The hard-cover binder has slowly crumbled since I first opened
the book in 1966.
The hard-cover binder has slowly crumbled since I first opened the book in 1966. One of my younger siblings field tested a crayon on the cover, fortunately they used black, so it fits with the jacket which is designed simply, half orange, half black, orange on top with all capital letters spelling “Willie Mays” firmly impressed into the cover.
The opening page reads: “The New York Times had it on page one next day, with headlines equal to only one other story: the Russians had successfully tested an atom bomb. … The date, October 3, 1951. The most famous single date, I suppose, in baseball history.”
It recounted Bobby Thompson’s “home run heard ’round the world’ which beat the Brooklyn Dodgers. That capped the most incredible comeback in baseball history. The Giants were 13 1/2 games behind the Dodgers on Aug. 11, won 39 of the last 47 and 14 of the last 16.
On page two Mays wrote, “We – and when I say “we” in this book, anytime I use that word it means only one thing: the Giants.”
That’s how I’ve felt about the Giants as far back as I can remember. We. They have been “my team” for life.
I voraciously devoured the contents of “Willie Mays: My Life in and Out of Baseball.” I was a 12-year-old lanky lad with pimples and sports dreams. Better with the glove than the bat. He was god.
Of all the sports, of all the players in all the games, Willie stood above. Style, grace, speed, power, instinct … Once you saw him play, you understood. He was born to play baseball in the exact space he roamed, centerfield. The basket catch, the bursts of speed. I can see him in my mind’s eye, exactly, crouched with glove on one knee, hand on the other, field ready. I can see him in the batter’s box, rounding first base, sliding into third – he could stretch a double better than any politician could stretch the truth.
It’s funny, but honestly I remember Willie Mays the way I remember very few things. I remember Willie Mays the way I remember excerpts from the book I read at 12 years old.
The Giants last won the World Series in 1954. They were the New York Giants then, playing in the Polo Grounds, not the windy world of Candlestick Park. Mays had just re-joined the team after being drafted and spending two years in the Army. They whipped the Cleveland Indians in ’54.
Now, the 2010 stitched-together team is on the verge of having a chance to do what the 1962 San Francisco team couldn’t do and what the 1989 and 2002 teams couldn’t do. And there’s this feeling that this rag-tag bunch with The Freak and The Panda, this circus group with rookies who have never been there and veterans who have never been there, either, could really do it. They could bring a World Series championship to the glorious city by the Bay. Tim Lincecum goes to the hill tonight, and you will know whether it’s back to Philly for two more or on to the World Series stage.
Say it’s the latter, my fingers are crossed and my hat is in hand, and let it be the Yankees. Let Buster Posey smack a single over the leaping second baseman in Game 7 and erase the lingering memory of the line shot that McCovey hit in 1962 with Mays on second, Matty Alou on third and the Giants trailing 1-0 in the seventh game of the Series. That screamer dropped Billy Richardson to his knees, but the ball melted into the glove. That was that, all the air went out of Candlestick. I was there with my Dad and left wide-eyed just the way I did after the Quake game in the 1989 Series.
It feels different this time, but maybe it’s just a lifetime of wishful thinking on my part. Maybe, like a hole-in-one on the golf course, I’d just like to check this off my bucket list.
As a Giants fan, the approach has to be circumspect. You hope, you pray, you wish, but … there have been many disappointments, and some tough years in between. In that sense, this year’s theme of “torture” fits like a glove … Ending a season brimming with gut-wrenching drama, a half century of torture ended for Giants fans when … fill in the rest.
What I’d like to see is Mays, McCovey, Cepeda and Marichal in the park receiving the kind of applause that Mays described on page 123: “But nothing has the wonderful sound to it of the ovation when you leave a ball game, not after a great play, not because something’s expected of you, but simply a standing, concerted round of applause that says, “We’re glad you were here … we’re glad we got to see you all those times.”
Gosh, I’d love the chance to let Willie Mays and Buster Posey and Willie Mac and Aubrey Huff hear that. That jersey in my closet, that special gift from my wife that gets worn a couple of times a year, I’d love to put it on and yell my heart out. “Say Hey” it says on the back just above the 24, the number of the greatest player in baseball history. Mays was dubbed the “Say Hey Kid” when he came up by the New York press. It’s the only jersey I’ve ever owned.
When I read “My Life In and Out of Baseball,” Willie Mays was my idol. He was a god to be worshiped. When I finished it, he was my hero. A human being to be admired.
The book opened up a baseball universe I only had hints about, the game behind the obvious, the nuances, the strategies, the theories. Knowledge made baseball even more enchanting.
Knowing about Willie Mays and understanding more about the man who struggled with racism, finances and relationships – helped cement my lifelong loyalty. That won’t change. But it sure would be something if Willie and I could see a World Championship flag waving in the San Francisco breeze above AT&T Park.
Reach Editor Mark Derry at [email protected]