August 11, 2002


There have been only two geniuses in the world, Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.
-Tallulah Bankhead

Forget the Numbers, There's Only One Mays (William Gildea, August 11, 2002, NY Times)
Mays was one of the sluggers, but he stood apart from them as well. Even Joe DiMaggio, who was not famous for giving pats on the back, said that Mays was as close to perfection as could be reached in a ball player.

Mays led the National League in slugging percentage five times, but do you always think of him first with a bat in his hand? It would be fitting if you do, since a poll of managers in the 1960s rated him by far the game's best clutch hitter. But he always was seen in different ways. Roger Angell, for one, was fascinated by his base running, and wrote of him rounding a base and "sinking into full speed" like a "skier in midturn down some steep pitch of fast powder. Nobody like him."

In the field or at the plate or on the bases, Mays offered the beauty of limitless possibility. He played with what Einstein and Branch Rickey called an "ebullience." He laughed. Not remembering everyone's name, he called to others, "Say hey!" As a young player, he played stickball with kids outside his rooming house in Harlem after he had come home from a game at the Polo Grounds, as if he couldn't get enough baseball.

By the time I was old enough to follow baseball, in 1969, Willie Mays was on the backside of his great career--he'd have been 38 by then--and the Giants only came to town a couple times a year anyway, so we never got to see him much. By the time, a few years later, that he came to the Mets, he was an ineffably sad sight. You could almost see his brain send commands to his body but the body could no longer respond. So the Willie Mays I choose to recall is the one from the writings of Willie's Time (Charles Einstein), Roger Angell, and Red Smith and the one we all know from this indelible image. Then a few years ago ESPN dug up the old Homerun Derby series and showed it. It was great to see guys like Mays, Aaron, and Mantle when they were in their prime. With Mays you really got to see what sportswriters were talking about, as he seemed like a bundle of barely contained energy, ready at any time to do something amazing.
Posted by Orrin Judd at August 11, 2002 8:50 AM
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