Willie Mays declined to run after a ball last week and in so doing (or not doing) stirred up a nice little hornets' nest.
The incident occurred in the Polo Grounds in the fourth inning of an afternoon game between Willie's laboring New York Giants and their great rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Don Hoak, a fast and extremely capable base runner, was on second base. There were two out. Duke Snider, who has not been doing at all well at the plate lately, regained, at least momentarily, his hitting touch and ripped a stinging line single into center field. It was one of those blisters that never seem to rise more than two feet from the ground but which do not touch earth until they are well into the outfield.
HE MISSED IT
Mays, playing his normal deep center field for the powerful Snider, had no chance for a catch, but he came racing in, obviously planning to scoop up the ball on the dead run and throw to the plate in an attempt to catch Hoak. He had a good chance to do it, too. As the ball skipped flatly over the ground to him Willie dipped his left shoulder and dropped his gloved hand low, as he had done so many hundreds of times before.
But he missed the ball. I don't think he even touched it. It sped on toward the Giant clubhouse in distant center field, the crowd gasped (as it always will on a shocking, unexpected error) and Snider and Hoak raced around the bases.
Willie slapped on the brakes, turned and ran after the ball, though it was obvious he'd never get to it in time to catch either Hoak or Snider. Willie apparently thought so, too. He had gone no more than 10 or 12 scrambling steps when he looked back over his shoulder at the activity on the bases and stopped, letting the ball go, ignoring it.
This time the crowd did more than gasp. It muttered angrily. Right Fielder Don Mueller, who had been playing Snider way around to deep right, ran diagonally across the outfield and into the cinders in front of the clubhouse to retrieve the ball while Snider went on home.
For the rest of the game, whenever Willie came to bat he received a strange and unfamiliar greeting, which the New York Daily News reported succinctly next day in a headline: WILLIE GETS RAZZ.
Most of the New York sportswriters exonerated Willie and implied that the razzing was unfair. (Two of them, talking to him at his locker in the corner of the clubhouse after the game, sounded like defense counsel: "The ground was slippery, wasn't it, Willie? You knew you didn't have a chance, is that right, Willie?") Doughty little Joe King of the New York World-Telegram and Sun did otherwise.
King, an unabashed admirer of Mays, was obviously disheartened, discouraged and a little disgusted by this latest evidence of the change in Willie from the boy who was a joy to watch to the star who occasionally seems just a little bored by it all. He wrote the next day: " Willie Mays is now at the point where he can make or break himself as a big star." He mentioned Willie's declining popularity with his teammates, the evidence of showboating, the concern for his own record. He quoted Willie saying, "In this field if you miss it, it's gone. Why bother about it? He missed one yesterday and nobody says anything."