Willie Mays made the act of catching a baseball art, and centerfield - from the left foul line to the right foul line - was his canvas. When once asked him about making history, Mays responded by saying, "I don't make history. I catch fly balls." Did he ever.
Willie's basket catches in the outfield prompted some to comment that he was showing off. Maybe it was jealousy. But Mays explained, oftentimes, his job was to hold the runners on base. By catching the ball at his waist with his glove turned upward, Mays said he could get the ball back into the infield faster. It was all about getting the ball back into the infield faster, always. In fact, twice in his career he caught the ball with his bare hand - his bare hand!
Willie Mays has been credited with making the greatest catch in history, which is known simply as "The Catch." With the score tied 2-2 in the first game of the 1954 World Series, Cleveland slugger Vic Wertz drove a ball straight away and deep into centerfield. Mays speedily ran back, caught the ball over his head while in full stride, turned and threw to home from well over 400 feet away keeping the runner from scoring. Brooklyn manager, Charlie Dressen, commented, "I won't believe that play until I see him do it again."
Perhaps it's the simplicity of the black-and-white film clip that makes it so magnificent today. The field looked huge, the fast approaching fence immovable, and the outfielder so small. It is hard to determine where the act of catching the ball ended and the act of throwing the ball began. It happened so fast that the sequence look like one fluid motion. Everyone who has ever seen it still marvels at its incredulity, but that black-and-white film clip allows generations of fans to "see him do it again."
For all the attention The Catch gets, Mays did not refer to it as his best. He called a diving, backhanded grab of a line drive hit by Brooklyn Dodger, Bobby Morgan, in September 1951 at Ebbetts Field his best. But it's The Catch and perhaps the immortality of it preserved in a black-and-white film clip that still resonates across the ages.
When I think back on the legacy of Willie Mays, the first thing that comes to my mind are the catches - the basket catches, the one-handed catches, the backhanded grabs, the sliding snags, and yes - The Catch. Willie Mays was indeed an artist in centerfield, and he painted memories in all colors of the rainbow - one colorful memory for every fan he touched.
Each spring, fathers and sons simulate the beginning of the baseball season by donning gloves and ‘playing catch' - fathers and sons playing catch and perhaps imitating Willie Mays.
Both of those two moments are equally magical.
John C. Sinclair writes a New York Mets historical column every Wednesday on NYMFansOnly.com