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Only Willie Mays Could Have Made "The Catch!"

Updated on May 23, 2017

It's September 29, 1954 Game 1 of the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians at the Polo Grounds in New York

Willie Mays could chase down any ball hit as long as it stayed in the park.
Willie Mays could chase down any ball hit as long as it stayed in the park.

Posed like the sculpture of Michelangelo's David

Just say The Catch to any fan of baseball and they know exactly what you mean and WHO you mean.
Just say The Catch to any fan of baseball and they know exactly what you mean and WHO you mean.

The Polo Grounds had the largest outfield in pro baseball before or since

The old Polo Grounds of NYC were more suited for that - polo. Not so much for baseball. Fortunately the Giants had the greatest center fielder of all-time
The old Polo Grounds of NYC were more suited for that - polo. Not so much for baseball. Fortunately the Giants had the greatest center fielder of all-time

You have LESS THAN a split second to pick it up in your vision. Your eyes are jiggling around so much it’s hard to focus. The over-the-shoulder catch looks so easy. Perhaps because it appears to be so smooth and natural to just look up and behind you, throw out your arms and the ball will just plop right into your glove. Right? Trust me, if you’ve ever tried it, it’s not that easy. In fact, it's near impossible! So I've never even attempted one.

Well, let’s assume you have calculated the speed of the ball, the distance it traveled, it’s trajectory and factored in the terrain under your feet. How about the wind speed, the angle of the sun, what kind of jump did you get on the ball? All of which you haven’t the time to do in less than a split second. Being a calculus major will not help you catch it either. Being the world’s finest athlete just might. The old Polo Grounds of NYC were more suited for that - polo. Not so much for baseball. Fortunately the Giants had the greatest center fielder of all-time.

It’s September 29th, 1954 in the eighth inning of game one of the World Series. Willie Mays was hitting the outfield grass running at breakneck speed in the cavernous old Polo Grounds of New York city at the crack of Vic Wertz’s bat. Center field is Willie’s domain, his kingdom, his turf. 483 feet from home is deepest center. The farthest of any Major League Baseball park before or since


Announcing live on NBC-TV Jack Brickhouse describes the moment: “There’s a LONG drive way back in center field!...”

One of the last surviving members of the Negro Leagues, Willie's the last player alive from the 1951 NL playoff game

Everybody wants to be around him and have him on your team for so many reasons!
Everybody wants to be around him and have him on your team for so many reasons!

No one had ever coined the phrase, “A Five Point Player.” No one had been like Willie Mays is why. He hit, hit with power, had speed, an outstanding "glove," and oh what an arm! He did all these skills at near super-human levels. He even had the perfect positive attitude for a grown man to play this little boy’s game.

He had an uncanny knack for remembering little nuances and not given enough credit for being very cerebral in his approach. He had non-stop enthusiasm, a genuine love of the game and was a great team player. No one smiles more than the “Say Hey Kid,” nicknamed so because that’s what he says to people he knows in that squeaky voice of his. Just so happened it rhymes with his name. "Say Hey" Willie Mays! See? Perfect all around.

And now, ladies and gentlemen THE CATCH.

Any baseball fan knows what you mean when you say those two words. The play itself even has it's own Wikipedia page. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Catch_(baseball)

The Indians' brawny lefty power hitter is at the plate, Vic Wertz. Fleet-footed Larry Doby is on second, big Al Rosen is on first and 5’ 8” 165 lb southpaw Don Liddle is brought in from the bullpen just to pitch to Wertz.

It's called “the money pitch” when a pitcher pretty much HAS TO throw a strike or he’s going to be one ball away from walking the batter. Wertz is aware of this and is sitting on a fastball with the count 2 balls and 1 strike. He gets one and clobbers it directly over center fielder Mays’ head who had him played just slightly to pull towards right field.

In any other park ever played in Major League Baseball history this is a long home run. But the Polo Grounds’ straight center is 483 feet and about 250 feet are behind Willie as he takes off running immediately straight away from home plate.

When you’re that far away, you don’t hear the exact instant when the bat hits the ball. He’s about 230 feet away to begin. It takes a long second for the sound to reach your ears as the ball cracks off the bat. So you have to instantly judge the flight of the ball in a split second by how it leaves the bat and how hard a swing the batter takes.

In one motion: catch, turn, throw, twirl - The Throw!

In sequence. The Catch. But don't forget The Throw!
In sequence. The Catch. But don't forget The Throw!

Incredibly, Wertz hit the ball so high and so far it takes a full five seconds from bat to Willie’s mitt which, incidentally, is under a hermetically sealed glass case in the Hall of Fame. Like it’s the Hope Diamond of all the displays in there and you know what? As far as Major League Baseball is concerned it is.

I know how difficult it is to catch a ball looking straight up and slightly back. So I never even attempted it in a game situation. Known for wild, circus catches on all the teams I had ever played on, if presented with no other choice, I’d wait until the last split second then twist my body so I could see it better and stab my mitt at the ball backhanded as it whistles past me in a perfectly timed downward slapping motion.

