MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
The other day, my co-host Robert Siegel dodged unplowed streets, he endured train cancelations and forecasts of still more snow, to go up to New York City and back.
And, Robert, you say that the trip was worth every minute of it.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
BLOCK: ...every Amtrak snack that passed itself off for a meal. The reason, summed up in two words.
SIEGEL: Two words: Willie Mays.
SIEGEL: There is a new authorized biography of Mays who was the most complete baseball player of his day, if not the best ever.
Unidentified Man #1: The player I was watching as a 12-year-old was one of the best and certainly in my view the best player of his era.
Unidentified Man #2: When I was a child and Mays was playing ball, every day was a summer day.
Unidentified Man #3: He was the best hitter, fielder, certainly the best base runner, and exemplified all of the inspirational sides of baseball because he played with such joy.
SIEGEL: Those are three guys my age, give or take a few years. And what still gets people like us idolaters on the subject of Willie Mays, is both the talent of the man and his joyful sense of showmanship.
Mr. WILLIE MAYS (Retired, Baseball Player): When I played ball, I tried to make sure that everybody enjoyed what I was doing. So what I did, I made the clubhouse guy fit me a cap that when I ran, the wind gets up in the bottom there and it flies right off. Well, people love that type of stuff, you know, and...
SIEGEL: But you did have the cap designed in such a way...
Mr. MAYS: Well...
SIEGEL: ...so that when you ran it would fly off your head?
Mr. MAYS: Well, no. You had to tilt your head a little bit because you got to get the wind in there. You can't just...
SIEGEL: So there was an art to this.
Mr. MAYS: There was an art that, you know, I couldn't tell everybody, you know, because then the secret would be already out. You know?
SIEGEL: Right. But you had your own way of catching a fly ball.
Mr. MAYS: Yes, I had my own way.
SIEGEL: You would catch it with the basket catch.
Mr. MAYS: Basket catch, yeah.
SIEGEL: Your glove down near your belt buckle. And...
Mr. MAYS: Yes. Yes. It was very difficult to do now.
SIEGEL: I know. It was every kid in America tried doing it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MAYS: They got to hit it.
SIEGEL: Because of you, we all tried doing this.
Mr. MAYS: Yeah, they got either got to hit in the head or either in the chest.
SIEGEL: You know, James Hirsch, who wrote the authorized biography...
Mr. MAYS: Yes, mm-hmm.
SIEGEL: ...attributes a lot of the excitement that you brought and a lot of the creativity that you brought to playing baseball, to the spirit of the Negro Leagues and to a different style of play there was there. And I've been thinking about this. Hank Aaron, Larry Doby came out of the Negro Leagues. They were great ballplayers but they didn't play with a style at all like yours. What do you think about...
Mr. MAYS: Well, I don't know how they played. I just played because I knew how to play ball long before I came there. My father was a steel mill worker, and he would teach me the game of baseball. So when I came to Birmingham Black Barons, I already knew how to play the game. So when you say Hank or Larry and all those guys, they had their own style. But maybe the things I did, my father had already taught me that you can do just anything in the outfield.
SIEGEL: Yeah, kids used to be taught when you're playing the outfield...
Mr. MAYS: Mm-hmm.
SIEGEL: ...if the ball is coming to you, a grounder is coming to you, you get down on one knee, you make sure you block the ball with your body so it doesn't get past you. And then you just stand up with it and you throw the ball in. That was not the way you played the outfield.
Mr. MAYS: No, I didn't play it that way. I charged.
SIEGEL: You charged the ball.
Mr. MAYS: I charged the ball like an infielder. I was a shortstop in high school so I knew exactly how to charge it.
SIEGEL: But charging the ball like that in the outfield meant that there was the risk that if you ran past the ball, people would boo you for that. They would...
Mr. MAYS: Well, who cares?
SIEGEL: Willie Mays is 78. When he was just 20, he helped turn the hapless New York Giants into pennant winners in his rookie season, 1951, and then into World Series champs in '54, the year he came back from the Army.
