In 1951, Marilyn Monroe was a starlet, Bobby Orr a baby, Hubert Humphrey a comer—and Willie Mays very nearly the same phenomenon he was last week. In harsh heat and foggy chill, and under the intense scrutiny such a situation demanded, he chased after his 3,000th hit—and seemed to blossom rather than wilt under the pressure. He reached the milestone Saturday at home in San Francisco in the second inning against Montreal, when he stroked an 0-and-2 pitch between short and third. It was hardly an appropriate hit for the occasion, taking everything about Willie Mays into consideration, being neat and solid rather than spectacular and dramatic. But it was No. 3,000—and then he promptly collected No. 3,001, which is really what Willie Mays is all about.
In the stretch run to his latest achievement, marvelous old middle-aged Willie was sprinting all the way. On a six-game tear that carried him to the magic mark, he went 10 for 23 and showed the whole watching world that he could still do it all. In one of those games, Mays ranged past his rightfielder once to make a running catch. He cut off a drive to deep left-center barehanded. He went from first to second on a fly ball in the ninth inning of a game after playing 14 innings (and hitting a ninth-inning homer) the night before. He stole one game with a burst of 11th-inning speed.
Who else is still flashing a verve that dates back to the Korean War? "The only difference between the young Mays and the old Mays," says Montreal manager Gene Mauch, "is that it's hard for a 39-year-old man to feel up to playing like Willie Mays every day. But when he feels like it—when I see him up at the plate with the lineup card and he has that look, I say, 'oh, bleep.'"
But time, after all, has passed. This year Mays was the oldest man ever elected to a starting All-Star position, and with 20 homers already he stands a good chance of becoming the oldest man ever to hit his age in home runs. (Babe Ruth hit only 22 at the same stage in life.) It has been 15 years, probably, since Mays last actually said, "Say Hey!" and almost two decades since Leo Durocher listed the five things Mays could do better, all of them put together, than anyone else: run, throw, field, hit and hit with power. Since then, Willie's distinctions have grown more complex. So a new scouting report on the Giants' still-volatile elder statesman seems in order.
July 26, 1970
RUNNING: Mays has stolen only two bases this year, in two attempts. But Giants outfielder Frank Johnson says, "I've got pretty good speed, but I'm not so sure I could outrun him if he turned it on. The other night he was running on 3 and 2, and it was a wild pitch, and he turned second and I mean he really ran to third. He ran like a sprinter and he slid hard. A lot of guys wouldn't have done that—especially somebody 39. And the way he runs, his feet flying ... we were behind third, he was bearing down on us and we jumped up on the bench and said, 'Did you see that?' He does things that just thrill me to death."
THROWING: Mays has a wide variety of throws to choose from, depending on what direction and what posture he is running in when he releases the ball. He comes underarm, sidearm, three-quarter and then he has a sort of hook shot. Says rightfielder Bobby Bonds, "I don't think Willie knows how strong his arm still is on the days when it isn't hurting and it's especially loose. The other day he threw a strike to the plate from the wall in Cincinnati."
FIELDING: Both Bonds and Ken Henderson, being 24 and fleet, might be considered more appropriate centerfielders than a man almost old enough to be their father. It might also be suspected that Mays is kept in center lest his pride be hurt. The truth is that he is still master of his position. "He gets to balls that I didn't think anybody could reach—that I don't think I could reach," says Bonds. What Mays has lost in speed he makes up for with consummate judgment of trajectories and fences and an encyclopedic knowledge of where to play all of the league's hitters.
HITTING: Mays has always been death on changeups because his reflexes are too good to be fooled. "He looks jerky up there," says Houston ace Larry Dierker. "He bounces around and doesn't look balanced. So you'd think he couldn't hit an off-speed pitch. You throw him one, though, and he jumps forward but his hands stay back—and then boom. He has such reflexes that he can wait until the last moment before he commits his hands." Traditionally Mays has been almost as deadly against curves, sliders and other off-speed pitches. Fastballs have always given him the most trouble.
"Why don't you throw me some breaking stuff?" Mays grumbled to Houston's George Culver the other evening during batting practice. "You throw it to everybody else. Me, just smoke. I thought sure I'd get a slider from you, George, but no. Smoke."
"Hell," replied Culver, "you hit it 390 feet."
"Naw," said Mays. "I cut it."
