Wednesday, July 17, 2024

What Willie Mays Meant | The New Yorker

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Everyone has seen it. In slightly decayed black-and-white footage, a center fielder, wearing the number 24, turns his back on a well-struck baseball and, apparently without looking and using some weirdly powerful, instinctive positional guidance, races at top speed toward the stadium wall—and then reaches out in front of his body, back still turned, still running hard, and catches the ball. (Then, in one fluid action, he spins and throws.) It is Willie Mays, of the New York Giants, in Game One of the 1954 World Series, hauling in a shot by the Cleveland Indians’ Vic Wertz. Thousands of plays have happened since, catches as magnificent and many more meaningful, and yet there it is, the one and only.

It is possibly the seemingly both blind and sighted nature of the player as he runs that moves us so. He has an inner confidence about the intersection of his track and the ball’s, and knows what we don’t: that he’ll get there. A tenth of a second later, and the ball would have dropped, for extra bases. But there would be no such tenth. (There’s an illuminating study of the catch, from a scientific perspective, that emphasizes Mays’s cognitive capacity for “optical acceleration cancellation”—i.e., the ability to sense exactly when a struck object, accelerating, will begin to decelerate.) Perhaps only Michael Jordan, airborne, has had the same hold on our imaginations, and for the same reason: the athlete doesn’t just do things we can’t; he sees outcomes we are unable to envision. It is that dimension of sports—“situational intelligence,” as the jargon goes, or, even more sapiently, “anticipation”—which stirs us. For a very brief moment, the great ones see ahead. It is a fleeting form of prophecy.

Mays, who died this week at the age of ninety-three, may well have had that gift in greater abundance than any other player of his time, and this made him famous in ways that transcended baseball. When I was a kid, growing up in a baseball-loving family—for second-generation Jewish-immigrant families like mine, reverence for baseball was as unquestionable as reverence for F.D.R.—I always heard him automatically referred to as the greatest. I saw him play in person just once, in Montreal, in 1973, during his short, unhappy stint with the Mets, almost twenty years after the catch. (Our own matchless baseball bard, Roger Angell, was so saddened by the spectacle of Mays in his later days, overmatched by curveballs he would formerly have slammed, that he wrote, “Hang them up, Willie.”)

Mays is part of the larger lore of baseball, of course, but he is also part of New York lore. “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey, & the Duke),” a hit song of the nineteen-eighties, celebrated the three New York nineteen-fifties Hall of Fame center fielders (“Mickey” being Mantle, and “the Duke” being Duke Snider, of the Dodgers). It enshrined a moment of municipal mythology: three gods, each with a role to play. Mantle was the voluble hayseed from Oklahoma who could hit anything but was corrupted by the big city, and wound up undone by alcohol and knee injuries. Snider was a silent cipher, letting dignity do the work, and no one described him as well as Philip Roth, in a surprising intermission from other matters, in “Portnoy’s Complaint.” (On a sandlot, Portnoy becomes “my king of kings, the Lord my God, The Duke Himself . . . standing there as loose and as easy, as happy as I will ever be, just waiting there for the ball to fall into the glove I raise to it.”) Between these poles of effervescence and reserve, Mays was the happy warrior, the Say Hey Kid, playing stickball with the neighborhood children in Harlem as freely as he played center field at the Polo Grounds.

It was easy for many Americans who watched him play in the sixties and early seventies to underestimate the sheer brutality of the racism he was confronting. In memory, it is Jackie Robinson, Mays’s courageous predecessor, who bore the brunt of that fight for what was depicted, for years, as bold individual self-assertion but which was really a long-overdue claim of minimal civil rights. The takes, visible on documentary film, of Mays playing stickball up on St. Nicholas Place are also reminders that New York at that time was largely segregated. (In some ways, it still is.) And then we use words like “instinctively” and “naturally” to celebrate Mays’s perfection of form, when more purposeful language might be helpful. No more interesting point has been made about him than Tim McCarver’s: that Mays was so knowing he would sometimes deliberately miss a hittable curveball, in hopes that the pitcher would therefore try it again, later, in a more crucial circumstance.

Yet we keep him close as a local hero. New York baseball, though it continues to thrive, has essentially two historic high points. One was the period from 1908-23, when the Giants emerged as arguably the first great National League team, and the Yankees, with Babe Ruth, built the foundation for the greatest dynasty. This had something to do with the emergence of tabloids, which offered good writers places to discuss the burgeoning business of baseball. The second was Mays’s era, and it, too, had to do with the media—both the infancy of television, which was feeling its way around the game, and, even more, the dominance of radio broadcast. (It’s no accident that Roth, describing the Duke, also mentioned the announcer Red Barber, whose locutions were so instantly recognizable that they underpin one of the greatest New Yorker short stories: James Thurber’s “The Catbird Seat.”) In those days, three teams were near one another “on the radio dial,” as used to be said, and even their specific sponsors remain part of New York lore: Ballantine for the Yanks; Schaefer and Lucky Strikes for the Dodgers; and Knickerbocker and Chesterfields for the Giants. The midsummer sounds of baseball broadcasts, fixed in form then, are still classic, an inherited essence of the game.

A fog of nostalgia shrouds everything we recall, but we shouldn’t fail to notice that the two mainstays of baseball advertising were alcohol and tobacco, far more toxic and doubtless responsible for more human disease and suffering than later addictive drugs like cocaine and steroids, about which we feel license to be censorious. Barry Bonds, Mays’s godson and his closest successor, has been kept out of the Hall of Fame for his steroids scandal. His sad decline and permanent place in purgatory—in which he’s joined, for other reasons, by Pete Rose—is typical of our obsessively punitive time. This is surely part of the reason that the purity of the thrill that our grandparents got from Mays and his peers is not reproducible now. It was also, if not delusional, illusory, oversimplifying complex lives and trajectories into a handful of images and memories.

And so Mays remains. The value of sports, as the philosopher C. Thi Nguyen writes, is that, although the activities themselves may seem arbitrary or trivial—hit this ball into a pasture so far that it can’t be caught, or then try to catch it—chasing such goals creates new paths of agency and aspiration for us to mimic inside ourselves. “Oh, the unruffled nonchalance of that game,” was Roth’s concluding remark about New York baseball in the forties and fifties. If we feel that nonchalance today when we watch Mays, it’s because it models the possibility of being at once urgent and at ease, racing as hard as humanly possible to make the play, with the secret knowledge that you will, indeed, make it. That double pursuit, outwardly hard-charging and inwardly serene, is the epitome of grace in every human endeavor. (Just the other night, Connor McDavid showed, again, how it is done in hockey.) This is what makes sports matter. To borrow an image from Angell: all the rest of us do in life is run down uncatchable balls, drop them, and then pretend we haven’t. That’s why seeing one perfectly caught is so satisfying that we’ll never stop watching it, even after the catcher has left center field for good. ♦



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