Mays finally wows 'em

The following excerpt from Charles Einstein's Willie's Time: Baseball's Golden Age picks up the story in 1951, shortly after the New York Giants called up Willie Mays, who'd just turned 20, from their Minneapolis farm team.

The Giants in 1951 started off winning their first game, losing their second, winning their third, then losing the next eleven straight. They had done somewhat better after that -- it would have been difficult to do worse -- but on May 25, the day Mays joined them in Philadelphia, they were still in the second division. Atop the standings, the hated Brooklyn Dodgers -- the first edition of the team Roger Kahn would call the Boys of Summer -- had a two-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals. Pittsburgh was in last place, but in those days Pittsburgh was always in last place. "The trouble with those guys," outfielder Sid Gordon said after being traded to the Pirates, "is that after you've been with them a couple of weeks you start to play like them."

In the case of the Giants, however, what was most lacking was not talent on the hoof but the manager's patience. Flamboyant and intense under the best of circumstances, Leo Durocher had insisted that owner (Horace) Stoneham let him remake the club in his own image. "Back up the truck," was the way Durocher phrased it in getting Stoneham to trade front-line players for the likes of the second base-shortstop combination of Eddie Stanky and Alvin Dark. "What I want is my kind of team." His kind of team having proved it could lose eleven straight, the manager's thoughts had taken a natural turn toward the possibility of further improvement. And there was no doubt in his mind that Mays would be it.

Against the Phillies in his first game as a Giant, The Exact Answer went 0 for 5 at the plate. In the field, he ran into teammate Monte Irvin, and what should have been a fly ball went instead for a double. In any other paper, the story run in The New York Times next morning would have been a model in sarcasm: "Inspired by the presence of their flashy rookie star, Willie Mays, the Giants rallied for five runs in the eighth inning. ..."

But they won the game. Next day they won again. Mays? 0 for 3. The day after, they won a third time, to sweep the Philadelphia series. Mays? 0 for 4. "This boy can take us all the way!" Durocher enthused to columnist Tom Meany as they boarded the train at the North Philadelphia station for the trip back to New York.

Meany nodded. "Some day," he said, "he may even get a hit." But he found himself weirdly in agreement with the manager. From somewhere in the noisy passenger car came that high sudden peal of laughter. The Giants, sullen at worst, uncommunicative at best, had through some alchemy become a relaxed band of merry men. Willing fingers shot out to goose trainer Bowman as he threaded his way down the aisle. There was a chorus of "It's Howdy Doody Time." And doubtless it had much to do with the three-game sweep of the defending league-champion Phillies.

But some writers who were with the club swore afterward that the euphoria had set in the moment Willie joined the team. ("He is Rousseau's Natural Man," wrote Gilbert Millstein in The New York Times. Said rival manager Charlie Grimm, "He can help a team just by riding on a bus with them.")

It still would be nice, as Tom Meany had seemed to suggest, if sooner or later Mays got a hit. His next chance would be at the Polo Grounds, the night of Monday, May 28, against Warren Spahn and the Boston Braves, and a goodly crowd turned out to watch.

Spahn, already established as the bell cow of the Boston staff, was into a career that in the end would see him win more games than Dizzy Dean pitched. His career with the Braves is memorable to many people for many reasons. (For Spahn, among other things, it was for the time the financially strapped Braves management talked him out of tapping their coffers for a new nose, his old one having been broken by an enemy line drive in a spring training game. "They told me it would make me look more distinguished leaving it as is," Spahn said.) Tonight, the princely lefthander sighted crookedly on Mays as the youthful outfielder came to bat with two out and no one on base in the bottom of the first inning. Reasoning that Durocher had counseled the anxious Willie not to chase the first pitch -- something he had begun doing in Philadelphia -- Spahn decided to throw a fastball past him for an introductory strike.

Up in the radio booth, it was Russ Hodges's custom to seal a Giant home run with his own pet line: "Tell it Bye-Bye Baby!" The Spahn pitch rode in and Mays swung at it, and in this instance all Hodges had time to say was "Good-bye!" In one flashpoint the ball disappeared into the night over the left-field roof at the Polo Grounds. At the last it was still traveling up. "You know," Hodges said afterward, "if that's the only home run he ever hits, they'll still talk about it." Understandably he did not foresee that in his lifetime he would describe more than 600 additional Mays home runs. (When Hodges died twenty years later Mays was still hitting them.)

Excerpted from Willie's Time: Baseball's Golden Age (Writing Baseball) by Charles Einstein. Copyright (c) 1979, 2004. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Willie's Time has just been published by Southern Illinois University Press in a 25th-anniversary addition, and can be ordered from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com.