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The Catch: Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder grab in the 1954 World Series ‘wasn’t no lucky catch’

 The Associated Press  |    Jun 18th, 2024 10:18pm EDT

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Willie Mays raced at top speed toward the center-field wall at the spacious Polo Grounds and somehow managed to track down and corral a fast-traveling ball with an over-the-shoulder catch that became the most iconic moment in the Hall of Famer’s decorated career that featured 660 home runs.

It simply became known as “ The Catch.”

But there was little simple about it. The Say Hey Kid’s superb grab of a drive hit by Cleveland’s Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series against the favored Indians will always be one of his finest moments, also a key in the New York Giants’ 4-0 sweep to win the championship.

“It wasn’t no lucky catch,” Mays emphatically noted years later.

Not at all.

The play showed off the mesmerizing skill of one of the most talented players ever to step on a baseball field and was considered by many to be the Greatest Living Ballplayer before he died at age 93 on Tuesday.

In the top of the eighth inning with runners on first and second in a 2-2 game, Mays took off running straight back toward the wall, head looking at the outfield rather than tracking the ball, and snared it before instantly releasing a fabulous throw that gets far less attention than the catch itself.

“Yeah, that was the key right there, I thought,” Mays recalled in April 2014. “Because if I hadn’t caught that, you gotta get three runs some kind of way. Vic would have been on third some kind of way and the other two would have scored. So I think that was the key to the whole World Series.”

It was a play that is as famous as any in the grand history of baseball and was memorialized at the time by the Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Brickhouse, who said: “Willie Mays just brought this crowd to its feet with a catch which must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people!”

To Mays, it was just another play that happened to come on the game’s biggest stage.

“I usually catch fly balls like that all the time,” he said. “But you’re talking about a World Series. You’re talking about something that doesn’t happen all the time. Even if you make a catch like that, which I did, in the regular season — but to catch it in a way that the world is looking at you — it’s remarkable, I think.”

Mays never wanted to say where that play stood on the list in his career of brilliant catches — and there were many for a player who won 12 Gold Gloves as one of the game’s greatest fielding outfielders.

“I never ranked catches,” he said. “It’s important to make sure to try to catch everything out there. This is my theory, I don’t know how other people think. I just feel if I started ranking them, you guys would have nothing to write about. I never did worry about things like that.”

No one knows for sure how far from home plate the drive by Wertz carried, with best estimates at perhaps 425 feet. It’s all part of the legend of Mays.

Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said in 2018 that it still should be viewed “as the greatest catch ever.”

“Today’s player has gone up and over the fence, climbed the wall, and that’s pretty cool,” Jackson said. “But I still think we all go back and the greatest outfielder ever is Willie Mays.

“There were guys that covered more ground and ran this fast, he had some angle. But I think Willie will be recognized as maybe the greatest athlete that ever played, arguably the best player falling with (Hank) Aaron, (Babe) Ruth, (Lou) Gehrig and those guys. It’s just kind of the epitome of his career.”

Mays’ godson, Home Run King Barry Bonds, said years ago that he wants to make sure people appreciate more than just that one moment in a remarkable 23-year career.

There were the two MVPs, the Rookie of the Year Award, the 24 All-Star games, the 660 home runs, and the 3,293 hits. It all added up to Mays being widely considered the game’s greatest all-around player.

“There’s a lot of people who made great catches in the game of baseball. But he happens to be one of the best baseball players. That does make it seem a lot better,” Bonds said. “I think we’ve had our moments in catches. I think his longevity of his career is more important than just the catch to anyone who’s played the game of baseball. To play 20-something years in the game of baseball is an accomplishment in itself. Longevity is way more important than a single catch.

“There’s a lot of guys that have made single great catches and played one year, or two years or five years. You don’t know who those people are but to do it for the amount of time that he’s done it in his career and played as long as he has in his career, that’s another level. That’s way bigger.”


AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow contributed to this report.


AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb

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The Associated Press