When the ball finally nestled in the Say Hey Kid’s glove, there wasn’t much anybody could say. The shocked faces in the Polo Grounds crowd caught on the television broadcast did most of the talking. Announcer Jack Brickhouse called it an “optical illusion,” but this was no trick of the eyes. Though they couldn’t know it for sure at the time, they had just witnessed what is still considered quite possibly the greatest defensive play ever made, when taking into account the circumstances and degree of difficulty. It holds such a momentous place in baseball history that it’s known simply as The Catch.
To hear Willie Mays tell it, and he’s been asked to recall it countless times through the years, you’d think this was just another ho-hum Spring Training grab, not one tracked down in the eighth inning of a tied Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, 68 years ago today.
“Everyone said, ‘well, it was a hard catch,’” Mays said. “I said nah, it was an easy catch.”
And yet it’s one that kids across the country have tried to recreate from sandlot games to Little League fields, the Willie Mays basket catch. Though Mays maintains he had the ball the whole way, The Catch didn’t come together without some amount of practice. The Hall of Fame center fielder actually perfected the basket catch while serving two years in the Army.
“When I came out of the Army, Leo [Durocher] said you could do it, but don’t miss the damn ball. I missed two. Ten years apart,” Mays recalled in the book “24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid.”
How could he have known that one of the ones he didn’t miss, the one off the bat of Cleveland slugger Vic Wertz, would be talked about for decades? According to Arnold Hano, who wrote a biography of Mays and was at the game, Wertz’s drive was “about as hard as I have ever seen a ball hit.” Playing shallow in center to try to cut off a run on anything in front of him, Mays immediately turned his back and sprinted towards the crest of the cavernous Polo Grounds outfield.
“I always played shallow when I was young. I didn’t think nobody could hit a ball over my head. That’s the way I felt when I played center field,” Mays recalled. “When Vic hit the ball, in my mind, I was always going to catch the ball.”
It’s hard to believe that for Mays, the catch wasn’t even the most impressive part of The Catch. That would be the throw, which perhaps gets overlooked because it wasn’t captured on camera in full.
With runners on first and second, two runs were bound to score if Wertz’s hit fell, potentially three depending on the carom. But when Larry Doby, who was on second base, saw that Mays had a shot to run it down, he retreated to second, thinking he might be able to take two bases on a tag up because of the signature Polo Grounds dimensions. Mays quickly dispelled that notion, making the basket catch and in one motion turning and firing the ball in to second base, his hat coming off in the process. Only those who saw it live can account for how perfect the throw was, but it kept Doby from taking anything more than third and prevented the runner at first from advancing.
Thanks to Mays’ catch and throw, the Giants were able to escape the inning unscathed, setting up a 10th-inning walk-off and, ultimately, a World Series victory in four games.
So maybe there have been catches made since with a lower catch probability, that required a greater sprint speed or more distance covered. Maybe. But will there ever be one as iconic or beloved across generations? Not if the Say Hey Kid has anything to say about it.
“Now, if you want to try the basket catch, that’s your decision,” Mays wrote in “24.” “But if you get hit in the head, remember I warned you.”