The month of May was always Willie Mays' time. Willie Howard Mays was born on May 6, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama - 69 years ago today.
The New York Giants called him up on the 15th of May in 1951 from Minneapolis in the American Association. He was bating .477 after 35 games.
Garry Schumacher, publicist for the Giants at that time, recalled the first time he ever saw Mays.
"The Giants were on their way from Chicago to Philadelphia to conclude the last three games of a road trip," Schumacher said. "I was by the front door of the Giants' office on Times Square. Suddenly, this kid comes in. There were always a lot of kids coming around; some of them wanted tickets and some wanted tryouts. He was carrying a few bats in one hand and a bag in the other that contained his glove and spikes. He was wearing the most unusual cap I ever saw, plaid colored. When I found out who he was, we bought him some clothes and then sent him to Philadelphia to join the club. He was wearing the new clothes when he left, but funny thing - he refused to take off that funny cap.
He made his major league debut with the Giants on May 25, 1951. But his start in the majors after just 116 minor leagues games was a shaky one. He was hitless in his first 12 at-bats, cried in the dugout and said, "I am not ready for this". He begged manager Leo Durocher to send him back down to the minors.
But "Leo the Lip" refused to listen to the pleas of the rookie center fielder just as another Giant manager John J. McGraw had refused to send a youthful Mel Ott to the minors.
"You're my center fielder as long as I am the manager of this team," Durocher said. "You're the best center fielder I have ever seen."
Mays' first home run was off the great Warren Spahn. He hit it over the roof of the Polo Grounds.
"We had a meeting of the pitchers," Spahn recalls. "We knew Mays was having trouble. I'll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I'd only struck him out."
In Pittsburgh's old Forbes Field, Rocky Nelson blasted a drive 457 feet to deep dead center. Galloping back, Mays realized as his feet hit the warning track that the ball was hooking to his right side. The ball was sinking and Mays could not reach across his body to glove the drive. So just as the ball got to his level, Mays stuck out his bare hand and made the catch. It was an incredible feat.
Durocher told all the Giants to give Mays the silent treatment when he returned to the dugout. But Pittsburgh's General Manager Branch Ricky sent the Giant rookie a hastily written note: "That was the finest catch I have ever seen ... and the finest I ever expect to see".
There is that catch and so many others. There are also the images of Mays playing stickball in the streets of Harlem with neighborhood kids, running out from under his cap pursuing a fly ball, pounding one of his 660 career home runs, playing the game with a verve, a gusto, and an attitude that awed those who were around him.
"Willie could do everything from the day he joined the Giants," Durocher recalled.
"Everybody loved him," notes his former teammate Monte Irvin. "He was a rare talent. Having him on your team playing center field gave us confidence. We figured that if a ball stayed in the park, he could catch it."
Mays was The Natural. He led the NL in slugging percentage five times. He won the home run crown four times. Twice, he won the NL MVP Award.
"He lit up a room when he came in," Durocher said.
The superstar of superstars, the man they called the "Say Hey Kid" was on the scene for 22 major-league seasons. He is all over the record book and in the memory of so many baseball fans.
Happy Birthday, Willie Mays!
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2011 marks Harvey Frommer's 36th consecutive year of writing sports books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 41 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM, an oral/narrative history was published in 2008 as well as a reprint version of his classic "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball."
Frommer's newest work REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION (Abrams) is his 41st sports book.
He is available for speaking engagements.
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