I got a text the other day from my friend, Bryant McCarthy, who spends his life living in some kind of fantasy land that includes the Red Sox, Tom Brady, and Ken Griffey Jr. He questioned whether Griffey Jr. was the greatest defensive center fielder of all time. Putting the generational gap aside, with young Mr. McCarthy actually believing that I reported on Tris Speaker, it made for an interesting internal discussion, for surely Griffey would rank among the legends, but whether he was the best of all-time is certainly debatable.
In talking about the greatest to ever patrol the outfield's middle pasture, you must not only discuss range and arm and baseball smarts, but also the mind's TiVo that runs those players' greatest moments. In this SportsCenter, TiVo, and YouTube age, Griffey and Jim Edmonds dominated the mental landscape because their top plays are captured on video, whereas those of Speaker, Dom DiMaggio, Paul Blair, Jimmy Piersall, and Willie Mays went unrecorded.
Griffey’s “Spiderman” catch definitely ranks among the greatest anyone has seen, as does the back-to-the-plate, diving-on-the-warning-track grab Edmonds made, but when it comes to the baseball's elite center fielders, if anyone can take the honor away from Mays, they’d have to come up with a whole lot more tape.
Mays' infamous catch during the 1954 World Series was not his greatest catch, even according to Mays himself. I saw two of his better plays live, the other was seen on a 10-inch, black-and-white TV from the Korean War era. All three were so spectacular that I have often felt my mind was playing tricks and exaggerating what I had seen years ago, but Google it and you find others talking about the same plays.
One came in Candlestick Park in 1970, the latter days of Mays’ career, against the Reds team that I was covering. Mays was in center field and Bobby Bonds in right when Bobby Tolan hit a drive to the chain-link fence in right-center, so perfectly placed that neither Mays nor Bonds could be sure he could catch the ball. The two arrived at the same moment, leaping into the air and colliding, falling onto the warning track in a tangled mass, the ball somewhere among them. You could not tell who had caught the ball or if it had been caught at all.
Bonds rose to his feet, reached down into the unconscious Mays' glove, and pulled out the baseball. It is a catch Ron Firmite wrote about in Sports Illustrated a number of years back to illustrate how Bonds always seemed to wind up in the shadows of someone else, not knowing that he would be overshadowed by his own son in later years.
The next great play on my Mays list was more flair than substance. Mays would occasionally run so fast his cap would fly off while chasing fly balls. On this day in the Polo Grounds, a Dodgers hitter who I believe was Billy Cox, sent a drive into deep right-center. Mays was off and running at the crack of the bat, racing across the spacious outfield and simply outrunning the ball. He got there and reached out to make the spectacular running catch, but as he did his hat blew off. Instinctively, Mays made the catch with his outstretched glove while, at the same time, reaching back and snatching his hat from the air. James Hirsch, the author of “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend,” called it “the double catch.”
There was another catch during Mays’ 1951 rookie season that victimized Rocky Nelson, a left-handed hitting first baseman with the Pirates. Nelson hit a screaming line drive to left-center that, try as he might, Mays could not catch up with. Not that it mattered, for while he could not reach it with his gloved hand stretched across his body, he could reach it with his bare hand, which he did. Announcer Ernie Harwell, who called the Giants games in those days, recalled that the play was so good that Mays was given the cold shoulder by the veterans in the dugout, and the exuberant Mays was so taken aback by that that he went to manager Leo Durocher.
“Mr. Leo,” Harwell quoted Mays as saying, “didn’t you see me make that catch?"
“Nah,” Durocher was supposed to have retorted. “Go out and do it against next inning.”
But the play that stands out the most is one Mays made in the Polo Grounds on August 15, 1951, the Giants just beginning their miracle run to the National League pennant against the Dodgers. It was the second game of a three-game series, tied 1-1, Carl Furillo hitting, Cox at third base, and pitcher Ralph Branca at first. Furillo sent a fly ball to right-center, placed where it would be a tough catch for Mays, but surely in spot that would drive home the lead run even if it was caught. Mays made the catch on the run in right-center, heading away from the plate, but he conceded nothing. Mays did a 180-degree pivot and spin and let loose a throw unlike any other, reaching catcher Wes Westrum on the fly and belt-high.
“It wasn’t a throw, it was a pitch,” Whitey Lockman, the Giants first baseman, said.
Furillo was quoted as saying “He’ll never make another throw like that one, the lucky slob.”
And Cox, who thought there would be no throw and arrived at the plate standing up, only to have Westrum apply the tag, had only one comment: "Oh, shit no."
But then again, if a man like that could hit four home runs in his 1,234th career game, he could do anything.