Say Hey: Remembering Willie’s A-Mays-Zing Catch In 1954

By Dick Heller
Updated: September 26, 2006

“There’s a long drive way back in center field. Way back, back! Oh what a catch by Mays! … Willie Mays just brought this crowd to its feet with a catch which must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people! Boy!” Broadcaster Jack Brickhouse, Sept. 29, 1954

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Understatement wasn’t exactly Jack Brickhouse’s thing; in fact, the veteran Chicago play-by-play man was known for yowling, “Hey hey!” when a White Sox or Cubs player did something special. But his call after Willie Mays robbed Vic Wertz in the first game of the 1954 World Series was, if anything, too restrained.

You’ve seen the black-and-white film countless times. Mays, his back to the play, races for what seems miles in distant center field at the Polo Grounds, makes an over-the-shoulder catch, spins as his cap whirls off his head and fires so perfect a throw to the cutoff man that the runner at first base cannot even tag up and advance to second.

It is the most famous defensive play in baseball history and certainly one of the best by an outfielder. Mays, then ending his first full season with the New York Giants, goes on to play 22 seasons, bat .302 lifetime with 3,283 hits and 660 home runs, make 24 All-Star Game appearances and gain first-ballot election to the Hall of Fame. But if we’re talking about his most spectacular moment, his signature snatch, this was it.

As always with unforgettable athletic achievements, what went before and after enhanced the memory.

Mays came up to the Giants as a 20-year-old rookie in May 1951, batted a respectable .274, dazzled everyone with his fielding and was on deck in the bottom of the ninth when Bobby Thomson’s three-run homer won the best-of-three National League playoff against the once-dominant Brooklyn Dodgers for a Giants team that had trailed by 13½ games in mid-August.

With Mays in the Army for most of the 1952 season and all of 1953, the Giants sagged badly. But his return in 1954 sparked the Giants to another pennant as he batted .345, slammed 41 home runs and was the obvious choice as NL MVP.

Nonetheless, the Giants were heavy World Series underdogs to the Cleveland Indians, who had won a record 111 games to finish five games ahead of a New York Yankees team that had captured five straight World Series. Game 1 was tied 2-2 in the eighth inning when Mays worked his magic in center field.

Then pinch-hitter Dusty Rhodes blooped a cheapie, 260-foot homer down the right-field line in the bottom of the 10th to win it 5-2 and start the Giants to a sweep in one of the biggest World Series upsets ever.

Wertz must have felt certain Somebody Up There didn’t like him. The balding left-handed slugger already had three hits, and his titanic blast in the eighth inning with men on first and second looked like a potential game-winner when it left the bat.

Forget it because Willie got on his horse and commenced galloping.

Wertz played 17 seasons with a .277 batting average and 266 home runs, but when he died in 1983 at age 58, the obituaries pretty much all said the same thing: “Victor Woodrow Wertz, a former major league player who was victimized by one of the most famous catches in baseball history …”

Although Wertz batted .500 (8-for-16) in his only World Series, nobody remembered that. Possibly, Vic didn’t either as time went by, because Mays was all anybody remembered about that edition of what used to be called the Fall Classic.

“I just can’t hit a ball any harder than that,” Wertz said after the game. “I hit it so hard my mind went blank. … I couldn’t believe any man would ever haul it down.”

Perhaps no other man could have — but then Willie Mays often looked like Superman in a baseball uniform.

Estimates of how far Wertz hit the ball off Don Liddle on a 2-1 count range from 410 to 470 feet. The ancient Polo Grounds had the deepest center field in the majors, though nobody was sure exactly how far it extended. The number “483″ was painted on the wall, but it had changed over the years for no apparent reason. In any case. It was an epic swat and an epic catch.

Mays, an exuberant sort who sometimes played stickball with kids in the streets of Harlem, was one of only two people who didn’t seemed awed by the catch.

“As I was running, I’m not worried about catching the ball, I’m thinking about making the throw,” Willie said more than a half-century later. “As I caught the ball, I’m concerned about where I’m going to throw it. I just tried to get it back to second base as fast as I could. … In those days, I was so young [23] I thought I could catch every ball.”

Nor was Leo Durocher, Mays’ manager and biggest fan, flabbergasted. Said the Lip: “I’ve been watching him make catches like that for so long, I couldn’t say it was his greatest.”

And if you believed that, Leo probably would have tried to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

The best comment might have come from Liddle, a left-handed reliever who replaced Giants starter Sal Maglie to face Wertz and then was lifted in turn for Marv Grissom. As he handed Grissom the ball, Liddle is supposed to have remarked, “Well, I got my man.”

Willie Mays turned 75 earlier this year — a milestone sure to make all his fellow seniors feel older — and is in good health as far as we know. But no matter how long he is with us, The Catch 52 years ago this week is sure to outlive him.