Bradley’s Buzz: We saw Willie Mays as the greatest, and maybe he was

If you were alive in 1965, feel free to skip this missive. If you weren’t, you might not grasp why Willie Mays was such a big deal, and even putting it that way doesn’t give the great man his full due. In his prime – and his prime lasted for what seemed forever – he was the best all-around player baseball had ever seen.

Was, and maybe still is.

He hit the majors in 1951. Summoned in May from the Double-A Minneapolis Millers – he was hitting .477 – he went 1-for-25 as a New York Giant, the “1″ being a home run off Warren Spahn. Legend holds that a weeping Mays, who’d just turned 20, pleaded to be sent back down. Legend holds that manager Leo Durocher said, “You’re my center fielder.”

Mays would become the National League rookie of the year. His Giants surged from 13 games behind to force a three-game playoff with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was on deck when Bobby Thomson turned on Ralph Branca’s 0-1 fastball. Cue Russ Hodges: “There’s a long drive – it’s going to be, I believe – THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!” (Repeat three times.)

Because of military service – the Korean War was ongoing – Mays played only 34 games in 1952 and missed the entire ‘53 season. At 23, he was the NL’s MVP in 1954. He hit 41 homers and led the majors in batting average. He was not on deck for the most famous moment of that season. He was playing center field in the Polo Grounds.

World Series, Game 1, eighth inning, score tied, nobody out, Cleveland runners on first and second. Vic Wertz hit a ball just to the right of center, dead center at the Polo Grounds being 483 feet (!!!) from home plate. Mays gave chase.

You know what happens because, even if you were born yesterday, this is one baseball clip we’ve all seen. As great as the catch was – latter-day science tells us Mays was 421 feet from the plate when he gloved the ball – some eyewitnesses believe what happened next was even greater. (Yes, greater than the greatest catch in MLB annals.)

Running flat-out, Mays took two steps and stopped. But he didn’t just stop. He whirled and threw the ball back to the infield, which in the Polo Grounds was a cab ride away. Believing Wertz’s blast to have been beyond mortal reach, the runner on second – Larry Doby, nine times an All-Star – took off and had to return to retouch before moving to third. The runner on first stayed put. Neither would score.

In 1954, the phrase “five-tool player” hadn’t been coined. Then again, there was no need. Saying “Willie Mays” made the point. Mays’ numbers – 41 home runs while batting .345 – checked two boxes. The Wertz run/catch/throw took care of the other three.

For the rest of the ‘50s and throughout the ‘60s, baseball had several MVP-level outfielders who’d become first-ballot Hall of Famers – Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski. At the time, Mays was to position players as Sandy Koufax became to pitchers – first among equals, the gold standard, the name that inspired not just respect but awe.

Oh, and Koufax’s prime lasted six seasons. Mays was MVP in 1954 – and in 1965.

We cannot mention Mays without Aaron. They were born in Alabama three years apart. Both were great on arrival. Both stayed great. Aaron played in 25 All-Star games, Mays 24. Aaron hit 30-plus homers in 15 seasons; Mays topped 30 in 11. Mays topped 50 twice; Aaron never did. Aaron led the NL in RBIs four times; Mays never did. As we know, Aaron wound up with more homers, more hits, more RBIs.

It wasn’t until the ‘70s, though, that the two were seen, at least by the masses, as peers. Mays was the dynamo, Aaron the metronome. Aaron was the pro’s pro, whereas Mays’ appeal was obvious to us amateurs. (He ran so fast he was forever losing his cap.) He played in New York and San Francisco; Aaron spent his career in flyover country, as the coastal snobs would have it.

This much I know: If you were a certain age at a certain time, there was one name on the tip of your tongue. It was junior high. We chose up sides. Our best player stationed himself in center field. (I played second base.) A popup ensued. Our CF dashed in and, yelling “Willie Mays!”, set his hands for a basket catch.

And, not being Willie Mays, dropped the ball.

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