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"Oh, Mister Leo," Willie said. "I can't do you any good. I can't get a hit. I can't win you any ball games. And I know you're gonna send me back to Minneapolis."
"Look, Willie," Leo said, "this ball game's over. Tomorrow's another day. And don't you worry about me sending you back to Minneapolis. You're the best center fielder—you're the best ballplayer—I've ever seen. Now you go home and get a good night's sleep."
That was the turning point for Willie. The next day, against the Pirates, he lined a single to center his first time up and followed that later with a triple that brought in two runs. The Giants beat the Pirates 14-3, and Willie went on to finish the season with 20 home runs, a batting average of .274 and the title of Rookie of the Year. Furthermore, he sparked the rejuvenated Giants to their first pennant since 1937.
When Willie's draft call came in May 1952 he applied for deferment on grounds that he was the principal support of his mother and nine half-brothers and sisters. It was refused. The Army also ignored the fact that he flunked his pre-induction aptitude test. He spent most of his 21 months in the Army at Fort Eustis, Virginia, attached to the transportation branch. But Willie admits, not unhappily, that his chief contribution to the military was made by playing in 180 or so ball games.
The Giants had made all sorts of joyous preparations for Willie's return when he emerged from the Army in 1954. They even assigned Scout Frank Forbes to protect him from the perils of the big city. Forbes found Willie a room in a quiet home in Harlem. Once, when a damsel of doubtful reputation sidled up to Willie in a Harlem soda fountain, Forbes knocked a double chocolate ice cream soda into her lap to get rid of her. But such tactics, as it turned out, were unnecessary. Although Willie has since developed a taste for luxury, he was never one for living it up in the less respectable ways that attract some ballplayers. His idea of a jag was to go to two movies, one right after the other, and most of the time he was content to stay at home and curl up with a half dozen comic books. He still doesn't smoke, and the only occasion, on record, when he took a drink was in 1951 after the Giants won the pennant. He drank a glass of champagne and was violently sick.
In 1956 Willie married Marghuerite Wendelle Kenny Chapman, a strikingly handsome and chic woman two years his senior. Mrs. Mays has an 11-year-old daughter by one of her two previous marriages. When Willie went into a short-lived batting slump last year and entered a New York hospital for a rest and checkup, there were persistent reports that domestic difficulties were to blame for his trouble. Both Willie and his wife have denied these reports emphatically. Recently they adopted a baby boy, who has been named Michael. The Mayses seldom entertain and rarely go out in the evenings. "Willie and I are not talkative people," Mrs. Mays once explained. "We like to be by ourselves and mostly we stay at home. We like a good dinner, television or playing cards. Occasionally we go to a movie."
Willie and his wife rent a furnished house in Phoenix during spring training. There was a brief flurry of headlines in the fall of 1957 when they bought a $37,500 home in a fashionable section of San Francisco. A few neighbors tried to stop the sale by raising the color bar, but the sale was completed without a hitch after the mayor of San Francisco, dozens of civic and social organizations and thousands of ordinary citizens sprang to Willie's aid.
Nobody who has seen Willie in action needs to look at his impressive record to know that he is a great ballplayer. The only question before the house is, just how great is he? Willie's good pal and mentor, Durocher, has never altered his belief that Mays is the greatest player alive. "I have never seen a ballplayer with his all-round ability, his instinctive baseball genius," he claims. "There are only five things you can do to be great in baseball: hit, hit with power, run, field and throw—and the minute I laid eyes on Willie, I knew he could do them all. There is no player living today who can do all the things Willie can."
Dapper Bill Rigney, who was one of Willie's teammates in 1951, has long since confessed that he didn't realize Willie's full worth until he became his manager. "I thought I knew how good he was," Rigney said, "but I realize now I knew nothing. This is like finding the Koh-i-noor diamond all over again." Not long ago, as he stood behind the batting cage watching Willie joyously murder every ball that came within reach, Rigney blissfully went on record with the statement: "All I can say is that he is the greatest player I have ever seen. Bar none. When he's around it makes me feel good just to walk into the locker room and start suiting up. I know then I have a chance."
Veteran Giant Scout Long Tom Sheehan makes the historical point clear. "I've seen most of the great players, and there was not a one of them that could match Willie for all-round performance. Take them all, I don't care—Speaker, Cobb, Gehrig, Ruth, Traynor, Meusel. Then take DiMag, Williams, Musial, Mantle—or whoever else you can name. Sure they are good. Some of them are great. Some of them can hit and field. Some of them can run and throw. But Willie can do just about what they can in their special department and, what's more, he's the only one of them who can do everything a ballplayer has to do."