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“My biggest thrill,” says Willie Mays, “is playing ball every day.” And then he emphasizes, “I didn’t say being a ballplayer. I said playing ball.”
Willie Mays gets no great kick out of being a celebrity. He would prefer to do his work and be let alone.
This impression comes through strongly when Willie talks about the catch he made of Vic Wertz’s drive in deepest center field to save the opening game of the 1954 World series against Cleveland. This was certainly one of the most-publicized feats in recent sports history, but Willie does not think it was his greatest catch, or even a particularly great one. The publicity came out of the setting — the World series — and the fact that it was Willie mMys who had done it.
“A great catch,” Mays explains, “is when you don’t think you’re going to get there. The thing was that I knew I had that one all along. all the time I was running i had the picture in my head of where I’d be when I caught it, and how I’d turn to make the throw to second to keep Larry Doby from going all the way around.”
It may seem odd that a man would resent excessive praise, and yet this is a natural reflection of the way Willie feels about baseball. If they falsely exalt his good catches, are they not cheapening his really great ones?
To say that Mays is generous is like saying that Dwight Eisenhower went to West Point. It’s only the beginning of the story. Before he got married, Willie used to carry up to $1,000 around in his pockets and hand money around almost upon request. Almost everybody at the Harlem bar Red Rooster — including the guy who sweeps up — has at least one of Willie’s monogrammed sport shirts. Willie buys them in lots. To admire a Mays shirt is to get it hot off his back.
When it’s going good for Mays, there’s 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.
— “The Woes of Willie Mays” by Edward Linn, April 13, 1957