In a similar vein last year, when asked whether he liked fastball pitchers, Mays put a counter-question: "Who do?" But the matter is more involved than that. Anyone who waits so long to commit himself on breaking pitches has to make some provision, especially as he gets up in years, for getting around on tight fast-balls. Mays, never one to stop at un-orthodoxy, has managed to get the meat of his bat in front of inside hummers by "bailing out," or pulling his body laterally away from the pitch. In other hitters this is counted a fault. Willie, though, when he is going good, can bail back in if the pitch breaks away from him, and he is strong enough to hit a ball for distance while leaning away from it.
TEAMMATE: Mays, affectionately called Willie Howard by President Horace Stoneham, enjoys a special status. He decides when he will play, and last year when he had a shoving match with manager Clyde King in full view of the stands, King's demise was predictable. King's replacement, Charlie Fox, has been friendly with Mays ever since Willie joined the Giants' organization.
Mays is team captain, and the Giants call him "Will" or "Buck" or "Cap." "He's a beautiful person," says Johnson. "I don't think anybody on the club dislikes him. If they do they're crazy." Bonds adds, "He's the most nonchalant superstar you'll ever see. He acts just like he draws the minimum."
Mays has taught the young outfielders how to play the hitters and to some extent how to play the ball. He also goes over the hitters with the day's starting pitcher, and when utility infielder Tito Fuentes was asked how he knew when to call time and go talk with a shaky pitcher he said, "I look to Mays. He gives the sign."
Mays's relations with Willie McCovey are very good, but he and Juan Marichal have never been buddies. Last winter Marichal told a Dominican newspaperman that Mays was not what he used to be and ought to consider quitting, and the story got back to this country. Marichal claimed he was misinterpreted and Mays says he has forgotten the whole thing, but students of the Giants keep looking for signs to the contrary. Last month in Cincinnati when Mays suffered an apparent simple lack of concentration and let a long fly off Marichal fall in for a triple, the radio announcers immediately termed the incident "strange" and "weird."
PUBLIC RELATIONS: Mays would rather not have his significance probed and belabored in interviews with the press, with whom he is wary. The San Francisco writers give him his due as "incomparable," but many avoid him personally because "he never says anything." He is defensive toward writers he hasn't known for a long time. He can also be curt, and what American boy—or sportswriter—wants Willie Mays to have been curt with him?
In Houston a long-faced fan kept yelling "Hey, Willie" at Mays from the stands, following him around, tonelessly demanding an autograph while Mays was conferring with his peers during batting practice. Finally the man threw his program and a pen onto the field at Mays' feet, without a word. Mays tossed them back at him without a word.
When Mays got close to his 3,000th hit the Giants announced that everyone attending the game in which he reached the milestone would win a free ticket to a future game. Last Friday night the weather in Candlestick was frigid and the wind was blowing great billows of fog briskly across the field, but Mays played, with a head cold, perhaps because he felt he owed it to the fans who had come out and perhaps because he wanted to get the 3,000th hit, an ordeal which was making him more and more nervous. After he hit a three-run homer in the eighth, his 2,999th, the crowd chanted "we want Willie," but what they wanted, said the press-box consensus, was free tickets.
EMINENCE: Ironically, Henry Aaron, overshadowed by Mays for most of his career, made Mays's 3,000th hit something of an anticlimax early this season by beating him to the mark. The low-keyed Aaron has blossomed in the last two years as a national figure, whereas Mays has had to live up to an image of ebullient heroism incurred when he was 20. By the time both have retired, Aaron will probably have exceeded most of Mays' lifetime batting statistics, but Aaron himself has said that it is much easier to hit in Atlanta Stadium than in Candlestick Park, where the fierce winds blow in against a righthanded hitter, and that Mays could have been well past 3,000 hits by now and possibly threatening Ruth's 714-homer record (Mays has 620) if he had not spent the last 11 years in Candlestick.
FUTURE: "Have you ever seen a 39-year-old with a body like that?" asks Johnson. Mays is even trimmer than he was last year. He has the kind of compact, slim-legged build that supports a long career. After the All-Star Game, three days before Friday's chiller in San Francisco, Mays looked ghastly, but he is healthier this year than he has been for some time, and earlier in the season he said he could go two or three more years. He has said he wants to manage and that he doesn't want to manage.
When Mays is poised in the outfield or at bat he still seems more eager, or anxious, than anybody else. He has the air of that kid in a pickup game who has more ability and fire than the others and wishes intensely that they would come on and play right and raise the whole game to a level commensurate with his own gifts and appetites. Mays does not say so, but it is hard not to suspect that he feels that way toward it all—the fans, the park, the press. And these days he must finally be saying, "Come on, play right" to himself, too. When he does, and when he responds as he has over the last two weeks, Frank Johnson is not the only one who is thrilled to death.