says. "Of course, there's no way that Mays is going to catch this ball. The ball is hit way too hard, way too low. It's not one of those towering high flies."

But he did.

"When the ball went up, I knew exactly what to do before the ball ever came down," Mays says. "I'm talking to myself as I'm running — I'm staying to myself, 'You gotta get this ball back into the infield. You gotta make sure that everything is happening within sequence. It means I gotta catch the ball, I gotta stop, I gotta make a 360. By the time I make the 360, the ball should be back into the infield.' "

The Toast Of New York

Mays played for the Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York until the team left after the 1957 season to become the San Francisco Giants.

He was a hero, the toast of the town in the biggest city in the country.

He recalls coming home from an evening out around 10 to find a massive crowd outside his building.

"I saw all these people out there in the street, and I'm saying, 'My God, what are they doing out here?' And one of the kids that I knew, he said, 'Willie ... they're waiting for you to come home to see how you're walking and make sure that you're in the bed, then they can go bet!' " Mays says.

The affinity New Yorkers had for him was mutual.

"I loved New York at the time that I was there," he says. "They knew baseball. They knew exactly what was supposed to be done, and I did it."

When the Giants announced they were leaving New York for San Francisco, some of that love began to fade. Only one in six seats was filled during the last home games in New York.

But when the Giants' final home game in New York ended, Lanny Davis was a 12-year-old fan who was part of the crowd that formed on the field, chanting for Mays to come out of the clubhouse.

"Willie did come out, and I started to cry," Davis says. "He waved to the crowd. And then, in my distant memory, I remember him looking down the stairs, right at me. And with tears rolling down my face, I remember him saying, 'Hi, kid; goodbye, kid.' "

Years later, Davis became a Washington lawyer and eventually White House counsel during the Clinton administration. As an adult, he met Mays, who had no recollection of that encounter. Yet, Davis' love for his idol remained undiminished.

A Different Approach To Breaking The Color Barrier

In Willie Mays' rookie season, 1951, according to his biographer, only five of the 16 major league teams had black players. Jackie Robinson had broken the color line just four years earlier.

Unlike Mays, Robinson was engaged in a struggle for racial equality beyond the ballpark. In 1963, Robinson joined Martin Luther King Jr. in the famous march on Washington.

Mays' constant cheerfulness struck some critics as woefully out of sync with the civil rights era. His lack of political engagement led Robinson, a trailblazer and activist, to criticize Mays twice. But Mays has no bitterness toward his contemporary.

"Jackie was a guy that would speak his mind very clearly," Mays says. "I applaud him. I don't know if I could have done the things that he did when he came in. But what am I going to change? I can't change the world. I can live the way I live and hope that I can help people of all races, all the time."

'I Enjoyed My Life With Baseball'

The thought of Mays staring at 80 years old is jarring to those who adored his fluid play, his exuberance. He has glaucoma now and needed a couple of tissues to make it through his interview. But he still looks trim.

He says only one thing bothers him about his career: the way the media covered his last two seasons. At age 41, Mays returned to New York City, to play for the Mets. Reporters said he was too old.

"But didn't play that bad. ... It was the best I could do at the time, and I enjoyed what I was doing," Mays says. "Whatever people say, look at my record. In those two years, if they want to take them away from me, that's fine. I don't have a problem with it, but I enjoyed my life with baseball."

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