Willie Mays declined to run after a ball last week and in so doing (or not doing) stirred up a nice little hornets' nest.
The incident occurred in the Polo Grounds in the fourth inning of an afternoon game between Willie's laboring New York Giants and their great rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Don Hoak, a fast and extremely capable base runner, was on second base. There were two out. Duke Snider, who has not been doing at all well at the plate lately, regained, at least momentarily, his hitting touch and ripped a stinging line single into center field. It was one of those blisters that never seem to rise more than two feet from the ground but which do not touch earth until they are well into the outfield.
HE MISSED IT
Mays, playing his normal deep center field for the powerful Snider, had no chance for a catch, but he came racing in, obviously planning to scoop up the ball on the dead run and throw to the plate in an attempt to catch Hoak. He had a good chance to do it, too. As the ball skipped flatly over the ground to him Willie dipped his left shoulder and dropped his gloved hand low, as he had done so many hundreds of times before.
But he missed the ball. I don't think he even touched it. It sped on toward the Giant clubhouse in distant center field, the crowd gasped (as it always will on a shocking, unexpected error) and Snider and Hoak raced around the bases.
Willie slapped on the brakes, turned and ran after the ball, though it was obvious he'd never get to it in time to catch either Hoak or Snider. Willie apparently thought so, too. He had gone no more than 10 or 12 scrambling steps when he looked back over his shoulder at the activity on the bases and stopped, letting the ball go, ignoring it.
This time the crowd did more than gasp. It muttered angrily. Right Fielder Don Mueller, who had been playing Snider way around to deep right, ran diagonally across the outfield and into the cinders in front of the clubhouse to retrieve the ball while Snider went on home.
For the rest of the game, whenever Willie came to bat he received a strange and unfamiliar greeting, which the New York Daily News reported succinctly next day in a headline: WILLIE GETS RAZZ.
Most of the New York sportswriters exonerated Willie and implied that the razzing was unfair. (Two of them, talking to him at his locker in the corner of the clubhouse after the game, sounded like defense counsel: "The ground was slippery, wasn't it, Willie? You knew you didn't have a chance, is that right, Willie?") Doughty little Joe King of the New York World-Telegram and Sun did otherwise.
King, an unabashed admirer of Mays, was obviously disheartened, discouraged and a little disgusted by this latest evidence of the change in Willie from the boy who was a joy to watch to the star who occasionally seems just a little bored by it all. He wrote the next day: "Willie Mays is now at the point where he can make or break himself as a big star." He mentioned Willie's declining popularity with his teammates, the evidence of showboating, the concern for his own record. He quoted Willie saying, "In this field if you miss it, it's gone. Why bother about it? He missed one yesterday and nobody says anything."
Then King wrote: "The 'he' Mays referred to was Snider, his archrival. On Wednesday night Duke did play a single by Mays badly, and the result was a two-base error. But Snider chased the ball madly. That's what Willie didn't get—the difference in attitude.... Snider knew he couldn't retrieve a miss in center in the Polo Grounds but he didn't give up. Willie did."
King was freely criticized for the column and blamed for building a molehill into a mountain. Even Duke Snider was quoted as saying, "What are they getting on Willie for? They expect you to perform miracles every day. Willie does a lot of great things over there. And what about his explanation? He said he saw Mueller going after the ball and Mueller was closer to it. Isn't that enough?"
No, it isn't enough. Ask Enos Slaughter, who at 39 still races around the bases even on home runs poled into the seats, who runs to first base head down and all-out even on one-bounce taps back to the pitcher. Ask Billy Klaus, who didn't believe it when logic said he would never ever be a major leaguer and who this year is the key player on a team that doesn't believe it either. Ask Nelson Fox or Phil Rizzuto or Eddie Stanky. Baseball is a game that depends for its appeal on the dramatic, the melodramatic, the promise of the impossible. You don't give up; you can't concede.
The ball-chasing thing was only one incident, of course, one little lapse in one unimportant game. But it—and Mays's attitude—shocked those who last year reveled in the sight of Mays—the player of players, the one you've waited all your life to see.
WILLIE THE INCREDIBLE
Last year, you may remember, was the year of the Giants and the year of Willie Mays. It was the year Willie Mays vs. Duke Snider was a major subplot sharing stage space with the principal drama of the first-place struggle between the Giants and the Dodgers. No matter how many sound, logical, mathematical arguments the Snider camp raised to prove that the Duke was better, they were demolished by statements like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, but Willie—he's incredible."
Before one night game in the Polo Grounds last year, with over 50,000 people in the stands, a cluster of photographers waited in deep center field outside the clubhouse. After a few minutes they brought Willie and the Duke out to pose for pictures. Up in the right field grandstand a Giant fan said, as you may suspect, "That Willie Mays, he's unbelievable."
A big, middle-aged, nicely dressed Negro woman, obviously a Brooklyn rooter, turned her head and said in fine indignation, "They're taking pictures of Snider too, you know."
After the photographers had finished, Mays and Snider began to walk in across the outfield to their respective dugouts on either side of the infield. Before he had gone five steps, Mays, carrying a bat, broke into a trot and ran all the way in. Snider continued to walk.
The Giant fan stood up and crowed. "That's the difference," he yelled. "Look at that. That's the difference!" And though the woman who liked Snider turned and looked at him with an expression of disgust, he was right. That was the difference. Last year.
This year, for reasons not entirely clear—whether because of weariness brought on by too much baseball, or indifference brought on by a one-sided pennant race, or disdain brought on by a too appreciative evaluation of his own worth—W. Mays, outfielder, just doesn't do things like that any more.
It's a shame, too, because it wasn't Willie's .345 average, his 42 home runs, his great catches, that made him the most treasured ballplayer in the country. It was the way he played, with that wild, boyish abandon. He never cheated the demanding baseball fan. He gave everything. When he gives up now, even on a hopeless quest, he isn't the same Mays.
I suspect this Mays would never have caught the ball that Vic Wertz hit in the World Series. He'd know he couldn't get to it.
"Weren't they supposed to give us two weeks' notice?"