In 1951 Marilyn Monroe was a starlet, Bobby Orr a baby, Hubert Humphrey a comer—and Willie Mays very nearly the same phenomenon he was last week. In harsh heat and foggy chill, and under the intense scrutiny such a situation demanded, he chased after his 3,000th hit—and seemed to blossom rather than wilt under the pressure. He reached the milestone Saturday at home in San Francisco in the second inning against Montreal, when he stroked an 0-and-2 pitch between short and third. It was hardly an appropriate hit for the occasion, taking everything about Willie Mays into consideration, being neat and solid rather than spectacular and dramatic. But it was No. 3,000—and then he promptly collected No. 3,001, which is really what Willie Mays is all about.
In the stretch run to his latest achievement, marvelous old middle-aged Willie was sprinting all the way. On a six-game tear that carried him to the magic mark, he went 10 for 23 and showed the whole watching world that he could still do it all. In one of those games, Mays ranged past his rightfielder once to make a running catch. He cut off a drive to deep left-center barehanded. He went from first to second on a fly ball in the ninth inning of a game after playing 14 innings (and hitting a ninth-inning homer) the night before. He stole one game with a burst of 11th-inning speed.
Who else is still flashing a verve that dates back to the Korean war? "The only difference between the young Mays and the old Mays," says Montreal Manager Gene Mauch, "is that it's hard for a 39-year-old man to feel up to playing like Willie Mays every day. But when he feels like it—when I see him up at the plate with the lineup card and he has that look, I say, 'oh, bleep.' "
But time, after all, has passed. This year Mays was the oldest man ever elected to a starting All-Star position, and with 20 homers already he stands a good chance of becoming the oldest man ever to hit his age in home runs. ( Babe Ruth hit only 22 at the same stage in life.) It has been 15 years, probably, since Mays last actually said, "Say Hey!" and almost two decades since Leo Durocher listed the five things Mays could do better, all of them put together, than anyone else: run, throw, field, hit and hit with power. Since then, Willie's distinctions have grown more complex. So a new scouting report on the Giants' still-volatile elder statesman seems in order.
RUNNING: Mays has stolen only two bases this year, in two attempts. But Giant Outfielder Frank Johnson says, "I've got pretty good speed, but I'm not so sure I could outrun him if he turned it on. The other night he was running on 3 and 2, and it was a wild pitch, and he turned second and I mean he really ran to third. He ran like a sprinter and he slid hard. A lot of guys wouldn't have done that—especially somebody 39. And the way he runs, his feet flying...we were behind third, he was bearing down on us and we jumped up on the bench and said, 'Did you see that?' He does things that just thrill me to death."
THROWING: Mays has a wide variety of throws to choose from, depending on what direction and what posture he is running in when he releases the ball. He comes underarm, sidearm, three-quarter and then he has a sort of hook shot. Says Rightfielder Bobby Bonds, "I don't think Willie knows how strong his arm still is on the days when it isn't hurting and it's especially loose. The other day he threw a strike to the plate from the wall in Cincinnati."
FIELDING: Both Bonds and Ken Henderson, being 24 and fleet, might be considered more appropriate centerfielders than a man almost old enough to be their father. It might also be suspected that Mays is kept in center lest his pride be hurt. The truth is that he is still master of his position. "He gets to balls that I didn't think anybody could reach—that I don't think I could reach," says Bonds. What Mays has lost in speed he makes up for with consummate judgment of trajectories and fences and an encyclopedic knowledge of where to play all of the league's hitters.
HITTING: Mays has always been death on changeups because his reflexes are too good to be fooled. "He looks jerky up there," says Houston ace Larry Dierker. "He bounces around and doesn't look balanced. So you'd think he couldn't hit an off-speed pitch. You throw him one, though, and he jumps forward but his hands stay back—and then boom. He has such reflexes that he can wait until the last moment before he commits his hands." Traditionally Mays has been almost as deadly against curves, sliders and other off-speed pitches. Fastballs have always given him the most trouble.
"Why don't you throw me some breaking stuff?" Mays grumbled to Houston's George Culver the other evening during batting practice. "You throw it to everybody else. Me, just smoke. I thought sure I'd get a slider from you, George, but no. Smoke."
"Hell," replied Culver, "you hit it 390 feet."