Fifty years ago today, Willie Mays made "The Catch," which many consider to be the greatest play in baseball history.I thought I knew everything about it. But I was wrong. Start with the unfortunate name that has been stuck on Willie Mays' great play in the eighth inning of Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. "The Catch" makes an event sound simple that was borne of experience and thought and tremendous athleticism.
And it was anything but simple.Consider this: The Yankees won 103 games in 1954 and finished in second place, eight games behind the Indians. The Tribe was so good that only 44 out of 154 baseball writers polled before Game 1 picked Cleveland to lose the Series. And not a single one of those writers predicted the Giants to sweep. Think about it: 154 experts; every single one wrong. Consider this: The "best catch ever?" debate started almost immediately, with none other than Joe DiMaggio among the the most prominent early naysayers. "I think that the catch Al Gionfriddo made on the ball I hit in the sixth game of the 1947 series with the Dodgers was greater than Mays' catch," he told reporters after the game. Maybe. But Gionfriddo had to think only about that one thing -- catching the Jolter's 415-foot blast. At the time, there were two on, two out; Al makes the catch, inning over. The ball drops into the stands, the play is over. Gionfriddo's snag saved Game 6 for Brooklyn, but it didn't change the outcome of the Series, which the Yankees won. The most memorable outcome of that particular play? Joe D kicked the dirt. A famous moment. Maybe the biggest baseball disappointment of his life. Joe had to think it was better. Consider this: Sportswriters and fans who had seen Mays on a regular basis during his first two years in the majors didn't even think it was the greatest catch of the 23-year-old's career. They'd seen better, more spectacular grabs from Willie. But most of them seemed to agree that nobody else -- no other player in baseball -- could have made that catch, except Mays. Consider this: Most people -- including sportswriters, of course -- were so wowed at first by the running, over-the-shoulder catch that they didn't consider what Mays did next to be of great importance. A few weeks after the series ended, Pittsburgh GM Joe E. Brown told The Sporting News, "The catch itself was tremendous, but to me that wasn't the big thing and it's strange that not much attention has been given to it. It's what Willie did after catching the ball. He started to fall but as he did, he spun around and got rid of the ball. He made a strong throw off balance and while falling. Do you realize that if he had fallen down holding onto the ball, that runner might have scored all the way from second? That could have won the game for Cleveland and could have changed the whole Series." Consider this: Brown helped shift the focus from "The Catch" to the catch and throw, but that was still . . . well, maybe half the story. Consider this: Some witnesses said the pitch Vic Wertz hit was a curve. Some said it was a fastball. But most agreed it didn't matter, because Wertz, who already had two singles and a triple in his first three at-bats, was in "the zone" that nobody knew existed in 1954. He was on top of the ball before it had a chance to move.
Consider how Mays remembered the catch, to Roger Kahn: "Wertz hits it. A solid sound. I learned a lot from the sound of the ball on the bat. Always did. I could tell from the sound whether to come in or go back. This time I'm going back, a long way back, but there is no doubt in my mind. I am going to catch this ball . . . But that wasn't the problem. The problem was Larry Doby on second base. On a deep fly to center field at the Polo Grounds, a runner could score all the way from second. I've done that myself and more than once. So if I make the catch, which I will, and Larry scores from second, they still get the run that puts them ahead. All the time I'm running back, I'm thinking, 'Willie, you've got to get this ball back into the infield.'"Consider that Mays is running at full speed and thinking about the entire game situation and knows that even though he knows he'll catch it, he also knows he can't not concentrate while he's catching it, because that's how you drop a sure one. That he's not just thinking about the catch, and the situation, and the throw -- he's also thinking about how his all-out sprint in the opposite direction will affect whether he makes a weak throw or a strong one. So he slows down a little, almost imperceptibly, just before the catch. Because it's all about momentum now, and Willie knows it. He told Kahn, "I have to turn very hard and short and throw the ball from exactly the point I caught it. The momentum goes into my turn and up through my legs and into my throw." Consider this: Mays' throw only allowed Doby to advance from second to third and held -- held! -- Al Rosen on first. Consider this: The catch was almost a given, considering it was Willie. But Doby could have scored. Rosen, he tags and goes to second, you've got an entirely different ballgame. You've got an Indians-probably-win ballgame. You've got a different World Series, with Cleveland up 1-0 despite having to open on the road in front of the biggest crowd the Polo Grounds has ever seen. Consider this: The Mays "hear it, run, think, think some more, catch, turn, and throw" happened in the eighth inning of Game 1; and after the Series, there is almost universal agreement that it was the turning point. Indians manager Al Lopez: "Losing the first game hurt us the most ... Willie Mays made that great catch on Wertz' drive and we were never the same."
Consider this big, bold Sporting News post-series headline: "Indians' Collapse Seldom Matched in Series History."Consider that it was more than just a Series turning point -- it was a baseball history turning point. Yankees GM George Weiss, right after the Giants' sweep: "I thought we would have a long, tough struggle to get back up there. Now, maybe not. I don't see how the Indians are going to recover from this." Consider that the Indians didn't recover. The Tribe finished second to the Yankees in 1955, and wouldn't end a season in first place for another 41 years. Consider that Mays believes there was a racist element in the way his feat was covered. "All the while I was running back, I was planning how to get off that throw," he told Kahn. "Then some of them wrote, I made that throw by instinct." Kahn added some context when he recounted his discussion with Mays in a 1997 PBS interview: "What he means ... and he means to this day, is that the press, the media tend to say blacks are natural athletes and only whites know how to think." Consider this: Dusty Rhodes won the game with a pinch-hit, three-run home run in the 10th inning. His 260-foot "shot" would have fallen about 200 feet short of Wertz's blast. Consider Don Liddle, who came in to relieve Sal Maglie with nobody out and men on first and second. He faced only Wertz before being replaced by Marv Grissom. Liddle left the field, entered the dugout, sat down, and said, "Well, I got my man."