Willie Mays comes down with ‘The Catch’
‘I don’t know how Willie did it, but he’s been doing it all year.’
On Sept. 29, 1954, New York Giants center fielder Willie Mays made the play of the 1954 World Series. No, no, no, the play of the year. The play of the decade maybe even? No, all of those descriptions still undersell what Mays did that fall day.
This play was generational. When Mays saw Cleveland Indians batter Vic Wertz smash a ball to center field, he shifted his hips like a cornerback, switched into a faster gear like a sports car and tracked the ball until he hauled in the out over his left shoulder.
Out of all the catches made by the many defenders in baseball history, Mays owns the one simply coined, “The Catch.” And it wasn’t just the play that was spectacular, the context of when and where the catch was made is integral to why this play has stood strong for years.
It was Game 1 of the World Series matchup between the Giants and Indians. The teams met at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan, New York, and found themselves tied 2-2 in the top of the eighth inning.
Two runners were on the bags after Giants pitcher Sal Maglie walked the first batter and gave up a single to the second. New York’s manager saw enough and went to his bullpen, calling up left-hander Don Liddle to face Wertz, a left-handed hitter.
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The pair began an intricate dance as Wertz worked the count. He was looking at a 2-1 count, when he tried to take the leather off the ball, sending it 420 feet to dead center. In most baseball stadiums, that would’ve been a three-run shot, but at the Polo Grounds, with Mays in shallow center, it wasn’t nearly enough.
In mid-sprint, Mays made the over-the-shoulder grab on the warning track, and then had the wherewithal to spin and throw the ball to hold the runner coming from second base at third. Had the runner at second base stayed on the bag, like the runner on first base did, to see how things played out, it’s possible he could’ve scored. Instead, he started tagging up as soon as he saw the ball in the air, and then had to hustle back to second before retagging and only making it to third base.
NBC announcer Jack Brickhouse called the play alongside Russ Hodges, who walked viewers at home through Mays’ heroics.
Brickhouse: “There’s a long drive way back in center field. Way back, back. It is … caught by Willie Mays! The runner on second, Doby, is able to tag and go to third. Willie Mays just brought this crowd to its feet with a catch … which must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people. Boy! See where that 483-foot mark is in center field? The ball itself … Russ, you know this ballpark better than anyone else I know, had to go about 460, didn’t it?”
Hodges: “It certainly did, and I don’t know how Willie did it, but he’s been doing it all year.”
The game stretched on for two more innings until the Giants’ Dusty Rhodes pinch hit a three-run homer in the 10th inning. New York won the World Series in a sweep.
Mays, a 1979 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, hit 660 homers, has 3,283 hits, 1,903 runs and stole 338 bases in his 22-year career. He also collected 12 Gold Glove Awards, so is it any wonder that Mays, 85, not only owns one of the best catches of the postseason, but also one of the best the majors has ever seen?