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THINGS ARE DIFFERENT THIS YEAR FOR WILLIE MAYS
“When I know that I can’t maintain certain standards that I set for myself, you won’t see me playing ball anymore.”
Sport World
August 1967
By Jack Hand

Way back yonder in 1954 when Willie Mays played his first All-Star game, the starting lineup was populated by men like Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Ted Kluszewski and Robin Roberts.

All of those teammates have passed on to other fields.  They are managing, coaching, running a business, dabbling in politics or working behind a microphone.  Only Mays remains.

The game is the one that was made for Wonderful Willie.  He plays it like he owns it.  In 17 games over a stretch of 13 years he has compiled an amazing .379 batting average.

Just look at the credentials he takes into the 1967 contest in the soft twilight hours of a Summer afternoon in Anaheim, California, July 11:
 
G
AB
R
H
TB
2B
3B
HR
SB
RBI
AVG
17
58
19
22
39
2
3
3
6
9
.379

Over that amazing stretch Willie has scored more runs than any other player in either league, 19, and collected more hits, 22, than any other man.  He also is tops with six stolen bases although speed no longer is his forte.

It makes no difference how they select the team.  Willie always is in centerfield whether the fans, managers, owners or, as it is now, his fellow players, make the selections.  He didn’t come up from Minneapolis in time to rate a call in his rookie year, 1951, and he left for the Army early in 1952.  When he returned to action in 1954, he made the club.  They haven’t dared leave him off since.

When Willie first joined the All-Star club, the American League still held a 12-8 bulge although its early lopsided margin had begun to crumble.  After the 2-1 victory in the St. Louis heat last July, the National held a 19-17-1 edge.  That means in the 17 games with Mays the National has hammered out an 11-5-1 margin of superiority.

Sport Scene, September 1971
Things will be different at the All-Star game for Willie Mays this year.

Every time Mays is interviewed these days the questions eventually get around to Babe Ruth and the home run record.  It has reached the point where Mays hates to talk about it.

All last season Willie was under tremendous pressure as he caught Mel Ott, Ted Williams and Jimmy Foxx to become the greatest right-handed homer hitter in baseball history with 542.  Only the Babe and his awesome total of 714 lies ahead.

“Man, just don’t even ask me about that,” is Willie’s stock answer when the subject gets around to the Babe.  “Ruth was in a class all by himself.  I just want to keep going and not think or talk about that.”

Willie’s wishes and the future course of events are not necessarily the same.  As long as Mays swings a bat he is going to get questions about Ruth’s record.  And there are many who think he can do it.

Mays was 35 when the 1967 season started but he turned 36 on May 6.  He is 172 short of Ruth’s record.  But he has hit 174 in the last four years.

If Willie can last until he is 41, he should be able to close the gap in five years.  After all, he would have to average only 35 a year and he has been under 35 only once in 14 full seasons.  His high was in 1965 when he hit 52.

Camera men and reporters haunted Willie’s steps last year as he drove on a succession of homer marks.  The most trying ordeal was to top Ott’s 511 for the National League record.

“It wouldn’t have been so bad if we had been on the road,” said Mays.  “I probably would have been more relaxed and hit it sooner.  But every day we had all those photographers at the park, just waiting for me to hit it.  It was a strain but I am glad I could to it for the people in San Francisco.”

After the game, Herman Franks consoled Willie by saying, “You can relax now Willie, until you get to 714.”

There is fine rapport between the manager and the star in the case of Franks and Mays.  Herman lets Willie take a rest when he needs it.  He has made Mays a team leader as the captain.

“We have a complete understanding,” said Mays.  “If I wanted to go into the office to talk over anything, the door always was open.  The players know that Herman has given me authority as team captain.  I do not think that I have abused it.  Actually, I could do a lot more if I were an infielder.  It is hard to run in from center field.”

Despite his previous problems of collapsing on the bench and at home plate, Mays has been an amazingly durable athlete.  Last season he appeared in 152 games, missing only nine completely.  In a few contests he appeared only as a pinch-hitter or left the game early.

“When we’re way ahead or way behind, I’m going to ask out earlier,” said Mays, “Herman and I have a good understanding on that.”

Mays refuses to try to guess when he will have to step down.  It makes no difference to him that fellows like Ty Cobb and Stan Musial played ball well into their 40’s.

“I’ll be the one who will make the decision,” said Mays.  “It could be two, three or five years.  When I feel that I am embarrassing myself I’ll quit.  When I know that I can not maintain certain standards that I set for myself, you will not see me playing ball anymore.”

