—“The Woes of Willie Mays” by Edward Linn, from the April 13, 1957, issue of The Saturday Evening Post
Giants Coach Leo Durocher has always maintained that the talk about Willie Mays’ “batting weaknesses” was nonsense. “All hitters,” Durocher declares, “are streak hitters. When Willie is hitting, he just overpowers any weakness he might have. When he’s in a slump, your little boy can get him out.”
A Willie Mays home run generally comes leaping off the bat as a line drive and just keeps rising into the stands. Manager Bill Rigney says his power is frightening. “He hit a triple against the Cubs that landed at the bottom of the fence in left center, about 470 feet away. And the ball hadn’t even sounded well-hit. I couldn’t believe it. When he pulled into third, I said, ‘Willie, you didn’t get all of that, did you?’ And he said, ‘No, Skip, I didn’t get all of it.’”
When he’s asked — as he invariably is — what his biggest thrill has been, he doesn’t mention the White House visit or any of his awards or any specific play. “My biggest thrill,” he said, “is playing ball every day.” And then he emphasizes, “I didn’t say being a ballplayer. I said playing ball.”
When it’s going good for Mays, there is no better ballplayer in action today. He is the sort of competitor the sports writers like to describe as a “natural” — signifying an athlete who, through some special dispensation, springs from the earth fully equipped to do his job. A natural or not, Willie Mays works at his business. He is still the first man on the practice field and the last one off.
If Willie seems so vastly unimpressed and so monumentally unchanged by it all, it is because his interest is focused entirely upon baseball. He is, for instance, notoriously bad on names. The classic illustration of his almost total indifference to everything not connected with the box score involves Charlie Einstein, the man who did the actual writing of Willie’s book, Born to Play Ball. Shortly after they had finished, Einstein called Willie at the clubhouse and said, “This is Charlie.”
“Charlie who?” Willie asked.
The long, heavy silence made it perfectly obvious that Willie still had no idea who it was.
“Charlie Einstein,” the astonished writer said. “You know, the guy you just did the book with.”
“What book?” Willie asked.
Willie is quite willing to concede that this episode probably took place. “Look,” he said, “I come to this park to play baseball, and once I’m here I try to think of nothing but baseball.”
This article is featured in the March/April 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Willie with the “great man in his life,” the Giants former manager, Leo Durocher. The Lip’s departure in 1955 was a sore loss to the kid. (SEPS)
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