The scene was set for something big to happen in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. The talented National League New York Giants were hosting the American League Champion Cleveland Indians at the Polo Grounds in New York. The Polo Grounds was a unique stadium that had a marker at 475 feet and then another 8 feet before reaching the clubhouse entrance. A warning track outlined the wall.
What makes Say Hey Willie’s catch so spectacular was that it was more than just a catch. He somehow halted his momentum from a dead run, turned 180 degrees on a dime and threw a perfect relay to the shortstop. The throw prevented Larry Doby, who had originally thought the ball uncatchable and stood halfway between second and third before racing back to tag second base, from scoring. Doby was stunned by the catch and was only able to reach third because of Mays’ blazing throw to the cutoff man.
Every lover of the game has seen the famous photo of number 24 running full tilt toward the wall with his back to the plate and his left hand stretching to reach for the ball. The catch was so spectacular that fans blinked to make sure they had witnessed what had just happened.
Willie Mays had simply outrun the hard hit baseball. It seemed impossible, but the Say Hey Kid had done the unthinkable before and would make other spectacular catches in his illustrious career. When he turned and fired to the relay man, his cap flew off his head. That became a trademark for the centerfielder.
The game was nationally televised and was watched by millions of people. The catch came in the top of the eighth inning. Sal, “the barber,” Maglie started the eighth for the Giants. With the game tied 2-2, Maglie gave up a walk to Larry Doby and then a screaming single to All-Star third baseman Al Rosen.
Giants Manager Leo Durocher had seen enough. He removed Maglie and summoned pitcher Don Liddle from the bullpen. With no outs, this seemed a matter of damage control.
Liddle faced the dangerous Vic Wertz, the team’s leading slugger. Liddle was at 2 balls and one strike when he unleashed his best fastball. Wertz took a ferocious swing sending the ball deep into dead away centerfield. Mays was playing in close so that Doby could not score on a single.
When the ball hit the bat, Mays did not hesitate. He turned and sprinted toward far away center. He did never look back. It was like he had eyes in the back of his head. At the last second, he snared the ball with his glove. The Polo Grounds was a big ballpark and Wertz’s drive would have been a homerun in any other stadium. But, the Say Hey Kid was on his horse. Fans emitted a collective gasp when Mays caught up to the ball on the warning track before it hit the ground. To catch up with the ball, Mays had run about 45 feet.
What made this play the best catch ever made was not just that Mays had outrun the ball but that he had also maintained his balance and composure to swivel and peg a dart to the shortstop. There was no way Doby could score.
Doby had originally taken a few steps toward third but thought the better of it. He retreated to tag second base and was still fully expecting to score whether the unlikely catch had been made or not. As soon as he saw Mays snare the ball, Dolby sprinted toward third and rounded the base but was surprised to get the hold sign from the third base coach. Dolby had loads of speed but with no outs and the ball in the shortstop’s hands, the Indians played it safe.
Jack Brickhouse and Russ Hodges were calling the game for NBC television. Brickhouse’s call of the play went like this.
“There’s a long drive waay back in centerfield… waay, waay back. It is… caught! By Wil-lie Mays! The runner on second, Doby, is able to tag and go to third. Willie Mays just brought the fans to their feet. With a catch that must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people.”
Durocher removed Liddle and replaced him with Marv Grissom. When Liddle reached the dugout, he jokingly said, “At least I got my man.” The next Indian was walked to fill the bases but the Giants retired two in succession to prevent any runs from scoring.
The Giants went on to win the first game in the tenth inning. The demoralized Indians never recovered and lost the Series in four straight games.
The Catch made Willie Mays a household name, especially because it was in New York and on National television. He is still regarded as the greatest centerfielder of all time. The Catch is just one moment in the legend that became The Say Hey Kid.