'The Onliest Way
It may seem
incredible to those of us who cherish the sweet bloom of youth—and we are
many—but the time has come to face the fact that Willie Mays is a grown-up man.
The years have flowed along, the hits and runs and putouts have inscribed
themselves into the record books, and in a month the Say, Hey Kid will be 28
years old. Not counting the time he did a bit of soldiering for Uncle Sam,
Willie has now been doing his stuff for the Giants for about six seasons. He
has been playing pro ball for 12 years; he has married and has a family and, as
the pictures on the preceding pages show, he has established a way of life for
himself far removed from his native Birmingham and the Harlem flat where he
started his big league career. In brief, it's time to take another look at
Willie Mays, hub and mainstay of the Giants' baseball team.
For some reason
probably connected with man's reluctance to let go of his ebullient years, few
have paused to do this. Nearly everybody persists in regarding Willie as the
same chortling, happy-go-lucky, amusingly naive youngster who brought a new
light to the Polo Grounds back in 1951. Actually, the mature Willie doesn't
believe he was ever quite that damp behind the ears. He feels that a lot of the
stories about him were moonshine. In the main they were amusing, colorful and
highly flattering moonshine, and Willie is now wise enough and modest enough to
realize they helped make him rich and famous, so he isn't resentful. "It
does seem, though," he said recently, "that nobody ever got me quite
straight is not a particularly easy chore. On the field and to his public, he
is as much as ever the Say, Hey Kid—a rollicking chatterbox—but the undertones
are different. Off the field, when he is unarmed with either a bat or glove, he
is solemn and somewhat shy. He is attentive and polite, and when a question is
put to him he usually gives a straightforward and guileless answer. But Willie
volunteers about as much information as a brass Buddha.
His fellow Giants
certainly have no delusions about Willie. Nowadays he seldom indulges in the
frisky antics which caused some impressionable scribes to imagine that he was
one of the greatest natural zanies to prance on the scene since Uncle Wilbert
Robinson ran a nuthouse in Brooklyn. Willie rarely clowns in a pepper game. He
loftily eschews gleeful locker-room pranks. It's unusual for him to provoke a
spirited and jeering exchange with one of his benchmates. Nor, except for a few
oldtimers, notably big Hank Sauer, does anybody rag Willie. But there is no
question about Willie's still being the sparkplug of the Giants. He hustles as
energetically as any of his teammates and bustles more thrillingly than most of
them put together. The big difference is that Willie is now the star instead of
a fondly regarded mascot. The Giants know it and Willie knows it.
Willie may be
short on words but he is a genius at another form of communication. When he
scampers onto a ball field and begins using the heroic muscles that make him
look as if he were designed by Michelangelo or Al Capp, everybody gets the
message. H.R.H. the Duke of Windsor, for example, can hardly be called an
excitable type. Yet as he sat in the hot Arizona sun not so long ago, watching
an exhibition game between the Indians and the Giants, the Duke, a man who even
held onto his royal aplomb throughout the historic rhubarb over his marriage,
suddenly swallowed hard, sat bolt upright, chewed fiercely on his pipestem and
in general showed the agitation peculiar to an oldtime Coogan's Bluff slob.
What cracked the royal demeanor was, of course, the familiar spectacle of
Willie poling a ball out of the park and apparently into orbit.
Jolting a royal
duke with the special brand of baseball excitement he generates pleases Willie,
but not excessively. He is a democratic fellow, and, barring catastrophe,
probably will tamper with the blood pressure of thousands of ordinary men and
women and even innocent children at least once in each of the games he plays
this year. He will do it, as everybody knows, by pulling off what can loosely
be described as The Play—that one magical performance which lingers in the
memory and demands to he recalled at length and with gestures long after more
mundane details of the game have been forgotten. But Willie will do it, as
always, with a difference.
For one thing,
when Willie is on the field nobody can be quite sure when The Play will come.
Unlike most diamond heroes, past or present, Willie is not confined to one
predictable and carefully nurtured talent. The Play might come when he
transforms his 185 pounds and 5 feet 11 inches into a spike-tipped projectile
and steals second. He might pull it off by swinging his 34-ounce, 35-inch bat
like a buggy whip and driving a ball past the point of no return. Chances are
always excellent that he will do it by preposterously fielding a ball which by
rights shouldn't have been caught. Again he might do it by skidding to an
off-balance halt deep in center field and firing a ball unerringly to home
plate. Willie has done all of these things spectacularly. He has done them too
often to recount.
"I always try
to do something new," is the way Willie, somewhat gropingly, tries to
explain it. "I don't try to do what the other fellow does. People come to
ball games to see fellows do something different."
Now and then
attempts have been made to leave the impression that the mature Willie's
teammates consider him a showboat. To a man they deny it. The truth is, just as
they know he is not a comedian, they know that nobody plays ball as well as
Willie does just on instinct alone. They are aware how hard Willie works, not
merely to improve his ballplaying, but to add an extra dash of showmanship to
all his actions. One of the things Willie thinks nobody has ever got quite
straight is that he is not simply a natural-born ballplayer. "I pick up
something that looks different and I practice up on it," Willie explains.
"Like the basket catch I use. It took me about a year, while I was in the
Army, to learn to do it well."