San Francisco’s Say Hey Kid Willie Mays turns 80 

Willie Mays, who turns 80 today, was a great natural athlete, but as I learned in an interview 15 years ago, much more thinking went into his play than was generally realized.

When the Giants played in New York, he was a pull hitter because the foul lines were short. When he had 30 homers by the All-Star break in 1954, pitchers started pitching him low and away, so he learned to hit the ball to right field.

“In the major leagues, pitchers don’t just pitch you the same way all the time,” he told me. “They’ll knock you down, pitch you outside. I always felt that, if I hit a single, it was like hitting a double, because I could always steal second base.”

Mays hit only 10 more home runs that year, but he led the league with a .345 average.

The next year, he hit 51 homers, and in 1956, with 40 steals, he started a streak of leading the league in stolen bases for four straight years.

When the Giants moved into Candlestick Park, Mays realized he would have to make another adjustment, because the wind vigorously pushed back any drives hit to left field.

“I adjusted my swing to hit to right-center,” he said, “figuring the wind would blow it out in right field.”

And Mays hit 49 homers in 1962, 47 in 1964 and 52 in 1965.

Mays made his best fielding plays at the Polo Grounds, with its huge outfield area. Bill Rigney, his first manager in San Francisco, remembered that there were times when a ball would sail into the seats at Seals Stadium or Candlestick and Mays would tell him, “I could have caught that, Skip, but I ran out of room.”

His most famous catch was the one he made of a Vic Wertz blast in the 1954 World Series with his back to the infield, but, said Mays, “I made lots of better ones. That got all the attention because it happened in the World Series.”

Rigney’s favorite was one at old Forbes Field. Mays ran and ran and ran — and finally stuck out his right hand to catch the ball.

I particularly enjoyed his base running. I reminded him of a play when he scored standing up from third against the New York Mets on a wild pitch that rolled only about six feet from catcher Choo Choo Coleman.

“I could tell from the angle of the pitch that it would be in the dirt,” he said, “so I just started running. Choo Choo was so surprised, he couldn’t make a play.”

I also saw Mays one time when he was on first and, on a single to left, just danced sideways down to third, as St. Louis left fielder Bob Skinner held the ball, mesmerized. Lon Simmons remembers a similar play when Philadelphia Phillies left fielder Don Demeter bluffed a throw to third, then threw to second — as Mays kept running to third.

Mays always knew where everybody was on the field, which he attributed to the fact that he played quarterback in high school.

“Sometimes, I amazed myself with the things I did,” Mays said.

The rest of us, too, Willie. Happy Birthday.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.

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Glenn Dickey

Glenn Dickey

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Sunday, Apr 22, 2018

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