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At 78, Willie Mays decides to share his story

As the forthcoming book makes clear, the legend's life, in baseball and out, was dotted with difficulties. Like other blacks, he was a target of racism. He had persistent money woes, and especially in the second half of his career, persistent physical ones.
/ Source: The New York Times

On the night of April 29, 1961, at dinner in Milwaukee, Willie Mays ate some bad barbecue. He was up all night, sick to his stomach, and so wobbly the next afternoon he told Alvin Dark, the manager of the San Francisco Giants, to erase his name from the lineup. Lew Burdette was scheduled to pitch for the Braves.

“I didn’t know if I could even swing,” Mays said recently on a brief trip to New York. “But during batting practice, a kid named Joey Amalfitano, he come up to me and says, ‘Try this bat.’ And everything I hit was going out of the ballpark. So I said, ‘O.K., I can play.’ ”

Mays hit four home runs that day — “Two off Burdette, one off Seth Morehead, and one off a kid named Don McMahon,” he said — and he drove in eight runs, maybe the finest day at the plate in a career that has had few, if any, equals.

The story of Mays’s bellyache and Amalfitano’s lucky bat is one of many juicy baseball tales in ”Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend” by James S. Hirsch, to be published in February by Scribner. An exhaustive accounting of Mays’s life, it is the first time Mays has cooperated with a biographer, and its imminent appearance has sent Mays on the promotional trail, an occasion for him to reminisce about his exploits and buff them. That day in Milwaukee, he said, he was robbed by Hank Aaron, who was not even playing his regular position.

“I should’ve had five,” Mays said. “Aaron caught one ball that was going over the center-field fence.”

Now 78, Mays is slightly stooped, and a somewhat rounder version of the streamlined, muscular athlete who hit 660 home runs in 22 major league seasons, thrilled millions with his fleet daring on the bases and acrobatics in center field and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979. He is 37 years beyond his playing career, which, after two decades with the Giants in New York and San Francisco, ended where it began; he played his final season and a half with the Mets. Although most fans recall his performance in those years as unhappily feeble, his final hit, a 12th-inning single up the middle against the Oakland Athletics in the 1973 World Series, put the Mets ahead in a game they hung on to win.

Mays wears hearing aids. He has had trouble with his eyes lately, and his voice is a little growly, without the high-pitched glee that reporters described during the early years of his career, when he was known and beloved as the Say Hey Kid.

Still, when he lights on a pleasing baseball memory, his eyes widen, his laugh becomes a whinny and years melt from his face. It is telling that just as the interview began, he reached for a Giants cap and put it on.

Mays said he decided, at last, to cooperate with a biographer because so many people had reminded him of things they had done together or things he had done for them that he thought it worthwhile to let someone collect those stories. And Hirsch, an author of four previous books, including “Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter,” chronicled Mays’s myriad acts of generosity, many of them impulsive, most of them aimed at children.

Fred R. Conrad

But as the book also makes clear, Mays’s life, in baseball and out, was dotted with difficulties. Like other blacks, he was a target of racism. He had persistent money woes, and especially in the second half of his career, persistent physical ones; loath to leave the lineup, he suffered from periodic exhaustion.

His first marriage ended in a public divorce — “I never had what you call a private life,” he said — and his second wife, Mae, learned in 1997, at age 59, that she had Alzheimer’s disease. For years, he was subject to troubling accusations, especially from Jackie Robinson, that as a prominent black man, Mays did not do enough for the cause of civil rights.

Famously unanalytical, unwilling to dwell on the unpleasant and a steadfast sidestepper of controversy, Mays remains wary of potentially loaded questions. On the issue of steroid use by ballplayers in general and his godson Barry Bonds, in particular, he professes ignorance.

“I keep telling people, I don’t even know what that stuff is,” he said. “I played 22 years in baseball and I never tried to analyze things I don’t know about. I’m not a doctor.”

Asked what it was like to be a black ballplayer in the 1950s, he plucked out a sunny memory of those days and spun it to suggest that although segregation was still in force in many places, it was actually a boon to him and the other black players.

