I don’t make history, I catch fly balls.
On my desk I have a picture of “The Catch.” There, forever frozen in time like those figures on a Grecian urn, a baseball hovers inches above the outstretched glove of a player numbered 24. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t look at that photograph and get lost in its mythic import. Initially, the eye is drawn to the solitary figure in mid-stride, his back to the camera, silhouetted against the gray rectangular canvas of the centerfield wall. So close to that wall is the player and so vertical the object’s descent that it seems as if one of the fans might have tossed him the ball. Or maybe an orange.
After a while, one starts to notice the spectators. In front of the luckiest cop in New York City, a little boy peers over the terrace. A naval officer near the aisle wears his class-A’s. Fedoras abound. Two men sport bow ties. I count nine women. And in the first row of bleachers, four white men and five black men sit interspersed; throughout the stands, the composition of the crowd is much the same. It’s truly a photo in black and white.
The timeless image that sits on my desk actually occurred sixty-five years ago on September 29, 1954. To be more precise, it happened in the eighth inning of the first game of the World Series with the score tied at two runs apiece. Number 24 was Willie Mays of the New York Giants and the object he raced to catch was no orange. It was a line drive scorched by Vic Wertz of the Cleveland Indians.
I’ve come to regard that moment in the Polo Grounds’ centerfield, for which the photo serves as amber, as the greatest play in baseball and a defining milestone in American history. In all that’s depicted and the far more that’s implied, “The Catch” represents to me everything that can be great about baseball and the country of which it is a pure reflection.
Athletic elegance is immediately apparent in the photograph, but what is the context, what’s at stake–what is the big picture? Strictly from a baseball perspective, the Giants are underdogs. So the picture, suffused with the gravity of championship play, portrays a desperate effort at fending off the heavily-favored Indians, who set an American League record that year by winning 111 games. At the tactical level, Mays must catch the ball because there are runners on first and second with nobody out.
But “The Catch” didn’t just end with a catch. After snagging the devious missile, Mays whirled around to fire the ball to second base, keeping an incredulous Al Rosen at first. And even at the tactical level, “The Catch” is an image in many dimensions. The Indians lead runner was Larry Doby, who drew a walk to start off the inning. It was Doby who broke the American League’s color barrier in July of 1947, three months after Jackie Robinson did the same in the National League. An All-Star six years running and the league leader in home runs that year with 32, Larry Doby couldn’t be stopped even by a throw from the great Willie Mays. Mays’ throw slowed him down, though, and that was enough. Doby took third and stayed there. The miraculous play of number 24 kept the score tied at 2-2.
But then there’s the bigger picture, a snapshot as sprawling American landscape. It’s 1954. In May, the Supreme Court had lofted its clarion call of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring that there was no place for “separate but equal” when it came to schooling. (A few brave souls had already decided the same thing in 1947 when it came to the national pastime.)
Nevertheless, the impossible catch that Willie Mays had “all the way” occurred almost a decade before the height of the civil rights movement. While much of the country still channeled whites and blacks to separate schools, separate water fountains, and separate seats on the bus, a black man at the patrician-sounding Polo Grounds was watched and marveled at by an integrated audience sitting shoulder to shoulder on wooden planks. No exhibition game, this one was for all the marbles. And it was no longer an experiment: Larry Doby already had a championship ring from 1948. Jackie Robinson would earn his next year. All this progress in the somnolent ’50s, the McCarthy era, the Cold War, and from an institution as conservative as Major League Baseball.
One man who chafed at baseball’s ultimate conservatism–the infamous “Gentleman’s Agreement”–was John McGraw. Over fifty years before Mays’ miracle in centerfield, McGraw tried to enlist the talents of black and Hispanic players. In keeping with his wily, irrepressible character, when he was refused permission, he did it anyway–on the sly. Managing the Baltimore Orioles in 1901, he tried to pass off a light-skinned second baseman named Charlie Grant as a Native American–“Chief Tokahoma.” It didn’t work.
When McGraw began his 30-year tenure as manager of the New York Giants, he hired Rube Foster, the legendary Negro League pitcher, manager, and organizer, to secretly tutor his battery. It was Foster who taught Christy Mathewson the “fadeaway,” the devastating screwball that became Matty’s signature pitch. Yet even when Mathewson hurled three consecutive shutouts in the 1905 World Series, McGraw announced to the press that if it were up to him he’d pay $50,000 for the services of pitcher Jose Mendez–“El Diamante Negro” as he was known in Cuba.
Half a century later on a fabled field in Manhattan, Willie Mays’ catch would become the consummation of a dream that McGraw never lived to see–the day his beloved Giants could openly hire a talented player who happened to be black.
And now more than a half century has passed. Sixty-five years ago the Giants lived up to their name–despite the Goliaths from Cleveland–by sweeping the World Series. The same franchise is already paying rent on its second home since abandoning Coogan’s Bluff for the hills of San Francisco. Back in New York, the roar of the fans is only an imagined echo in Manhattan’s concrete canyons. But the greater city has shown unusual largesse towards its other boroughs, doling out 23 more World Series contests–14 of them championships–among the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.
At the ballparks today there are far fewer fedoras, perhaps exactly as many bow ties, and a great deal more women. And the fields themselves play host to an ever-widening spectrum of ethnicities and nationalities: one of the game’s greatest hitters and all-around players, Ichiro Suzuki, hailed from Japan, a phenomenon that would have been greeted quite differently in the years following World War II. The boldly progressive leap of the Major Leagues to democratize their diamonds has resulted in color-blind baseball. Today it’s taken for granted.
One might think it was the same way looking at the fans in the bleachers that bright afternoon in 1954. But there was only one man who took anything for granted that day. He was Willie Mays, and he had it all the way.