The play was captured on black and white film. Willie Mays, then a twenty-three year old fleet-footed outfielder for the New York Giants, coming off a season in which he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, runs full speed towards the centerfield fence at the old Polo Grounds, the number twenty-four visible on his back. He never turns his head, instead looking straight up as he makes an improbable over the shoulder catch in the deepest part of the stadium, and then twirls and throws the baseball towards second base in one fluid, athletic motion.
It is often referred to as the greatest defensive play in the history of the game, made all-the-more memorable because it occurred during the 1954 World Series, a series dominated by the Giants, who swept the favored Cleveland Indians to take the championship.
At the time, with Mays, described by many as the greatest player of his generation, at the beginning of what would be a Hall of Fame career, it was assumed that the Giants would hold many championship parades through the streets of New York. Yet four years later the Giants packed their bags and moved to San Francisco, on the heels of their rival Brooklyn Dodgers, leaving behind only memories and a multitude of fans feeling betrayed and abandoned. The Giants would not win another championship for fifty-six years.
They came close several times. In 1962 a Giants team populated by such greats as Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal, loaded the bases in the ninth inning of a 1-0 game against the New York Yankees in game seven of the World Series. McCovey, then at the beginning of his own Hall of Fame career, hit what he has described as the hardest ball he has ever hit. The ball, however, never lifted far from the ground and settled into the glove of Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson for the final out of the series. The Yankees repeated as World Champions, and the Giants went home in defeat.
Despite often fielding teams with exceptional players, the Giants did not return to the World Series until 1989. That year they were led by young first baseman Will Clark and powerhouse outfielder Kevin Mitchell, coming off an MVP season. The Giants faced their American League rivals Oakland Athletics, in a highly anticipated matchup of Bay Area teams. Then Mother Nature struck. The World Series was interrupted by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that killed 63 people, injured 3,727, and left thousands others homeless throughout northern California. The World Series became of little consequence, and the Giants never seemed to recover from the shock of the catastrophe, losing to the Athletics in four games.
The Giants next returned to the World Series in 2002, this time led by controversial outfielder Barry Bonds, coming off one of several MVP campaigns. Heartbreak once again awaited the team. Leading the series three games to two, and holding a 5-0 lead in the seventh inning of game six against the Anaheim Angels, the team collapsed. The Angels scored six runs in the seventh and eighth innings to take game six, 6-5, and defeated the Giants 4-1 in game seven to take the series. One again, despite fielding a superlative team, the Giants’ efforts came up short.
This year the Giants were not expected to contend. They fielded a makeshift lineup of castoffs from other teams, yet melded together to win their division on the last day of the season. The team’s lineup this post-season did not come close to rivaling those of past Giants squads. When they reached the World Series, their clean-up hitter was journeyman outfielder Cody Ross, a discard from the Florida Marlins picked up on waivers late in the season. Ross, who batted eighth at the beginning of the playoffs, became an unexpected hero in the Giants’ improbable march to the championship.
The true heroes of the Giants’ season, however, were the pitchers. It is an old adage that good pitching will beat good hitting when championships are on the line, and that proved the case again this year. Led by unconventional two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum (nicknamed “The Freak” by his teammates), the Giants defeated the Texas Rangers in five games, ending nearly six decades of futility.
Willie Mays, the “Say Hey” kid with the winning smile, who provided countless memories of athletic achievement to New York and San Francisco fans alike, is now seventy-nine years old. His catch during the 1954 World Series seems a distant memory kept alive only by the magic of film. Yet, as the Giants swarmed the field in celebration of their achievement, I could not help but wonder at the thoughts and emotion that must be going through him. Fifty-six years after Mays’ improbable catch, the Giants are champions once again – in a different city, in a very different sport played by vastly different players.