Do you want to know why the Giants are going to win the pennant? Well, darlings, I can tell you in two words: Willie Mays.
Not since John McGraw snatched Frank Frisch off the Fordham University campus to play second base have the Giants boasted so dazzling a star, such box-office dynamite. I don't want to put the whammy on Willie, but it's my guess that before he shucks his Giant uniform in 1970 he'll be rated with Babe Ruth. But what am I talking about? Willie's right up there with the Babe now in my book. Let's not have any filibustering by Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider fans. They're both crack center fielders and a credit to their parents. But they're not in Willie's class. When Willie's been around as long as those two laddybucks, he will have established a mass of new batting and fielding records – unless I miss my guess.
You think I'm getting too hysterical about Willie? Rubbish! We Giant fans haven't had a chance to gloat since Bobby Thomson sank the Dodgers with that home run in the play-off series in 1951. Last year, they straggled in a wretched fifth, 35 games behind the Dodgers. All season long, they wallowed around in second division with such as the Cubs, the Reds and the Pirates. If the guilt-by-association charge were generally accepted, they could have been judged on suspicion.
The reason for their collapse? They lacked something. Out with it, woman, what did they lack? Again, I can tell you in two words: Willie Mays. Thirty-five games off the lead last October and out in front in '54. That gives you an idea of the difference. Willie hasn't done all this, but he certainly has helped. He has that priceless light touch and gay spirit that make people like to have him around. He makes them all feel good. He's done oodles for the team morale. True, John Antonelli has probably bagged ten or fifteen games we would have lost if he had stayed in Milwaukee.
I keep a radio going in my dressing room whenever possible so I can hear the Giant games. I have always been a rabid Giant fan. The name Giants is right for my team. Who could stand in awe of a team named the Cubs? Cubs are cute. Or the Dodgers? I never dodged anything in my life. Cincinnati? Too many Republicans. Pittsburgh always depresses me. They beat the Giants too often, and the elevators in the William Penn Hotel are too confusing for words. What I like best about St. Louis is the zoo. And the beer is fine in Milwaukee. But the Giants are a name to look up to. And I simply must know how they are doing every day. Last summer during the Giants' six straight over Brooklyn, I was on stage each day for most of the third act. So one of the cast wrote the inning score on a card and stuck it in his shirt where I could see it when he walked on stage.
Leo Durocher says Willie makes the pitching staff stronger because he can catch anything, if it stays in the air long enough. He can throw'em out at home plate from deep center field, and he covers ground like a jack rabbit. When he has a good day, the Giants usually win.
Don't think Willie is just a long-ball hitter. He might well lead
all National League outfielders in put-outs
this season. The right-center, center and left-center stands in the Polo Grounds are the most distant of any park in the league. Willie has a lot of territory to roam. It's 480 feet to the center-field bleachers. And Willie has taken long drives against the center-field fence. His belt-buckle catches are the talk of baseball. I guess he must play center field by ear!
Willie does everything with a flourish. He has the spectacular
touch. Everything he does on a ball field has a theatrical quality.
Even when he strikes out, he can put on a show. In the terms of my
trade, Willie lifts the mortgage five minutes before the curtain falls.
He rescues the heroine from the railroad tracks just as she's about to
be sliced up by the midnight express. He routs the villain when all
seems lost. Willie has that indefinable thing called color.
Color blended with talent brings the highest prices in the amusement
market. Those blessed with both have what it takes at the box office.
But I do have one qualm about Willie Mays. Can he stand the long and uproarious cheering without getting dizzy? The applause of thousands is pretty intoxicating stuff for a 23-year-old. But I think Willie can take it. I thing he is the thoroughbred he looks. He will come through the wringer of publicity and acclaim unscathed. I'm convinced of this because I think he'd rather play ball than do anything else in the world. The joy and enthusiasm he puts into every play mark him as one dedicated. He goes all out on every swing of his bat, every racing catch. Not all players approach the game with such zest. A good many of them would rather be fishing or hunting. Ask any baseball manager. Willie is one of the fortunates of the world. He is paid for doing the thing he enjoys doing most. I wish I could say as much for Tallulah.
There's another reason I think Willie will become great without being spoiled. He has a tradition to live up to. It's the Alabama tradition. The Bankheads are long on Alabama tradition. I was brought up in Jasper, 30 miles from Birmingham. Willie was born in Fairfield, just a little south and west of Birmingham. Daddy's name was William Brockman Bankhead. But to family and friends (and voters, God bless them) he was Willie. My Grandmother Tallulah used to say when Daddy did something that pleased her, “Willie gets under my ribs.” My Grandmother wouldn't have known a baseball from a beaten biscuit, but Willie Mays would have gotten under her ribs too.
The stars sort of fell on Alabama when it comes to Negro athletes. The great and ageless Satchel Paige was born in Mobile. Monty Irvin, Willie's roommate, is from Columbia. Joe Louis was from Lexington. And Jesse Owens, the great runner who upset Hitler so much in the 1936 Olympics, was from Danville. Along with their other attributes, Negroes are natural athletes, dancers and musicians. They have grace, speed and superb reflexes.
When Jackie Robinson broke in with the Dodgers, he was the first player of his race ever to play in the big leagues. Jackie showed his appreciation and perhaps his sense of responsibility by belting a home run in the opening games at the Polo Grounds. I was among the thousands who rose to cheer him as he crossed the plate. Once Robinson hurdled the color taboo, democracy started to function in the major leagues. The Negro stars certainly have done something for baseball. There are Negroes on seven of the eight National League clubs. Not long ago, Brooklyn had five in the line-up in one day-five of the nine players on the field. The three top teams in the National League-Giants, Dodgers and Braves-have a total of thirteen, more in each case than any of the other clubs.
And baseball has done something for the Negroes too. If nothing else, it's unbigoted some bigots.
If the Giants win, it will of course be a team victory. They have good pitching, a good infield, good outfield and good hitting. It ought to be enough. But it takes more than just a platoon of players and Durocher to win a pennant. I believe Willie is the big difference. No one can improve on Willie's script, whether it's into the stands for a homer or three strikes and out. At least when it's the latter, you won't be seeing him do it with his bat on his shoulder.
There should be but one requisite for major-league ballplayers, just as there should be but one requisite for an actor or actress-quality of performance.
Quality is what Willie has in abundance.
Come on, you Giants. Come on, you Willie Mays!