Even Giants legend Willie Mays can't catch ‘em all — just ask the Cubs


Anybody who’s ever heard of Willie Mays knows about “The Catch” in the 1954 World Series — full sprint, back to the plate, over-the-shoulder, more than 450 feet from home plate.

The most famous catch in baseball history.

But “The Drop”?

That might be even more amazing, considering it came just seven months later — against Ernie Banks and the Cubs — on an “easy pop fly” that the man many consider the greatest center fielder of all-time had go off his glove as he tried to make one of his trademark “basket catches.”

If that play 65 years ago today wasn’t exactly spectacular, it certainly was more newsworthy in retrospect. Mays made more than 7,000 catches in the outfield during his Hall of Fame career, more than anyone else in history — at least a few considered even better than the famed 1954 catch of Vic Wertz’ drive.

He only dropped two of the showy, basket-style catches in his career, as chronicled in Mays’ entertaining new book with longtime San Francisco baseball writer John Shea, “24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid.”

Mays tells Shea in the book that he “perfected” the style during a hitch in the Army at Fort Eustis (Va.), where he played a lot of baseball, in part to entertain troops.

“I wanted to learn something that was different [while there], give ‘em something to write about, and I tried catching the ball different ways,” Mays says. The underhand catch at the belt quickly became his calling card on routine flies the rest of his career.

Shea, who spent more than 100 hours with Mays for the book, shared this additional comment from his notes:

“I came back to the Giants,” Mays said, “and Leo [Durocher] said, ‘Just don’t f—-ing drop it.’ He said, ‘You miss one, it’ll cost you 50.’ I missed two in 22 years.”

It was nine years before it happened again.

The first one, on Banks’ pop, came in the eighth inning of a 3-3 game with one out at the Polo Grounds. Banks wound up on second, and the Giants walked the next batter intentionally.

“A moment later, 4,468 paying customers, about 8,000 youngsters [admitted on passes] and Willie himself breathed a sigh of relief” when Gene Baker then lined into an inning-ending double play, the New York Times wrote.

An excerpt from the Chicago Tribune report that day: “When Willie Mays came into the Giants’ dugout after dropping Ernie banks’ easy fly ball, he heard strange music as many among the 4,468 greeted him with a fine display of the old Bronx cheer.”

Mays’ teammate Joey Amalfitano, a second-year infielder for the Giants that year and later a Cubs teammate of Banks, doesn’t remember Durocher’s reaction.

“I used to sit as far away as possible from Leo as I could when I was a kid,” Amalfitano said by phone. “But Leo’s relationship with Willie, it was kind of special. I don’t think Leo would raise his voice to Willie.”

Whatever the manager took out of Mays’ wallet, Mays’ pal Banks, who switched from shortstop to first base in the early 1960s, wasn’t likely to let him forget the flub anytime soon.

As Amalfitano said, “I know when I was with the Cubs and we’d play the Giants, he’d always kibbitz with Willie on first base. God only knows what the conversation was over there.”

Alas, for Cubs fans on that day in New York 65 years ago, Whitey Lockman homered off Sam Jones in the 11th to beat the Cubs 4-3.

Add it to the long list of times Cub-killer Mays and the Giants came out on top. Mays produced a higher OPS (1.000) and slugging percentage (.611) against the Cubs than anyone else. It was 1.077 and .664 at Wrigley Field.

Mays and Shea’s book is filled with stories of Mays’ path from the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues to New York to San Francisco to the Hall of Fame, including why Mays believes he would have been the wrong choice to integrate the game if Jackie Robinson hadn’t come along first.

But Mays touting the merits of the basket-catch style because it somehow put him in better position to make a throw is worth a look all by itself.

No matter what you might have been told by every coach you’ve ever encountered.

Are you going to argue with Willie Mays about catching and throwing a baseball?

Think about it. And then take another look at “The Catch” in 1954.

“That’s definitely a form of the basket catch,” Shea said during a conversation about the book. “Except 460 feet from the plate, and with his back to the plate.”

So listen to Willie, kids (from the book):

“If you want to try the basket catch, that’s your decision. But if you get hit in the head, remember I warned you.”

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