Remembering a Play: Willie Mays and the World Series Basket Catch

Sports Remembering a Play
Remembering a Play: Willie Mays and the World Series Basket Catch

Baseball legend Willie Mays passed away this week at the age of 93, as the world said goodbye to one of the 20th century’s greatest and most important athletes. There have been plenty of terrific obituaries written about the legendary life of the “Say Hey Kid,” and everyone involved in that era of baseball seems to have a Willie Mays story speaking to his supernatural baseball instincts and kind heart.

So in honor of one of the five greatest baseball players of all time, we’ll break a rule I want to mostly stick to in Remembering a Play: whoever writes them has to of been alive for the play and been able to remember some aspect around it. We will occasionally reach back into the past further than we can remember, but it feels kind of pointless for a guy born in 1986 to wax poetic about stuff that he saw on YouTube from the 1950s.

But even without Willie Mays’ passing, this play is worth violating this basic rule over, because it is one of the foundational plays of the sport of baseball. It’s such an indelible play it is simply just called “the catch.” It is a shorthand for greatness, and is used as a teaching aid by coaches like me to showcase how to make perhaps the most difficult snag in the sport.

Not only did Willie Mays make the basket catch famous, but he saved a World Series game while doing so. In the 8th inning of Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, Vic Wertz stepped up to the plate with and runners on first and second in a tie ballgame, and hit the most famous out in baseball history.

The New York Giants would hit a walk-off home run two innings later to win the game en route to a 4-0 World Series sweep over Cleveland. The thing that makes this catch so extra bonkers is that if Willie had tried to do that in any ballpark other than the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan, he would have had to crawl over several rows of bleachers. Most center fields fences in baseball are around four hundred to four hundred and twenty feet away from home plate. The Polo Grounds’ center field was a whopping 483 feet away from home plate, and only five players had ever hit a ball to the center field bleachers. Willie Mays had to run an extra sixty feet to catch a ball he had no business catching.

Unless you ask Willie, who often downplayed the legend he created.

“Everybody said ‘well it was a hard catch.’ Nah I said it was an easy catch.”

Sure, if you were Willie Mays, sprinting ten miles and catching a line drive just as it comes into view over your shoulder is easy, but for normal humans, this play is borderline impossible. I played baseball for fifteen years and have coached for ten years and I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen someone cleanly make an over-the-shoulder basket catch like that while in a dead sprint. Legend does not even begin to describe Mays, and this really cool infographic really helps drive home what a generational player he was.

That Willie Mays passed away the week MLB is doing its tribute to the Negro Leagues at Rickwood Field feels cosmic. He gave the following statement to Dusty Baker the day before he passed to share with the city of Birmingham:

“I wish I could be here with you all today. This is where I’m from. I had my first pro hit here at Rickwood as a Baron in 1948. And now this year 76 years later, it finally got counted in the record books. Some things take time, but I always think better late than never. Time changes things. Time heals wounds, and that is a good thing. I had some of the best times of my life and Birmingham so I want you to have this clock to remember all the other players who were lucky enough to play here at Rickwood Field in Birmingham. Remember, time is on your side.”

What Mays is referencing when he says time heals all wounds is the racist abuse black players suffered under. Juneteenth is becoming the one day of the year America thinks about reckoning with its racist past and present, and Willie Mays and the experiences of all other black baseball players are especially heightened this week. This story from Reggie Jackson about his time at Rickwood Field is a must-watch, as it provides some somber context to what Mays alluded to in his cheery note.

Baseball is hard enough to succeed at without having to fear for your life. The incredible talent displayed by players like Reggie Jackson and Willie Mays must be viewed against the backdrop of the broader struggle for equality for black Americans. Willie Mays was the best baseball player alive for most of his days, and by all accounts, he was an even better human. To perform in life and on the field the way he did knowing the kind of racism he dealt with is remarkable, and it takes a truly special human being to rise above both his peers and enemies while maintaining a level of grace and humanity few superstar athletes have ever matched. The world lost an absolute titan this week. There will never be another Willie Mays.

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