Today is the 50th anniversary of Willie Mays’s famous catch in Game One of the 1954 World Series. The estimated distance the ball traveled has been inflated by some writers and Willie has told us he’s made better catches. But then again, when you consider his throw and the circumstances, maybe we should start calling it THE PLAY.
Mays also contributed at the plate. The 23-year old star in the making went oh for three but walked twice.
September 29, 1954 was a warm day that “broke beautiful and festive." The Polo Grounds, the venerable, horseshoe shaped stadium that had hosted so many great games, was filled with 52,751 patrons. After the Indians quieted the crowd with two in the first off the veteran Sal Maglie, the Giants tied it in the third. Hank Thompson followed Mays’s one-out walk with a single that drove in Don Mueller for the second run.
The game remained tied going into the eighth. Larry Doby walked and Al Rosen singled. The Giants brought in lefty Don Liddle.
Willie recounts the play to Roger Kahn in The Era, 1947-1957.
I'm playing a shallow center field. It's the eighth inning, the score is tied and I don't want Larry Doby scoring from second base. One run could be the ball game. The ballgame could be the series. You never know. 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. I turn and run for the bleachers. But I got it. Maybe you didn't know that but I knew it. Soon as it got hit, I knew I'd 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.' I run fifty or seventy-five yards - right to the warning track- and I take the ball a little toward my left shoulder. Suppose I stop and turn and throw. I will get nothing on the ball. No momentum going into my throw. What I have to do is this: after I make the catch, turn. Put all my momentum into that turn. To keep my momentum, to get it working for me, 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. Larry Doby ran to third, but he couldn't score. Al Rosen didn't even advance from first. All the while I was running back, I was planning how to get off that throw. Then some of them wrote, I made that throw by instinct.
Skipper Leo Durocher brought in his relief specialist Marv Grissom. The 36-year old righty, who had a superb season in ‘54, came in and gave up a walk to pinch hitter Dale Mitchell. He then retired the next two to end the threat.
The game remained tied at two going into the tenth. In the top of the frame, Wertz collected his fourth hit of the day, a ball headed for the gap in left-center. Arnold Hano, who was there that day and wrote a book about the game, noted that Mays made a fine play by racing over and cutting the ball off. Instead of a leadoff triple, the favored Indians had a man on second.
Rudy Regalado pinch ran for Wertz and was sacrificed to third. Dave Pope drew a walk off Grissom. Pinch hitter Billy Glynn struck out and Lemon lined to first.
In the bottom half, Say Hey Willie drew a one out walk and stole second. Lemon gave Thompson the free pass. Dusty Rhodes, pinch hit for Monte Irvin and hit the first pitch into the inviting, lower right field stands. Willie leapt for joy and crossed the plate with the winning run. Three games later, the Giants were on top of the baseball world.