It’s September 29, 1954. We’re at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan, New York City. It’s Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, and it’s in the top of the 8th inning. The New York Giants are playing the Cleveland Indians. The score is tied 2-2. Larry Doby is on second base, and Al Rosen is on first. The count is 2-1. Vic Wertz is at the plate. Most people know what happens next, but most don’t know what led up to it. And for everything that made what led up to it special, it deserves a look back in time.
It’s the end of the 1953 season. The Yankees have continued their dynasty by beating the Brooklyn Dodgers 4-2 in the World Series. This would come as a surprise to most, as the Dodgers were a better team record-wise than the Yankees. The closest team to making the World Series were the Indians, and they went 92-62. The Giants? They’re sitting at 10th in the 16 team MLB, and 5th in the National League. Their record was a measly 70-84, worse than their 1952 campaign which ended at 92-62. Al Dark was the clear leader of the 1952 squad, and he had hit .301 with 14 home runs.
There was definitely hope, as there was this young guy by the name of Willie Mays. He had only played in 34 games, and he hit .236 with 4 home runs. But in 1953, Al Dark was still the leader of the team, but Mays was gone. He was serving his country in the military. There was hope for the 1954 version of the Giants, but a trip to the World Series wasn’t expected to happen this fast.
In 1954, the Giants finished 97-57, and they won the NL pennant. There was one clear star, and his name was Willie Mays. He led the team in batting, and in fielding. Keep that fielding part in mind. He was only 23 years old.
The opponent for the Giants in the World Series? Oh, that’s the Cleveland Indians. They had finished 111-43, and they were clear favorites to win the World Series. So when Game 1 started, it was merely a formality to get this World Series done with. But there was only one problem-they were playing at the Polo Grounds. The Giants were fourth in the MLB in attendence at 1,155,067 people, so this was pretty serious.
It’s been knotted at 2-2 since the bottom of the third, and it looked like that would change in the bottom of the 4th when Al Dark had singled to advance Wes Westrum to third. That’s when Don Mueller stepped up to the plate. He had hit .342 that year, and he was NOT the kind of person a pitcher would want to face. But then he grounded out to 1B, and the inning was over.
There would be some close calls, but none closer than the Mays play. That brings us back to the moment.
On a 2-1 count, Vic Wertz hit a line drive fly ball to deep center field. Mays, who was playing shallow, ran back, and he made a basket catch over his shoulder. He did not look at the ball that he was catching. But the part that really made it special was the throw. After catching the ball, Mays stopped, and he turned around and threw a one hopper to the infield. If Mays were to not make that throw in time, Larry Doby could’ve easily got to home. Doby was an ultra-fast player, and he was not shy on the basepaths.
That saved the inning, the game, the World Series, and maybe even Mays’s reputation.
The game went into extras, and Dusty Rhodes walked it off in the tenth.
What defined “the catch”? What made it so special? Could it happen today? How could it possibly save Mays’s reputation? What made us remember it so well? Why does it seem to be the greatest play of all time? These are questions that I will answer right now.
To me, “the catch” wasn’t about the catch itself, but more about the throw. Mays just stopped when he caught the ball. And then the arm strength to whip it to the infield. Especially in the Polo Grounds, which was a football stadium, a throw from CF is very difficult.
This catch can never happen today because of two reasons. 1) The Polo Grounds does not exist, so a CF would never have to run as fast as Mays did. 2) There is not CF capable of doing was Mays did-no play today has that athleticism.
The footage to me was so good, that it causes us to remember it. If the footage was not good, and eventually the accounts of the game died, then so would “the catch”.
How could it possibly save Mays’s reputation? Well, this was Mays’s first good year, and he was definitely very shy. He wasn’t very outgoing, and at the time he believed that he could catch any ball that went into the outfield. Missing that ball would’ve rattled his confidence, and it would have shaken him, deeply. Baseball is played off of confidence, and he would have none.
The Giants ended up sweeping the Indians the rest of the way. But most will only hold on to that one game, one moment. And they only need to. That moment defined Willie Mays for the player he was-and the player that he would become. Not only is he an all-time great, he is the best of all time in my book. He’s the one that had it all, and he was so good, that he earned mine–and most people’s votes.
This blog was one of the three retrospectives that I will be doing of baseball’s greatest moments, and then on Friday I will release my ranking with a little surprise. See you tomorrow!