“Even though we didn’t stay with the team, there wasn’t no fuss raised,” Mays said. “In Chicago, we had to stay at a hotel on the South Side, but we didn’t have a curfew. We got double meal money. The other guys stayed at a hotel in the north, and it wasn’t far from the ballpark, so they had a bus take them. We had a car — myself, Monte Irvin, Ruben Gomez and a kid named Ray Noble.” (Noble, a Cuban-born catcher who played for the Giants from 1951 to ’53, was actually 12 years older than Mays.)

“We’d go to the hotel, and they didn’t charge us,” he said. “They’d want us to go to the bar, and then all the people at the hotel would migrate to the bar, and I didn’t drink, but they gave me Cokes and things. It was no problem. I had a good time, man, a good time.”

In his early years, Mays was looked after — some said coddled — by Manager Leo Durocher, whose celebrated truculence with opponents and umpires was matched by his paternal attitude toward his star center fielder. Mays called him Mr. Leo back then; today, he acknowledges Durocher, who died in 1991, as a father figure.

“He always made sure I knew what suit to buy and how to dress,” Mays said. “He’d never holler at me. If he had something to say, he’d talk soft. When we were in California, I’d stay at his house, and when we went on the road, his kid was my roommate. Chris Durocher, he was about 7. We’d go on the road, and Leo would say, ‘You got him,’ so for two weeks, I can’t go nowhere, can’t do nothing. I think that was Leo’s way of looking after me.”

Mays giggled as he recalled that he managed to make money on this arrangement. He ate at restaurants where the black players were welcome, and took Chris with him; when Chris reported to his father he had been on a steady diet of soul food, Durocher told Mays that he wanted his son to be able to eat steak.

“And I said, ‘Well give me some steak money then,’ ” Mays said. “And Leo would whip out four or five hundred and stick it in my pocket. And we’d go somewhere, and I’d ask Chris, ‘You want a steak?’ and he’d say, ‘No, I’ll eat what you eat.’ I never told Leo.”

Mays played in four World Series, the first one in his rookie year, 1951, after the Giants beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in a three-game playoff to capture the pennant, winning the final game on Bobby Thomson’s ninth-inning home run off Ralph Branca. Mays was on deck, and he was so focused on his own possible at-bat, he said, that it did not dawn on him that Thomson’s blast had ended the game.

“I was concentrating on Branca, what he was throwing, what he might throw me,” Mays said. “When he hit the home run, I didn’t even move.

“I remember all the guys running by me, running to home plate, and I’m saying, ‘What’s going

Manager Leo Durocher (L) teasing Willie Mays during pre-game practice. (Photo by Loomis Dean//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)Loomis Dean / Time Life Pictur / Time & Life Pictures

on here?’ I was thinking, ‘I got to hit!’ ”

The Giants lost the Series that year, to the Yankees, a circumstance they repeated in 1962. In the ninth inning of the seventh game, with the Giants behind, 1-0, Mays doubled with two out, sending Matty Alou to third. A hit would win the game.

Willie McCovey, a left-handed pull hitter, lined the ball seemingly to right field, but it was caught by second baseman Bobby Richardson, playing deep and in the hole.

“As soon as he hit it, I thought base hit,” Mays said. “I’m running all the way. But Bobby was playing out there.”

Mays played on a World Series champion only once, in 1954, when the Giants swept the Cleveland Indians. In Game 1 came perhaps his signature moment, a play that came to be known as the Catch.

In the top of the eighth, with the score tied, no one out and two on, the Indians’ Vic Wertz sent a towering drive toward deepest center field. With a man on second, Mays had been playing shallow to be able to cut off a run on a base hit, but running at full speed with his back to the plate, he chased down the ball and caught it as it passed directly over his head.

Jack Brickhouse, announcing the game on television, said the catch “must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people.”

For Mays, though, the Catch was no big deal. The throw was.

“As I’m running, I’m thinking I’ve got to get this ball back to the infield because I’d scored many times from second base on balls like that,” Mays said.

The instant the ball settled in his glove, he planted his foot and propelled himself into a whirl, flinging the ball on a line to second base. He held the runner at third, and the Indians never scored. The Giants won in 10 innings.

“There was no doubt I was going to catch the ball,” Mays said, with a defiantly youthful smile nearly 60 years after the fact. “I already knew that.”

This story, "Willie Mays, at 78, Decides to Tell His Story", originally appeared in The New York Times.