The James Hirsch biography has him on tour talking about his life, his career and inevitably, a play that he made in the cavernous center field of the Giants' home ballpark, the Polo Grounds.
Game One of the 1954 World Series against the Cleveland Indians: Two runners on base, slugger Vic Wertz at bat. In baseball lore it is known simply as The Catch.
Fred Wertheimer saw it live. Before he became an advocate for campaign finance reform, Fred cut his teeth on improbable causes, trying to convert his friends in Brooklyn into Giants fans.
Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (President/CEO, Democracy 21): I was sitting in the bleachers in deep right center field.
SIEGEL: The moment that followed was captured by artist Thom Ross, who made an installation of five plywood cutouts of Mays pulling off the catch.
Mr. THOM ROSS (Artist): It was a hit in the ballpark that there was never one like it before or since. So his catch could never be reproduced today.
SIEGEL: Again, Fred Wertheimer.
Mr. WERTHEIMER: I remember an extraordinary crack of the bat.
(Soundbite of a bat and a crowd)
Unidentified Man #4: There's home drive way back in center field...
SIEGEL: And Thom Ross.
Mr. ROSS: Mays turns his back, lowers his head and starts running after the ball.
Mr. WERTHEIMER: Now, for everyone else, he was running away but I was watching someone running right at me.
Mr. ROSS: Of course, there's no way that Mays is going to catch this ball. The ball is hit way too hard, way too low. It's not one of those towering high flies.
(Soundbite of cheering)
Unidentified Man #4: Willie Mays just brought this crowd to its feet with a catch which must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people.
(Soundbite of cheering)
Mr. MAYS: When the ball went up, I knew exactly what to do before the ball ever came down. I'm talking to myself as I'm running. I'm saying to myself, you've got get this ball back into the infield. You got to make sure that everything is happening within sequence. That means I got to catch the ball, I got to stop, I got to make a 360. By the time I make the 360, the ball should be back into the infield.
And a lot of people said, well, he had it all the way. Well, I might have the ball all the way but the key to me was the throw, getting it back into the infield so nobody could advance. That's all I'm thinking about right then. Yeah.
SIEGEL: You played for the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds...
Mr. MAYS: Yes.
SIEGEL: ...in 1951 when you came up, I guess through the 1957 season. And you were a hero in New York. I'm just curious, what was it like being the toast of the town in the biggest city in the country?
Mr. MAYS: Well, I had so many people - when I first came to New York, I went to a place called the Red Rooster's and Small's Paradise, that's up on Seventh Avenue at that time. And everybody there made sure that I never got into trouble.
One time I came home one night about 9:30, 10:00 and I saw all these people out there in the street. And I'm saying, my God, what are they doing out here? And one of the kids I knew, he said, Willie, they're waiting for you. Waiting for me what? This is night time. They said, no, no. They're waiting for you to come home to see how you're walking and make sure that you're in the bed, then they can go bet.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MAYS: That's the first time I ever heard something like that, you know, and...
SIEGEL: So you had a crowd escorting you...
Mr. MAYS: Yeah. Yeah.
SIEGEL: ...to make sure that nothing would happen to you.
Mr. MAYS: Nothing would happen to me, make sure that I was in the house so they can go do what they had to do. So it was - you know, I loved New York at the time that I was there because one thing about it, they knew baseball. They knew exactly what was supposed to be done, and I did it.
SIEGEL: By the time that Giants were going to leave, by the 1957 season, I remember, there were only, I think, two home games when the Giants drew over 20,000 fans at the Polo Grounds. And you were averaging something like 11,000 fans a game. It must have been disturbing to be at the top of your game, to be someone who always had the fans in mind and see so many empty seats in your own home ballpark.
Mr. MAYS: Well, no.
Mr. MAYS: That wasn't my job. I didn't worry about who was at the ballpark. If three people were to come, I would have played the same game.
SIEGEL: If three fans were in the stands...
Mr. MAYS: Yup, if three fans were in the stands I would have played the same. Of course, what you're saying is that they was losing money...
