By Phil Ellenbecker
Great baseball players may be known by their careers, by their seasons, by their games.
Willie Mays was known for all. But perhaps more than anything, Mays is known for his moments — moments that produced great plays, at bat, on the bases, in the field. Like The Catch, his over-the-shoulder grab that robbed Vic Wertz of extra bases and the Cleveland Indians of their soul in the 1954 World Series.
That’s his best-known moment, but there are countless ones sprinkled throughout his career and throughout “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend,” by James S. Hirsch, the most comprehensive biography of Mays. Normally I don’t like it when baseball biographies get bogged down in play-by-play details, but in Mays’ case it’s pretty much essential, because he was so much about the plays, the moments.
One moment I wasn’t aware of before I read the book but that comes through as one of his finest was, for our purposes here, what I’ll call The At-Bat.
It came on Sept. 14, 1965, against the Houston Astros before a crowd of 15,415 at the Astrodome, the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” which had opened at the beginning of that season. Mays’ San Francisco Giants entered the game with a 2 1/2-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers for first place in the National League.
The Astros led 5-2 entering the ninth inning. Orlando Cepeda struck out opening the Giants’ turn at bat. Bob Burda, batting for Warren Spahn, then drew a walk and gave way to pinch runner Tito Fuentes. Astros starting pitcher Bob Bruce was relieved by Claude Raymond, a native of St. Jean, Canada nicknamed “Frenchy.” Raymond got Dick Schofield to ground out to first baseman Lee Maye, with Fuentes advancing to second.
The Giants drew within 5-3 when Jesus Alou singled to center field, driving in Fuentes. That brought up Mays.
“Mays usually didn’t try for homers, but this situation was different, and everyone knew it,” Hirsch wrote. “Though he led the league in home runs (Mays hit a career high 52 that year), Raymond didn’t want to walk him, which would bring up (Willie) McCovey, the go-ahead run. So he challenged Mays with fastballs.”
And Raymond, although not imposing at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, was equipped to do so, with a good moving fastball that helped him finish in the NL’s top 10 in saves four times in the 1960s and earn an All-Star selection in 1966.
Mays worked the count to 3-2, swinging so hard he twice went to his knees. With Alou now running on the pitch, Mays managed to stay alive by fouling off the next four pitches.
“I kept waiting for a breaking ball,” Mays said. “A curve, a slider — something other than a fastball. But that’s all he threw. Nothing but fastballs.”
And here came another, on the inside part of the plate. And out it went, a line shot deep into the left-field bleachers on the 10th pitch of the at-bat.
“TILT” went the huge scoreboard in the outfield, the flashing letters accompanying a ticking time bomb that always greeted a homer by the visiting team at the Dome.
Tilt, indeed, as the momentum had swung in the Giants’ favor, and they went on to win 7-5 in 10 innings, with Jim Davenport’s two-run single in the top of the 10th providing the final margin. Bob Bolin, relieving for Masanori Murakami (the first Japanese-born player in the major leagues) with runners on first and second, got the final two outs to nail down the win.
Mays’ homer just missed being not only dramatic but a milestone. The night before he’d hit the 500th homer of his career, leading off the fourth inning to tie the game at 1-1 in a 4-1 win.
(At the time Mays was just the fifth player in history to hit 500, trailing only Babe Ruth’s 714, Jimmie Foxx’s 534, Ted Williams’ 521 and Mel Ott’s NL-leading 511. Twenty-two others have passed 500 since. Mays finished with 660, fifth all time.)
So that’s the story, as Hirsch tells it. But digging a little deeper reveals that Mays and Raymond remember it differently. They remember not a 10-pitch at-bat, but 13, and other details don’t match.
Renowned baseball author Roger Angell wrote in a May 27, 1991, New Yorker article, “When I asked him to remember a home run,” Willie 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.’”
Thirteen fastballs? Raymond, when contacted by Angell, agreed.
“I threw Mays thirteen straight fastballs,” he said in the Angell article reprinted on the https://punkyg.wordpress.com website. “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.”
So we have 10 pitches versus 13 pitches, and left field (Hirsch) vs. left-center (Mays). And four foul balls vs. 13. In the same Angell article the author quotes a Giants media person as saying Mays fouled off four pitches before “sending the ball soaring four hundred feet over the center-field fence.”
Since Hirsch devoted enough research to fill 560 pages, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt over Mays and Raymond. Players’ recollections have a history of being iffy, as noted baseball writers and analysts Bill James and Rob Neyer have made a habit of showing. Neyer wrote a whole book (“Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, the Lies, and Everything Else”) based on refuting such remembrances.
Hirsch, in his notes, did cite Angell for his account of the homer, and included Raymond’s quote on Willie’s turning on the pitch.
In a 2004 San Francisco Chronicle article by Charles Einstein, the writer says the count went to 2-0, then Raymond threw seven straight fastballs, two for swinging strikes, four for fouls, before Willie unloaded. And since Einstein was to Willie Mays as Boswell was to Samuel Johnson, and since this squares with Hirsch, maybe we should go with this.
But 13 pitches, 13 straight fastballs? That sounds good.
Regardless, it was quite a momentous moment, evidently so if it’s the homer that came up when queried by Angell. (But maybe he forgot the one he hit leading off the 16th inning to end a historic pitcher’s duel between Juan Marichal and Spahn on July 2, 1963, winning the game 1-0.) (And Einstein brings up a tiebreaking homer in Mays’ last at-bat in the last regularly scheduled game of 1962 that pushed the Giants and Dodgers into a three-game playoff, leading to a Giants-Yankees World Series.)
(Speaking of World Series, the Giants fell short of that in 1965 when the Dodgers overtook them in the final week of the season and won the pennant by two games.)
When a grand celebration of Mays’ 40th birthday, with 700 in attendance, was held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in 1971, Giants announcer Russ Hodges’ call of Mays’ homer that night in 1965 “was dramatically played to a tearful audience,” Hirsch wrote.
So it was pretty special, even when ranked among many other special Mays moments.
And that was the magic of Mays. Any given game, any given inning, at bat, on base, in the field, you didn’t know what kind of awe-inspiring, slap-upside-the-head moment he might produce. And if you had to put a price on what player in history you’d pay to watch any player in history, many would say Willie would fetch the highest. Sources: “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend,” James Hirsch, Scribner, 2010
Claude Raymond information: https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/2dfd7bf5; http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/raymocl01.shtml; http://baseballhalloffame.ca/inductees/claude-raymond
San Francisco Giants vs. Houston Astros, Sept. 14, 1965: http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1965/B09140HOU1965.htm; https://punkyg.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/say-hey-happy-81st-birthday-willie-mays/; http://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/The-majesty-of-Mays-2767534.php
Career home run leaders: http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/HR_career.shtml
San Francisco Giants’ 1965 season: http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SFG/1965-schedule-scores.shtml
“6 Epic At-Bats,” by David K. Israel, http://mentalfloss.com/article/25285/6-epic-bats
“The 15 Biggest Plays in Baseball History,” by Rany Jazayerli, http://grantland.com/features/mlb-win-percentage-added-world-series-championship-kirk-gibson-bobby-thomson-david-freese-mariano-rivera-yogi-berra/