It will be a sad day for the Giants, the National League and all baseball when that day arrives because Willie is the last of the real legitimate superstars who can play every day.  Stan Musial and Williams have retired.  Mickey Mantle is a part time player due to his many injuries.  Only Mays goes on and on.

“You have to go way back to Joe DiMaggio to find a guy who can affect a game as many ways as Willie,” said Franks.  “In San Francisco that is the man they compare him with – DiMaggio.  As far as I’m concerned, Willie has to be the man.  He definitely could beat you more ways than Musial or Williams and I think he could do it more ways than Musial or Williams and I think he could do it more ways than DiMage.  On top of everything else he’ll even steal a base for you now and then.”

Chub Feeney, the Giants’ vice president and general manager, naturally is a great admirer of Mays.  It distresses him when others say that anybody can challenge Willie in the field.

“Willie is still the greatest center fielder in all baseball,” said Feeney.  “People talk about the Cardinals’ Curt Flood.  Willie plays in 30 feet closer than Flood or any of the others and still gets back to cover the same amount of ground, plus making those catches in close.”

Some inspired reporter once wrote of Willie that he plays the outfield as a fish swims or a bird flies.  He was pictured as a child of nature from the fields of Alabama who asked nothing more of life than a wide center field to roam and a bat to swing.  If that was true in the early days, it no longer is a true picture of the mature Mays.

Willie has fitted into San Francisco and owns an expensive home in a fine area.  He speaks before club and youth luncheon groups.  Off the field he has wide interest and has invested in a flourishing insurance business.

For some reason the effervescent Willie always has been the target for the taunts and kidding of his admiring fellow players with whom he is very popular.  They like to kid Mays who responds with that high piping voice that almost becomes a squeal.

Mays may have lost a step of the old speed that used to make him a menace on the base paths.  He only stole five last year but they threw him out only once.  The cap still flies off when he runs after a long drive and he still makes that special basket catch of the fly ball that has excited fans since 1951.

Despite a dip to .288 last season, Mays still has a lifetime batting average of .312 and remains the most exciting player to watch in all baseball.

For years, whenever there has been a challenger to Mays, it has been Curt Flood of the Cardinals, a superb glove man with extra base power.  Flood tailed off to .267 last year but that followed three straight years of .300 or better.

Flood fans have a point when they recall the little man’s feat of going through an entire season without and error while handling more chances than any other major league outfielder.  But Mays’ home run bat and his All-Star record give him the edge.

A new challenger has appeared in Jim Wynn, the fleet center fielder of the Houston Astros who hit 18 homers and knocekd in 62 runs before he crashed into a wall in Philadelphia Aug. 1, and was lost for the rest of the year.  Wynn had to wear a cast on his left wrist for four and a half months when the fracture was slow to heal and there was fear that he might have injured himself permanently.  However, he appears to be back on the beam.

Nobody gives a call to Pittsburgh’s platooning center fielders despite their senstional batting records of 1966.  Both Matty Alou, whos .342 led the league, and Manny Mota who hit .332, are talented outfielders with skillful bats.  Neither hits with power but both have developed their hitting by learining to slice the ball to the opposite field.

Vada Pinson of Cincinnati, an All-Star in 1959 and 1960, is an outstanding star of the game.  The fleet-footed Californian who never hits less than 16 homers and usually is close to 100 RBI’s toiled in the shadow of Frank Robinson for years.  His lifetime average of .301 always makes him a candidate in the All-Star voting.

Despite that horrible sunstruck inning in last year’s World Series, Willie Davis of the Dodgers is one of the best center fielders in the league.  He has great speed, probably the most in baseball in a straightaway race, and usually hits around the .270 level with some extra base power and an occasional home run.

Mack Jones of the Braves was slow in arriving but finally came into his own.  Mack the Knife hit 31 homers in 1965 and followed with 23 last year.  He should improve his .264 average.

Gene Mauch of the Phillies was so impressed by Don Lock’s performance in Washington that he made a deal for him during the winter.  “It’s the first time I’ve had a real center fielder,” said Gene.  Lock has good speed and power and is recognized as one of the better defensive outfielders.

Leo Durocher thinks he has come up with a man who can do the job in the former Phil, Adolfo Phillips from Panama.  Phillips moved into a regular job with the Cubs last year and contributed 16 homers to a last place attack.

The Mets dug into the Pirate farm system for a youngster with a fine reputation when they acquired Don Bosch from the Pirates’ Columbus link.

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