Loran Smith’s sports column: Willie Mays

Published 2:28 pm Tuesday, June 25, 2024

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The tributes to Willie Mays last week were bittersweet. He, of course,

deserved all the lofty praise, but there was the regret of his having to

endure the segregation dissent and humiliation of his native South, growing

up in Westfield, Ala., nine miles west of Birmingham.


He rose above the ignominy and indignity of his early years to exalted

status in baseball. Many who saw him play say he was the greatest all

around performer ever in the Big Leagues. Who could argue with that?

The man was as spectacular in the field as he was at bat.

It is doubtful that any player embodied the “5 tool evaluation more

than Willie Mays:

1) Consistently hitting for average. (His career average was .302).

2) Hitting for power: Demonstrating homerun ability and slugging

prowess. (He hit 660 home runs in his career).

3) Fielding ability: Exceptional defensive skills, both by the eye test

and through metrics. (He was a magician with his glove).

4) Speed: Impressive sprint speed on the basepaths. (His running

the basepaths was graceful and downright beautiful).


5) Throwing arm: strong arm strength whether fielding or making

throws from the outfield. (Recall his catch and throw in the ’54

Series vs. the Indians).

In 1962, the Giants had moved from the Polo Grounds in New York to

San Francisco and met the Yankees in the World Series. It went seven

games with the middle three games being played in New York. The

Yankees won the series, 4-3.

At the time, I was stationed at Groton, Conn. with the U. S. Coast

Guard and often spent the weekends in Manhattan. A serviceman could

get a cheap rate at the Century Hotel which had lost its luster. I was just

happy to be in Manhattan and enjoying a rare experience.


I had started covering the Masters for the Athens Banner Herald in

1960 and had gotten to know Will Grimsley, who was a columnist for the

Associated Press in New York. I went by the AP Building at 50 Rockefeller

Plaza and he gave me a Western Union pass to New York Giant (football)

games and also for the 1962 World Series—Mickey Mantle and the

Yankees vs. Willie Mays and the Giants—for the third game of the series.


The teams had split two games at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

It was a balmy afternoon in the Bronx. I took the subway out to old Yankee

Stadium before noon for the 2:00 p.m. start.

While I don’t recall what time I arrived, I did get in early to watch

batting practice with my Western Union pass. It was emotionally stimulating

to see Mickey and Willie hit soaring homeruns into the stand’s pre-game,

hoping that one of them would connect during the upcoming game.

Because of my lifelong affection for my favorite team, the Boston Red

Sox, I was pulling for the Giants, but I was a big fan of Mickey Mantle. It

would have suited me fine if both he and Willie had performed in the game

as they had done during BP, but it didn’t happen.


For the ’62 Series, only eight homeruns were hit collectively by the

two teams: five by the Giants, three by the Yankees, one of those by

Roger Maris, but in San Francisco.

Nonetheless, it was a nice memory to have seen Willie and Mickey

competing in the “House that Ruth Built” in a World Series game on a

balmy Sunday afternoon.


On the way from the stadium back to the subway platform, I bought a

San Francisco bobble head doll in honor of Willie and the Giants, my

antipathy for the Yankees still intact.

The passing of time has ameliorated my emotions. With a friend,

Aaron Boone, becoming manager, I no longer hate the Yankees. In fact, I

am pulling for them to win the American League pennant.