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Opinion | George F. Will: Willie Mays was more than just a ‘natural’

In the 1962 Yankees-Giants World Series, the Yankees’ Clete Boyer hit a line drive to right-center. “As the ball left the bat, I said to myself two things. The first thing I said was ‘Hello double!’ The second thing I said was, ‘Oh, sh–, he’s out there.’”

Willie Howard Mays Jr., who died Tuesday at age 93, was the archetypal “five tool player” who could run, catch, throw, hit and hit for power. Said his first major league manager, Leo Durocher, “If he could cook, I’d marry him.” Said actress Tallulah Bankhead, “There have only been two authentic geniuses in the world, William Shakespeare and Willie Mays.”

“I can’t hit the pitching up there,” said Mays, a scared minor leaguer, in 1951, speaking by phone to Durocher, who would soon manage him. “Do you think you can hit .2-f—ing-70 for me?” Durocher asked of the player who was hitting .477 in Minneapolis. He could.

A few weeks later, the Giants sent Mays — who was 0-12 in major league at bats — to the plate to face, 60 feet 6 inches away, Warren Spahn, who was en route to becoming the winningest left-hander in baseball history. Mays hit the first of his 660 home runs. After the game, Spahn said, “For the first 60 feet it was a helluva pitch.” Years later, he said: “We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out.”

In 1963, in a game of a sort that will never again be played, Spahn, then 42, and another future Hall of Famer, Juan Marichal, 25, both pitched shutouts into the 16th inning. Marichal threw 227 pitches, Spahn 201. The Giants won 1-0 when Spahn gave up a walk-off home run. You know who hit it.

Mays, whose mother died giving birth to her 11th child, grew up in Birmingham, Ala., which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. considered the United States’ worst big city regarding race relations. The teenage Mays played professionally for the Birmingham Black Barons and listened to radio broadcasts of the Birmingham Barons, a White team whose play-by-play announcer became, in the 1960s, infamous: Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor’s use of firehoses and police dogs on student protesters in 1963 helped propel a horrified nation to embrace the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “Pretty good announcer,” Mays remembered.

In a sense, Mays was too good for his own good. His athleticism and ebullience — e.g., playing stickball with children in Harlem streets — encouraged the perception of him as man-child effortlessly matched against grown men. He was called a “natural.” Oh? Extraordinary hand-eye coordination is a gift. There is, however, nothing natural about consistently making solid contact with a round bat on a round ball that is moving vertically, and horizontally, and 95 mph. Because Mays made the extraordinary seem routine, his craftsmanship and intelligence were underrated.

Even as a rookie, he would reach second base, decode the opposing catcher’s pitch signs, and tell the Giants’ dugout that, say, the third in each sequence was the actual sign. His base-running “instincts” actually were a meticulously honed craft: Although he played centerfield, he would take pre-game infield practice, reminding himself where infielders should position themselves to cut off throws from outfielders. Then when he got a hit, he could take an extra base if the infielders were out of position. Sometimes early in a game, Mays would intentionally swing at and miss a pitch he could easily have hit, thereby encouraging the pitcher to throw the pitch during a crucial late-inning at bat.

Mays and another early 1950s center fielder, who played less than a mile away from the Giants’ Polo Grounds, the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle (like Mays, born in 1931), electrified baseball in the 1950s, when it was indisputably the national pastime. (The NFL and NBA ranked behind boxing in the decade in which Americans first sat down to watch TV. At least a quarter of American men regularly watched “Friday Night Fights” and other matches.)

In the 1954 World Series, the Indians’ Vic Wertz crushed Don Liddle’s pitch into baseball’s deepest center field — 483 feet to the wall in the Polo Grounds — where Mays made The Catch. Liddle, who was put in the game to pitch only to Wertz, reportedly said laconically, “I got my man.” Yes, by getting him to hit a Ruthian blast to the only player who could have caught it.

Baseball fans are an argumentative tribe, but none question that Mays was among baseball’s half-dozen best position players. Still, after that first home run off Spahn, Mays went 0 for 13, making him 1 for 25. Even baseball’s gods need time to figure things out.

Read More: Opinion | George F. Will: Willie Mays was more than just a ‘natural’

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