When I was four or five years old, in 1954 or 1955, my father, a decorated World War II combat veteran, started taking me to the Polo Grounds to savor the incomparable talents – as a fielder, hitter and baserunner – of New York Giants centerfielder Willie Mays.
We lived in a six-story apartment building less than a quarter-mile from Yankee Stadium, where a neighbor was Yankee slugger Johnny Mize, who played on five consecutive World Series champions between 1949 and 1953. Mize’s cousin, Claire Merritt Ruth, was the widow of Yankee immortal Babe Ruth (1895-1948), and she would frequently stay with the Mizes during the season.
Incidentally, Jacqueline LaMotta, the daughter of Ida and Jake LaMotta, the World Middleweight champion between 1949 and 1951, also lived in our building. Ida divorced Jake in the late 1940’s, when Jacqueline was a toddler, and she then married another stocky man, whose name I don’t recall, but who also had the flattened nose of a prize fighter. Ida and her second husband had two daughters.
Anyway, instead of watching the Yankees at the Stadium, my father preferred to walk, another quarter-mile or so, across the Macombs Dam Bridge, which spans the East River between Manhattan and the Bronx, to see the Giants play another National League club. (There were no inter-league regular season Major League Baseball games until 1997.)
While I have no memories of any specific games or plays, I vividly recall holding my father’s hand as we descended the dozens of steps, at the midspan of the 155th Street viaduct that ascended from the Manhattan end of the Macombs Dam Bridge to Coogan’s Bluff, which overlooked the Polo Grounds.
The Polo Grounds was located in northern Manhattan, between Harlem and Washington Heights, and my paternal grandmother lived in the latter neighborhood between the late 1930’s and her death in 1980.
Since 1965, right across the street from the demolished Polo Grounds, is the playground where the famous Rucker basketball tournament is held.
Born on May 6, 1931, Willie Mays was 20 years old in May 1951, when the Giants called him up from the Triple AAA Minneapolis affiliate. The Giants won the pennant that season, in a decisive third-game playoff, against the Brooklyn Dodgers, on the ninth-inning, legendary home run by Bobby Thomson.
The Yankees then defeated the Giants in six games in the World Series, and Mays was chosen as the National League’s Rookie of the Year.
During the 1952 and 1953 seasons, Mays played only 25 games, as he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. If he hadn’t missed most of these two seasons, Mays, who hit 660 homers, would have certainly broken Ruth’s 714 home-run record.
Hank Aaron (1934-2021), who like Mays grew-up in Jim Crow Alabama, exceeded Ruth’s record during the 1974 season.
In 1954, Mays hit 41 homers, won the NL’s Most Valuable Player Award, and led the Giants to victory in the World Series, an 4-0 sweep of the Cleveland Indians.
In the first game, he executed the spectacular catch, with his back to home plate and near the centerfield wall, of a blast from the bat of Vic Wertz.
After the 1957 season, the Giants relocated to San Francisco and the Brooklyn Dodgers decamped to Los Angeles.
My father was not a fan of the perennially inept N.Y. Mets, who began playing at the Polo Grounds in 1962, and who won only 40 games and lost 120 during that inaugural season. Casey Stengel, who coached the Yankees to seven world titles between 1949 and 1958, was the Mets first coach, and he famously remarked: "Can’t anyone play this game?!"
The Mets relocated to Shea Stadium in Queens in 1964, and Willie Mays returned to NYC and spent his last two seasons, 1972 and 1973, with the Mets. The Oakland Athletics defeated the Mets in the 1973 World Series, in seven games.
Remarkably, Willie Mays, in 70 years as an American superstar, has managed to dodge the scandals and the self-destructive behaviors, which afflict – and often kill - celebrities in sports, politics, the arts and business.
What an exemplary life of four score and ten years has Willie Mays built.
In 2016, Vince Scully, the peerless Dodgers announcer since 1950, interviewed Mays, whom he confessed was always his "favorite player, but who was wearing the wrong uniform." Scully also stated, accurately, that he was "the greatest player I ever saw."
Happy Birthday, "The Say Hey Man," and may you live to 120.
Mark Schulte is a retired New York City schoolteacher and mathematician who has written extensively about science and the history of science. Read Mark Schulte's Reports — More Here.
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