If he misses it, nearly any ball player with average speed will at least get a triple. One crazy carom of the ball and it's an inside-the-park home easily. Willie knows this but is betting on his confidence and his ability to catch anything hit inside the park.

All you see on film is his jersey number 24 turned directly towards you from the infield view. His cream white Giants uniform with the coal black numbers outlined in orange a beautiful contrast to the forest green “batter’s eye” off the center field backdrop of the Polo Grounds is what the eyewitness at the park sees.

But stark black and white footage for the rest of us shows our hero framed as a small figure before the monstrously tall fence. Teammates said if Willie pats his mitt before catching anything, that means he knows he'll be able to catch it. He gives it a pat. Then suddenly his mitt pops up above his head and like magic the ball disappears into the pocket! Willie handles the baseball as though it were made of glass.

“...WAAAY back, back... it is... CAU... {drowned out by the huge roar of the crowd. Then barely audible is heard}... MAYS!!” {crowd keeps cheering loudly... }

Willie once said this wasn't his greatest catch.

A rare opposite angle. Willie Mays is about to become immortal in baseball history.
A rare opposite angle. Willie Mays is about to become immortal in baseball history.

HE CAUGHT IT! The crowd of 34,320 explodes in cheers. So loud, in fact, CBS-TV announcer Jack Brickhouse can’t be heard on his microphone announcing live on TV. But by the hometown Giants crowd roar you can tell what had happened. Willie Mays has done something nearly impossible and the audience reacts with deliriously loud cheering. When Buck's voice is audible through the din and can be heard, he’s yelling from excitement. He is witness and our storyteller to the greatest defensive play ever in baseball.

But now what? Willie’s at least 450 feet from home plate. Two more steps and he would have crashed head on into the six foot high concrete wall with the twenty five foot high wooden backdrop on top. He has to stop on a dime and keep the runners from tagging up two bases by somehow getting the ball back in to an infielder. The catch, turn and throw are all done in one movement, one motion, smooth and twisting like a barber shop's pole. An impossible task, you say? Ha! "Say Hey" Willie Mays we say!

The Hope Diamond of MLB

His mitt worn that day is displayed under glass in the Baseball Hall Of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
His mitt worn that day is displayed under glass in the Baseball Hall Of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

THE THROW. Not too many people talk about his incredible relay throw back to the infield. He twists violently with his right arm flung backwards then it slingshots forward in a blur launching the ball towards the infield. His hat twirls off like the corkscrew top of a bottle opening up and his muscular body spins around like the red, white and blue stripes on a barber shop pole landing on his knees and palms in a violent 360 degree finish. All the while he's keeping watch on the developing play.

Now, here is the only break Willie got because Doby has to scramble back to second base and tag up. Rosen just lumbers back to first. Doby barely makes it to third, stops, turns to look back in shock because Willie (who later admitted he threw blindly) has spun around like a twisting tornado throwing a perfect relay. A nearly straight "clothesline" almost 300 feet! The ball arrives to shortstop George Strickland who’s just a few feet from the infield dirt!

Doby sees this rounding third and has to put on the brakes to hold up. Anyone else throwing into the infield the runner could have jogged home tagging two bases along the way. But Doby is well aware of this guy's arm and has to check to see if the throw back has been dropped.

“The runner on second, Doby, is able to tag and go to third. WILLIE MAYS... just brought this crowd to it’s feet with a catch... which must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people!”

Hall Of Fame play-by-play man Jack Brickhouse

Listen to announcer Jack Brickhouse on NBC-TV describe the play live and watch how Willie Mays made “The Catch!”

After The Catch

Manager Leo Durocher immediately replaced Liddle, who greets his relief pitcher, Marv Grissom with a smirk by saying, “Well, I got MY man.”

Grissom strikes out the next two batters preserving the tie game. The Giants win it in the 10th on a three-run homer by pinch hitter Dusty Rhodes and eventually go on to win the 1954 World Series in four straight wins. No doubt sparked by Willie's catch.

After the game, Willie was seen playing stick ball in the street with the kids of his neighborhood in New York City. Do you think he was picked first by the team captain? I’d pick Willie Mays first above ANYONE else who ever played the game.


Epilogue

Better let him know how much you appreciate him. Probably the greatest baseball player ever to play the game. He's only on this planet for a short time longer. Then he'll go back to that universe that he must have came from. Born May 6th, 1931 in Westfield, Mobile, Alabama. He's 86 at the time of this writing.

The great Dodger announcer, Vin Scully recently revealed who his favorite player was - and it was Willie Mays. He had the chance to tell him. Willie never knew. How do you like that! A Dodger's favorite player was a rival Giant. > https://youtu.be/Nmie25ivv6o


Written by Dan W. Miller aka "The Vanilla Godzilla" and sometimes in my dreams I'm Willie Mays!

The Catch beautifully re-enacted with actual footage by Big Studios for Major League Baseball

Later that same day... Just couldn't get enough of the game that loved him back!

Is there anyone in MLB history that could do it all better than "The Say Hey Kid?" I mean ALL FIVE POINTS - hit, hit with power, field, run, throw?

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