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'The Onliest Way I Know'
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."
Getting Willie 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."