Willie Mays was in the on deck circle at the Polo Grounds. Bobby Thomson was the batter with Whitey Lockman on first and Clint Hartung on third. The New York Giants trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers 4-2 with one out.
Mays started to pray.
”Please don’t let it be me. Don’t make me come to bat now, God.”
In 1951, Willie Mays was a 20-year-old rookie. Later, Willie prayed that he would be the one who would bat or have to make a great defensive play.
Willie Mays was responsible for the fact that he was waiting on deck that day because without the play he made on Aug. 15, the Giants would not have tied the Dodgers for the pennant.
The Giants were hosting the Dodgers at the Polo Grounds. The teams were tied 1-1 in Brooklyn’s half of the eighth inning.
With one out Billy Cox, a fairly fast runner at that point in his career, was on third for Brooklyn, while pitcher Ralph Branca was on first. Carl Furillo was facing Jim Hearn.
The outfield was playing Furillo to pull, with left fielder Monte Irvin shaded toward the left field line, right fielder Don Mueller playing well off the line in right and Willie almost in left-center field.
Furillo hit a fly ball to right-center field that everyone thought would be deep enough to score Cox with the lead run. Everyone was wrong.
Rookie Mays broke to his left and running at full speed, made the catch. It was a play that most good center fielders would make, but Mays had to run towards the right field foul line, which meant that he was moving away from home plate.
If he stopped running to set for the throw home, there would be no chance to throw out Cox.
Mays didn’t break stride. He planted his left foot, made a complete whirling pivot on the dead run as if he were a discus thrower and fired a guided missile home.
As the throw came flying toward the plate, first baseman Whitey Lockman let it go through.
Catcher Wes Westrum caught the throw belt high and tagged out the incredulous Cox.
It was a greater play than the catch against Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series.
When Willie was six-months old, his father taught him how to walk by putting a baseball on the ground. Little Willie wanted the baseball and realized that crawling to it was not as fast as trying to walk.
Almost every book about Mickey Mantle refers to how his father Mutt and his grandfather Pappy taught him to switch-hit. A less publicized fact is that Willie’s father, who played semi-pro ball, was his first coach.
Leo Durocher influenced Mays more than anyone else. The fiery manager told Mays that he was born to play baseball.
Looking back, it is difficult to believe that Willie needed anyone to tell him that he was born to play baseball, but when he first joined the Giants, he was just beginning to become “Willie Mays.”
To show his regard for Willie and to build his confidence, Durocher batted him third in his first major league game. Durocher convinced Mays not to try hit a home run every at-bat.
Willie listened, hit more singles, still hit home runs and won the 1954 batting title with a .345 average.
Although it may seem difficult to believe for those who never saw him play, Mays was greater on defense than he was on offense.
Many think that he was a greater defensive center fielder than Ozzie Smith was a defensive shortstop.