(Note: This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on October 30, 2021, as “America’s Game has provided thrills for decades.”)
Now is the time of year for Major League Baseball’s playoffs and World Series.
Looking back over my ten years writing a column for the Newport Daily News, I am stunned that I have yet to write a single column on America’s Game and my favorite. Today I shall correct that.
Having grown up in northeast New Jersey in the 1950s and 60s, I was spoiled by the New York Yankees as we have been spoiled these past two decades with the winning New England Patriots. I lived through the latter part of the “Yankees Dynasty,” that period from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, when Yankee teams dominated major league baseball. From 1927 to 1953, the Yankees won 16 league titles and 15 world championships.
Until I entered high school in 1962, the question generally was not would the Yankees make the World Series. They usually did. The question was would they win the World Series.
During the 1950s and 1960s, our Boston Red Sox were in their long drought (1918-2004) without a single world championship and were playing under the “Curse of the Bambino” (Babe Ruth) whom they had sold to the Yankees in 1920.
Besides Ted Williams, Red Sox fans had little to cheer about in the 1950s. This changed somewhat in the 1960s, especially the 1967 season, the year of the “Impossible Dream,” a subject for a separate column.
Fifty years ago this month, neither team made the World Series. In 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Baltimore Orioles in seven games. Ironically, this year, both clubs had two of the worst records in Major League Baseball.
With fond memories, I remember attending my first big league game in 1956 or 1957, watching the New York Giants, featuring Willie Mays, against the Chicago Cubs, featuring Ernie Banks, whose baseball card I possessed. It was our end-of-year Little League trip. I did not mind that we were deep in the right field grandstands. I was there with my brother, my friends, my glove, and my baseball hat, eventually soiled by a pigeon in the rafters.
It was seventy years ago that Mays, number 24, broke into the major leagues, four years behind Jackie Robinson, number 42.
Mays went on to play a remarkable 22 seasons, most with the New York/San Francisco Giants. He was arguably the best all-around player in baseball history: 660 home runs, 3,283 hits, 338 stolen bases, 12 straight Golden Gloves, 24 All-Star Game appearances. He could do it all: hit for average and for power, field, throw, and run the bases.
Having just turned 20, weeks before, he made his major league debut on May 25, 1951, at Shibe Park in Philadelphia with Leo Durocher as his manager.
In his book, “24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid,” written with John Shea, Mays relates that he was scouted by the Red Sox, White Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers, but he was signed by the New York Giants.
“It worked out. I liked the Giants. The Red Sox scouted me, too. They didn’t like African American guys back then so I didn’t get a chance to play there. I came to the Giants because other teams didn’t take me. The Red Sox, they finally brought in Pumpsie Green. Second baseman, slick-fielding. That wasn’t until 1959. Other teams were slow, too. Maybe I was meant to be a Giant.”
In that rookie year, he helped the Giants come from a 13.5 game deficit to take the national league pennant from the Brooklyn Dodgers. This was sealed on October 3, 1951, with one of the greatest moments in baseball history when Bobby Thomson hit a home run—“the shot heard round the world”—off of Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca. Mays was on deck and thought Branca might walk Thomson and pitch to him.
In that first year in the major leagues, Willie Mays batted .274, with 20 home runs and 68 runs-batted-in. He was voted the Rookie of the Year.
John Shea states: “He was more than a ballplayer. Baseball’s greatest star was baseball’s greatest entertainer.” Mays responded: “I just feel that when you’re playing sports, you have to do more than catch the ball and throw it back in. You have to do something different. You’ve got to improvise sometimes for the fans …. Make it fun. I tried to do something different at all times.”
His famous basket catches were more than fun; they were marvels.
Still playing baseball in his dreams, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.