Monday, June 6, 2016

Meeting Willie Mays

THC has always remembered meeting Willie Mays during batting practice at Wrigley Field in Chicago.  It was 54 years ago today.  As he stood dumbstruck, looking up as he shook Willie's gigantic hand, he thought Mr Mays was the biggest and tallest man he'd ever seen, and he'll stick by that even though claims he was 5'10" and weighed only 170 pounds.
(Willie Mays, 1962, from palm springs life)

Baseball was different back then. Dad was planning a family trip to Chicago to see our  Uncle Ben, when he realized that the Giants would be playing at Wrigley while we were in town.  He wrote the Giants front office telling them his son was a great fan of the team and inquiring whether there might be an opportunity to meet Willie Mays, THC's (and his Dad's) favorite player.  The Giants wired Dad, instructing him to bring the telegram with him to the field during batting practice and we could meet Willie.  That afternoon we got to the park early, walked down to the field and handed the note to an usher who promptly opened a gate and we walked onto the grass at Wrigley in the midst of batting practice!  We also met Orlando Cepeda, Harvey Kuenn and the manager, Alvin Dark, but none of them compared to meeting Willie (unfortunately, THC lost the scorecard signed by all of them about 25 years ago).

What THC could not remember was whether the event took place in 1962 or 1963, since we took family trips to Chicago in both years. With the help of baseball-reference and his recollection (even with a faulty memory as we can see in My First Ballgame?) that Willie went 0-4 that day and hit into a double play, he's now been able to identify the game and date - it was June 6, 1962 and THC was eleven years old.  The league leading San Francisco Giants (40-15) were playing the ninth place Chicago Cubs (17-35).  The previous day the Giants had clobbered the Cubs in the opener of the three game series 11-4, with Willie smacking a double, getting a walk and driving in a run.

The Giants had started the season winning 28 of their first 42 games, but during that span Willie hit only .264 with eight doubles, a triple, eleven homers and 28 RBI.  He then he embarked on his own hot streak and the Giants got even hotter, winning 12 of 13 as of June 6, during which Willie batted .427 with four doubles, two triples, eight home runs and 20 RBI.

Although the Cubs fielded a lousy team that season, there were four future Hall of Famers in their lineup for the Wednesday afternoon game at Wrigley; Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Lou Brock, while Dick Ellsworth was the starting pitcher.  Ellsworth was a pretty good pitcher; though he'd lose 20 games that year, in 1963 he'd rack up 22 victories.

For the Giants, who would go on to win the pennant that year, Cepeda was only one other future Hall of Famer in the lineup, while Mike McCormick was the starting pitcher.  In 1967, McCormick would win 22 and the Cy Young Award.
(Back of 1962 Topps Baseball Card from pristine auction)

The Giants outhit the Cubs 11 to 5 but lost the game, played in 2:33 in front of a crowd of only 3,783, by a score of 4-3.  In the bottom of the 5th, the Cubs overcame a 2-0 Giants lead, scoring three runs with two triples, two walks and a sacrifice fly.  The Giants tied the game in the top of the 9th, when third baseman Jim Davenport led off with a triple and was driven home by shortstop Jose Pagan's single.

The bottom of the 9th was bizarre.  The Giants pitcher was Don Larsen, who'd pitched a perfect game for the Yankees in the 1956 World Series. After coming in to start the seventh, Larson had cruised through two innings, retiring six, walking one, not giving up a hit, and was facing the bottom of the Cubs lineup.  Lou Brock and Bob Will walked to start the inning.  Facing Andre Rogers, Larsen threw a wild pitch on which Brock advanced to third.  Rogers was then intentionally walked, loading the bases and bringing Don Landrum to the plate as a pinch hitter for Ellsworth.  Larsen  proceeded to walk Landrum, allowing Brock to stroll home with the winning run.

The Giants would go on to lose to the Cubs the next day in the finale of the series and lose six in a row before their next victory.  Although THC was disappointed not to see Willie get a hit (he hit safely in the five games before that day and the seven games after), he was thrilled to meet his idol.  Willie Mays would go on to have one of his best seasons, with 49 home runs, 141 RBI, batting .304 and stealing 18 bases in 20 attempts.

And here's what THC had not remembered in the right sequence until researching this piece.  He knew he'd seen Willie Mays return to the Polo Grounds in New York City to face the Mets in either 1962 or 1963 and THC had seen him hit a home run.  It turns out the game was on Sunday, June 3, only three days before he met Willie in Chicago.  This was the Mets inaugural season and it was the first return of the Giants and of New York hero Mays since they abandoned the Polo Grounds after the 1957 season.  His friends, Doug and Eric, accompanied he and his Dad to the game.  We traveled to and from Connecticut in a station wagon with a rear-facing back seat, which we thought was the coolest thing since it left us out of my Dad's control and we could fully inflict our 11-year old boy obnoxiousness on passing cars.  Of course, since there was no trunk to cushion impacts we would have been transformed into pancakes in the event of a rear-ender but the good news is that since there were no seat belts, we could quickly make our escape. imgur)

The Sunday game was the finale of a four game series, and Mays had hit homers in two of the three prior games with the Giants winning all three.  It was a large crowd of 34,102 that watched a close game through six innings.  The Mets, who entered the day with a record of 12-33, actually held a 1-0 lead entering the top of the 6th.  Willie, who'd struck out in his previous two at bats, came up with one out and launched a long homer that made THC's day!  Bob Miller, the Met's starting pitcher, then struck out the next two batters to preserve a 1-1 tie.  At that point Miller was pitching a terrific game, giving up only four hits and one walk in six innings while fanning eight.  The guy opposing him wasn't too shabby either - the great Juan Marichal.

In the 7th, the roof caved in on poor Miller, as he gave up five hits, a walk and hit a batter, with five runs scoring before he was taken out.  The Giants won 6-1.  Miller won only one game that year and lost twelve, but went on to a long career, appearing in 694 games, mostly as a reliever, before retiring after the 1974 season.

We must have left the next morning on the two day drive to Chicago.  THC remembers two things about the trip; the rest stops on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and driving through Gary, Indiana enveloped in a haze of green, red and blue particulates coming from the steel mills - THC loved it!

(US Steel works in Gary, 1966)

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