Mr. MAYS: ...to have 13,000 people there and the ballpark holds 60,000 or 70,000. Well, you can't make any money that way. But it didn't disturb me. It just bothered Mr. Stoneham, which was the owner of that club. And plus, he didn't, you know, he couldn't pay the players because he wasn't making any money. So that's one of the reasons I think he left. You know?
SIEGEL: When the Giants last home game in New York ended, a 12-year-old fan was part of the crowd on the field, chanting for Mays to come out of the clubhouse.
Mr. LANNY DAVIS (Attorney): Willie did come out, and I started to cry, sitting at the bottom step. And he waved to the crowd. And then, in my distant memory, I remember him looking down the stairs, right at me. And with tears rolling down my face, I remember him saying, hi, kid. Goodbye, kid.
SIEGEL: Years later, Lanny Davis became a Washington lawyer and Bill Clinton defender, and he met Mays who told him he has no recollection of that whatever. Lanny's love for his idol is undiminished.
In Willie Mays' rookie season, 1951, according to his biographer, only five of the 16 Major League teams had black players. Jackie Robinson had broken the color line just four years earlier. And unlike Mays, Jackie Robinson was engaged in the struggle for racial equality beyond the ballpark. In 1963, Robinson joined Dr. Martin Luther King in the famous march on Washington.
Mr. JACKIE ROBINSON (Baseball Player): Businesses and industries that will work with us will get our cooperation. Those who will not, then we're going to just go someplace else. It's going to be as simple as that, as far I'm concerned.
SIEGEL: Mays' constant cheerfulness struck some critics as woefully out of sync with the civil rights era. His lack of political engagement led Robinson, the trailblazer, the activist, to criticize Mays twice,
Mr.�MAYS: Jackie was a guy that would speak his mind very clearly. I had things done to me probably the same as Jackie when he came along, about what am I going to criticize? You know, if I criticize, sometime it's always going to be negative stuff. I go forward. I never backed up.
SIEGEL: That's the interesting thing. You've gone forward.
Mr.�MAYS: I go forward all the time. I never back up, yeah.
SIEGEL: And nowhere in there is a feeling of anger about all this? There isn't...?
Mr.�MAYS: No, no.
SIEGEL: You were - as a public figure, the least angry person I can possibly imagine, and you're telling me inside, that's true, as well? There's no hidden rage against the experiences you had as a younger man?
Mr.�MAYS: When I went to the White House as a black man, I went to the White House as a man, not a black man. So I've been everywhere you can name if you're talking about that. I know Jackie had a hard time when he came in. I applaud him. I don't know if I could have done the things that he did when he came in. But, you know, what am I going to change? I can't change the world. I can live the way I live and hope that I can help people of all races all the time.
SIEGEL: The thought of Willie Mays staring at 80 is jarring to those who adored his fluid play, his exuberance. He still looks trim. He has glaucoma, and he needed a couple of tissues to make it through our interview.
He says only one thing really bothers him about his career: the way the press covered his last two seasons. At age 41, Willie Mays came back to New York City to play for the Mets. They said he was too old.
Mr.�MAYS: But I didn't play that bad. You know, I hit .250, .260. That wasn't me, but it was the best I could do at the time, and I enjoyed what I was doing.
SIEGEL: Hey, I finally got to see you play at Shea at that time. So I'm not complaining.
Mr.�MAYS: At Shea?
SIEGEL: Yeah, when you were with the Mets.
Mr.�MAYS: I didn't embarrass myself.
SIEGEL: You certainly didn't.
Mr.�MAYS: I didn't embarrass myself, but they look at the age and they says well, he should quit. Why? So I played as long as I thought I could enjoy myself, and still, when I started getting hurt or when I started feeling hurt, that was the time for me to quit.
So I have no regrets. Whatever people say, look at my record. In those two years, if they want to take them away from me, that's fine. I don't have a problem with it, but I enjoyed my life with baseball.
SIEGEL: Willie Mays, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr.�MAYS: My pleasure, very much so.
SIEGEL: The new authorized biography by James Hirsch is called "Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend."
(Soundbite of music)
BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.