Willie Mays and “The Catch:” Rules for Performance

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When the discussion turns to who is the greatest baseball player ever, you always hear the name “Willie Mays.” Leo Durocher described him this way:

“He could do the five things you have to do to be a superstar: hit, hit with power, run, throw, and field. And he had that other ingredient that turns a superstar into a super superstar. He lit up the room when he came in. He was a joy to be around.”

Willie Mays Rule Nr 1: The difference between a superstar and a super superstar may not be more talent. Sometimes it’s more style and the way people feel when they’re around you.

Even people who don’t know much about baseball can tell you about Mays’ catch of a Vic Wertz fly ball in the 1954 World Series. It’s so famous that it’s known among baseball fans, simply, as “The Catch.”

Let’s set the stage. It was the first game of the 1954 World Series. The Cleveland Indians were prohibitive favorites. They set an American League record for winning percentage that still stands. One hundred ten of 154 sportswriters picked the Indians to win the Series.

In the eighth inning, the score was tied 2-2 when Vic Wertz came up to bat. He was having a good day. He already had four hits and had driven in both Indian runs. This time, Wertz hit the ball 420 feet to center field at the Polo Grounds.

Mays was playing shallow in center field. He ran all the way to the warning track where he made the catch over his shoulder. Then he stopped, turned, and threw the ball to second base, preventing a run from scoring.

So that’s “The Catch.” Except that catching the ball was only part of the play. Here’s how Willie described what was going on in his head

“Wertz hits it. A solid sound. I learned a lot from the sound of the ball on the bat. Always did. I could tell from the sound whether to come in or go back. This time I’m going back, a long way back, but there is no doubt in my mind. I am going to catch this ball . . . But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was Larry Doby on second base. On a deep fly to center field at the Polo Grounds, a runner could score all the way from second. I’ve done that myself and more than once. So if I make the catch, which I will, and Larry scores from second, they still get the run that puts them ahead. All the time I’m running back, I’m thinking, Willie, you’ve got to get this ball back into the infield.’”

Willie Mays Rule Nr. 2: Sometimes the flashy part of the performance is all people notice.

Mays makes an incredible throw. Larry Doby, who might have scored, is held at third base. The Indians don’t score in the eighth inning. The Giants win after scoring three runs in extra innings. Without the great throw, the catch might not have mattered in the outcome of the game.

Willie Mays Rule Nr 3: Even when you’ve mastered your craft, you still must pay attention to the details of your performance.

Look back at the quote and consider what Willie Mays was thinking about. He’s reviewing the game situation and what he must do next.

Willie Mays Rule Nr. 4: A little flair never hurts

Most people who describe “The Catch” will tell you that Mays’ cap flew off while he was chasing the fly ball. Not so. His cap came off as he turned to make the throw.

People loved it when the cap flew off Willie’s head as he chased down a fly ball or flew down the base path trying to steal. Willie realized it was part of his image. He started buying caps that were just a little too large and, therefore, more likely to fly off.

Willie Mays Rule Nr. 5: Context is important.

Willie Mays’ catch off Vic Wertz wasn’t the most sensational catch of his career. According to some baseball experts, it wasn’t even his best catch of 1954. But “The Catch” was made on television on a national stage—the World Series. It was important in the game and possibly in the Series. The Giants won the series in four straight games.

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