SAY HEY! Happy 81st Birthday Willie Mays!!

In honor of Willie Mays’ 81st Birthday today Punky G. is re-printing an excerpt from a piece written by Roger Angell in The New Yorker on May 27, 1991. The article came from his visit to the Giants Spring Training camp that year, and is titled “Homeric Tales.”

Hank Aaron 755
Babe Ruth 714
Willie Mays 660
Frank Robinson 586
Harmon Killebrew 573
Reggie Jackson 563
Mike Schmidt 548
Mickey Mantle 536
Jimmy Foxx 534
Ted Williams 521
Willie McCovey 521

Willie Mays, sole proprietor of the six hundred level on the distinguished list above, still looked loose when he once again came to Scottsdale for the spring semester as some kind of coach for the Giants. (One Giants official, asked by a visiting TV reporter for Mays’ job description, said, “Willie’s work here is to be Willie Mays.”) Some mornings you could hear Mays’ boyish, high-voiced, jabbering way of talking even before you got through the tunnel into the clubhouse, and you’d find him in there perhaps autographing boxes of team baseballs at a table while he agitated with the clubhouse man and anybody else around. Each day, he wore a faded pink polo shirt with “Say Hey” over the breast. He looked his age – he just turned sixty – but you could still see the thick muscles under the now softer skin in his forearms. He was a little impatient when I asked him to remember a home run for me – I hadn’t stopped to think what sort of catalogue selection this would entail – but then he said, “Home run against Claude Raymond, in the Astrodome. Somebody was on first, and it tied the game. Jim Davenport won it for us in the eleventh or twelfth inning. Raymond threw me thirteen fastballs, and I fouled them off. The ball went over the fence in left-center field. What year? You’d have to look it up. Ask Claude Raymond – he probably knows it better than I do. That was the only dramatic type of home run I ever hit.”

Tracking this one down took a while, but the trip was worth it. Lon Simmons, a handsome, deep-voiced veteran California broadcaster, vividly remembered the confrontation and its result, and said he thought that the blow had been Mays’ six-hundredth round-tripper. Not quite, it turned out. No. 600, on September 22, 1969, was in fact a game-winning pinch-hit job, down in San Diego, when Mays batted for George Foster and hit one out against a rookie pitcher named Mike Corkins.

“Why’d it have to be me?” Corkins said disconsolately to his manager Preston Gomez, after the game. (I found the tale in Charles Einstein’s book “Willie’s Time.”)

“Son,” Gomez said gently, “there’ve been five hundred and ninety-nine before you.”

I continued the quest over the telephone once I got home, helped immeasurably by a bulldog Giants media person at Candlestick Park. “What about this one?” she said, evidently consulting some thick Book of Willie out there by the bay. “August 29, 1965 – a three-run homer against Jack Fisher of the Mets, in the ninth inning. It was Willie’s seventeenth of the month.”

“Sorry,” I said. “It’s got to be in Houston.”

“Hmmmm. Well – Oops, how about June 13, 1967? Mays failed as a pinch hitter in the sixth inning, in Houston, but stayed in the game and won it with a grand slam against Barry Latman. It was his first slam since ’62.”

“Wrong pitcher,” I said. “It sounds exciting, but who are we to say?”

There was another pause, and then she had it. The homer, Willie’s No. 501, had indeed tied up the game, just as Mays told me, in the Astrodome on September 14, 1965 – a fearsome month in the National League, I recalled, when the Giants had fought off two or three closely pursuing clubs, only to fall to the Dodgers near the end. Mays, going for the fences in the ninth, had become “embroiled in a prolonged battle with reliever Claude Raymond,” my faraway researcher read aloud, and had fouled off four pitches before “sending the ball soaring four hundred feet over the center-field fence.” Davenport’s pinch-hit single then won the game, in the twelfth.

Four foul balls?” I went to Claude Raymond, just as Willie had told me to in the first place. Possibly the only Quebec-born right-hander yet to attain the majors (Denis Boucher, a habitant rookie twirler with the Blue Jays, throws left and bats right), Raymond had wound up his career, predictably enough, with the Montreal Expos in 1971, and had then stayed on as a color commentator for the club. I called him at home, and he remembered the moment at once.

“I threw Mays thirteen straight fastballs,” he said, even before I could ask. “And he fouled off thirteen. Jay Alou was the base runner on first, and Mays was up there to hit a home run. All those fouls were nicks or little ticks back to the screen – nothing close to a base hit. Then I threw one more, a little inside, and Willie bailed out but opened up on the ball at the same time, the way only he could do, and it went out. I remember Paul Richards, our general manager came up to me afterward and said how happy he was I’d gone fastball all the way. He said it was a great duel.”

I told Raymond that Mays had described it as the only dramatic home run of his career.

“Well it’s a great compliment,” Raymond said, in his pleasing North Gaul tones. “You can thank him for me.”

Willie was right about the thirteen fouls, after all, but perhaps we can quarrel with him just the same. David Bush covers the Athletics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and when I asked him to remember a homer for me he came up with a long standoff game he’d listened to at home, on the radio, back when he was a freshmen at U.C. Berkeley n 1963. “That game matched up Juan Marichal, of the Giants, against Warren Spahn, and it went on interminably,” Bush said. “No score after nine innings, no score after twelve. Both the starting pitchers stayed in there. I was a Giants fan, of course, but by this time I was rooting for Spahn, because of who he was and because he was just about at the end of his career. Willie beat him, 1-0, with a homer in the bottom of the sixteenth. I didn’t see it, but I still feel as if I almost saw it. It was that kind of hit.

David’s story reminded me of something, and when I got home I dug out my files of the SABR Bulletin, a useful newsletter published for members of the Society for American Baseball Research. There, in the February, 1991, issue, I reconfirmed the news: Willie Mays is the only major-league ballplayer to have hit a home run in every inning from the first through the sixteenth; moreover, he leads all comers with twenty-two lifetime extra-inning home runs. (Jack Clark is second, with seventeen.) Too bad none of them were dramatic.

Happy Birthday Willie Mays!

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