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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Number 24: the life and legend of Willie Mays

Posted By on Tue, Jun 15, 2010 at 6:45 PM

"Into the box steps The Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams, " intoned the commentator as the Warner-Pathe newsreel flickered on the movie theater screen, "The Red Sox mighty slugger again wins the American league batting title with a mighty blast into the right-center field stands."

I watched that smooth swing and the blast with awe and Ted Williams became my first boyhood hero. Hero worship that entailed watching the newspapers for the box scores and tracking Williams' hits, homers, RBIs, the works.

It also meant putting a 32-ounce Louisville Slugger Ted Williams model bat on my Christmas wish list. I got it, a wood beauty that became a mighty weapon in countless sandlot baseball games.

Slugging it hard with the Ted Williams bat made me think that baseball was going to be my career when I grew up. So I started looking seriously at other ballplayers beside Williams for added inspiration.

That's when I discovered Stan Musial. He too hit left handed like Williams, but had a more coiled stance at the plate with the bat held high. And what a nickname: "The Man". He indeed became my man.

All was good hero-wise until the 1951 when all the kids could talk about was this new phenomenon named Willie Mays. Mays played the game like us-with abandon. He wasn't some adult playing professional baseball. Naw, he was a kid at heart, the "Say Hey Kid". Mays was our guy.

Talking about kids and Mays in his new book, Willie Mays... the life, the legend, James S Hirsch tells of NPR host Bill Littlefield growing up in New Jersey idolizing Mays.

"All Bill knew or cared about was his hero's special greatness on the field. It transcended race, team loyalty, even baseball itself. He later commented, 'His achievement beyond excellence was that he seemed to perform with such joy that he conveyed the impression that he was meant to do what he was doing. When you were watching him, you were watching the confluence of talent, concentration and enthusiasm that not only allowed the suspension of belief - because who could believe that anybody could do some of the things Willie Mays did?-but that also encouraged the mad notion that a world where such grace was possible must be a pretty terrific place."

And so it was a terrific place with my gang of nascent baseballers. We loved Mays and how as a rookie he helped the '51 Giants come from eight games down at the All-Star break to win forty of their last fifty games and tie the Dodgers for the National League pennant.

The came the famous three game playoff and Bobby Thompson's "shot heard round the world" homerun to win game three and send the Giants into the World Series.

From that season on the May legend grew and by the time he made "The Catch" in the '54 series against the Cleveland Indians, invented the "basket catch" and stole bases like a madmen, he became my all-time favorite player.

Now comes Hirsch's book. The first ever authorized by Mays, it's a wonderful read if you love the game in general and Mays in particular.

As much as the book is about Mays transcendent personality and zest for baseball, it's very telling in its description of the racism that faced the first African-American players to enter the big leagues.

The great Jackie Robinson tackled the racism head on, belligerently. Mays took another tack as former President Clinton noted when he said: "he had that personality that drew people to him." And Hisrch notes, that in saying this Clinton suggests that Mays did something important for social change every time he took the field.

"When you see someone doing something you admire, "Clinton continued, "the image of that makes a mockery of all forms of bigotry."

Number 24, Still the best player ever and his "catch" in 54 perhaps the greatest play ever.

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