Willie Mays: Must've Been an Optical Illusion! by Michael Mackey, LI Morning Edition Host

May 5, 2016

This week our WPPB TBT celebrates the 85th birthday of baseball's greatest living player - WILLIE MAYS! Born on May 6, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama of athletic parents - Willie Howard Mays, Sr. aka "Cat" a semi-pro ballplayer and Annie Satterwhite, a champion scholastic sprinter - Willie Jr. would grow up to become one of the most gifted athletes of his generation. Yet, while Willie's naturally begotten talent alone could have been enough for him to succeed as a big league baseball player, number 24's on the field intellect, competitive integrity, and scintillating style of play made Willie Mays a transcendent sports figure. Almost universally termed by his contemporaries as the best player they ever saw, Willie was among the game's fastest and smartest runners, most powerful hitters, strongest throwers, and the premier defensive center fielder of his era. {Any era?} At age 20 while earning Rookie of the Year honors Willie contributed significantly to the New York Giants winning the National League Pennant. Then after missing most of two seasons for military service, the 23 year old M.V.P. led his "JInts" to the franchise's first World Championship in 21 years. Mays spectacular over the shoulder catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series...described at the moment by announcer Jack Brickhouse as what “must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people”...remains one of sports' most famous and frequently re-played highlights. 

Sadly for Big Apple baseball fans...and 26 year old Willie, too...the Giants moved to San Francisco following their 1957 season. Mays continued to perform magnificently, accruing impressive, hall of fame career statistics. Nonetheless his cumulative numbers seem an inadequate measurement of what folks witnessed during Willie Mays' 1954-65 prime. As John Saccoman writes in the SOCIETY FOR AMERICAN BASEBALL RESEARCH Willie Mays bio,  "In baseball’s never-ending attempts to somehow order its gods, Mays is the only contender whose proponents rarely use statistics to make their case. It is as if Mays’s 660 home runs and 3,283 hits somehow sell the man short, that his wonderful playing record is almost beside the point. With Mays it is not merely what he did – but how he did it. He scored more than 2,000 runs, nearly all of them, it would seem, after losing his cap flying around third base. He is credited with more than 7,000 outfield putouts, many exciting, some spectacular, a few breathtaking. How do you measure that? An artist and a genius, for most of his 22 seasons in the big leagues, you simply could not keep your eyes off Willie Mays.”

At age 42, Willie finished his career where he started it, playing his final season and a half with the New York Mets. In the 1973 World Series Mays slapped a clutch 12th inning go ahead single. However, he also missed a couple of sun drenched fly balls, reminding fans it was time Willie say goodbye to America, as he had stated in an emotional farewell speech a month earlier.

A couple of years later, I attended the annual 2 inning old timer's game at Shea Stadium. Among the retired all stars performing on the diamond that sunny afternoon, one old GOAT shined brighter than the rest. 44 year old Willie Mays played with the remarkable enthusiasm of a youth that day. His energy, speed, and skill so impressive that my 23 year old self concluded that Willie may not be a big leaguer anymore, but he'd still be the best player in our seriously competitive Long Island softball league.

So let's celebrate the life and legend of baseball's beloved "Say Hey Kid" with a tune from his signature 1954 championship season; evoking in song the exuberant spirit of our National Pastime's greatest living player - WILLIE MAYS!!!!!