Willie Mays thrived partly by turning imagination into reality.
“I would go home at night and create what I was going to do the next day,” Mays told MLB.com in a 2008 interview. “It sounds kind of childish. But if I feel that we’re going to have a good crowd or something, and I want to do something the next day to make sure the crowd enjoyed what I did, well, then I’d look at a couple of films by myself and figure out something that I can do to make them holler. And I would do it.”
Spurred by his fantasies, Mays remained a peerless performing artist for much of his 22-year Hall of Fame career. Here’s a Top 10 list of Mays marvels culled from his extensive collection of feats:
1. “An optical illusion”
Sept. 29, 1954
Mays was concluding only his second full big league season, but he already assured himself of baseball immortality with his spectacular game-saving catch in the Giants’ 1954 World Series opener against the Cleveland Indians. The center-field wall at New York’s Polo Grounds was 483 feet from home plate, affording Mays a sufficiently large stage as he outran Vic Wertz’s titanic drive off Don Liddle with runners on first and second and none out in the eighth inning. Many experts believe that Mays’ throw following the catch was equally essential, since it prevented Al Rosen, the runner on first base, from tagging up and advancing to second. Mays’ grab — which, exclaimed broadcaster Jack Brickhouse, “must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people” — enabled the Giants to preserve a 2-2 tie. They ultimately prevailed in 10 innings, 5-2, to launch their four-game World Series sweep.
2. Becoming his fans
May 4, 1966
Underappreciated for years by San Francisco-area Giants fans since the franchise moved west in 1958, Mays finally earned the unqualified love and admiration that he deserved from locals when he hit his 512th home run to break Mel Ott’s National League record. The Candlestick Park crowd of 28,220 delivered a thunderous and prolonged standing ovation after Mays connected in the fifth inning off Dodgers left-hander Claude Osteen. Since league records were more meaningful in that era, Mays’ ascent to the top spot awakened fans to the undeniable truth that he was more than just a great player. He was a player for the ages.
April 30, 1961
Mays endured an upset stomach the night before — the result of snacking on a plate of ribs in Milwaukee. Giants infielder Joe Amalfitano asked Mays in the morning to rate his health, from 1 percent to 100 percent. “Maybe 70,” Mays replied. Said Amalfitano, “Well, your 70 percent is going to be better than whoever goes out there for their 100 percent." Encouraged, Mays borrowed a 35-inch, 33-ounce Adirondack bat that he had given Amalfitano. It was lighter than the model Mays typically swung. Mays looked remarkably healthy as he became the seventh Major Leaguer since 1900 to hit four homers in a game. He homered in the first and third innings off Lew Burdette, lined out to center field off Moe Drabowsky in the fifth, then homered again off Seth Morehead in the sixth and Don McMahon in the eighth.
4. Clutch-hitting triptych of ’62, Part 1
Sept. 30, 1962
Three times during the tumultuous conclusion of the 1962 campaign, Mays came to bat with not just that day’s game on the line, but also the entire season. Each time he brought the Giants closer to victory. In the first of these occasions, the Giants entered the regular-season finale against the Houston Colt .45s trailing the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers by a single game in the NL standings. San Francisco needed to win and hope that the slumping Dodgers, who had led the Giants by four games with seven to play, would lose again, forcing a best-of-three-game playoff for the pennant. Leading off the eighth inning against Houston right-hander Dick Farrell, Mays didn’t just break a 1-1 tie. He shattered, pulverized and obliterated it by clobbering a homer that Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges, who had witnessed all of Mays’ 366 lifetime round-trippers, described as one of the longest the slugger had ever hit. The Giants’ 2-1 victory forced the playoff they wanted against the Dodgers, who lost to St. Louis, 1-0.
5. Clutch-hitting triptych of ’62, Part 2
Oct. 3, 1962
Fast-forward to the playoff finale. Trailing the Dodgers, 4-2, the Giants rallied to score four ninth-inning runs in a 6-4 triumph that gave them their first West Coast pennant. Mays’ contribution was a bases-loaded smash off right-hander Ed Roebuck’s glove for an infield single that trimmed Los Angeles’ lead to 4-3.
6. Clutch-hitting triptych of ’62, Part 3
Oct. 16, 1962
The Giants needed another uprising in Game 7 of the World Series against the New York Yankees, who clung to a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning. With Matty Alou on first base and two out, Mays sliced a double to right field. It would have tied the score under most circumstances. But three days of rain soaked the field so much that the ball didn’t skip away as it usually would, enabling Yankees right fielder Roger Maris to corral the hit and hold Alou at third. Willie McCovey’s famous line-drive out followed.
7. An extra infielder
May 17, 1966
Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully observed that Mays aggressively charged batted balls in center field and came up throwing as an infielder would. Well, no wonder Scully made that comparison. Mays again proved that his gifts exceeded those of any ballplayer extant by throwing out runners at home plate, first base and third base. He had an opportunity to complete a unique “cycle” when he apprehended a runner at second base. But Tito Fuentes is said to have dropped the throw.
8. No stopping him
July 20, 1968
The legendary Ty Cobb said that Mays restored the art of baserunning to the game. That statement rang true in this Giants contest against the Houston Astros. Mays drew a one-out walk from Denny Lemaster, advanced on Jim Ray Hart’s single … and kept advancing. Houston left fielder Dick Simpson pursued the ball nonchalantly as Mays rounded second base and didn’t stop. Third baseman Bob Aspromonte’s body language conveyed his disgust with Simpson, but Mays didn’t notice. He was busy heading for home plate to score the game’s lone run. Consider: Most baserunners would have stopped at second on Hart’s hit, but Mays made it home, despite neither trying to steal on the pitch nor capitalizing on a fielding misplay.
9. He will not be denied
Sept. 14, 1965
The Giants owned an 11-game winning streak and a 2 1/2-game lead over the second-place Dodgers in the NL pennant race as this day began. They didn’t yet know that Los Angeles would surge past them by winning its final 13 games. They did realize that every victory was essential if they were to fend off the Dodgers. That explained Mays’ approach as he faced Astros reliever Claude Raymond with two out in the ninth inning, Jesus Alou on first base, a run in and the Giants trailing, 5-3. Unleashing staggering swings, Mays clearly was going for a home run that would tie the score and force extra innings at the Astrodome. No conclusive chronicling of the at-bat exists, but legend has it that Mays heightened the drama by fouling off several two-strike pitches. Mays finally connected solidly and drove Raymond’s pitch well past the outfield barrier. After allowing enough time to pass for the radio audience to hear the pro-Houston crowd cheer loudly for Mays, Russ Hodges broke his silence by saying, “The man is unbelievable.” San Francisco prevailed in 10 innings, 7-5, for its 12th of 14 consecutive wins.
10. As bittersweet as it gets
May 14, 1972
After the Giants traded Mays to the New York Mets for right-hander Charlie Williams and $500,000 on May 11, many people probably believed that Earth spinning off its axis would happen next. The notion of trading a star such as Mays was unthinkable. But Mays was well past his prime as a player. And the Giants were hemorrhaging money. So owner Horace Stoneham sent Mays to a franchise that could afford to compensate him as he deserved in his final days as a player and through retirement. However, Mays wasn’t done with the Giants yet. He happened to play his first game as a Met against them on a soggy Sunday at Shea Stadium. Facing Don Carrithers, Mays stroked his 647th career home run to break a fifth-inning tie and give the Mets a 5-4 triumph.