With another World Series upon us in mere days, let’s turn back the clock to one of the most famous Fall Classics of them all, involving one play that rocked the baseball world. Trouble is, that play has been blown all out of proportion to the point where a myth has been surrounding it ever since…
In 1954, the Cleveland Indians looked unbeatable. They won the American League pennant by eight games over the mighty New York Yankees, and in doing so set a modern-day record of 111 wins. On offense, they whacked 156 homers. Bobby Avila hit for a .341 average. Larry Doby smashed 32 homers and 126 RBIs. Pitching, they posted a stingy 2.78 team ERA. Early Wynn and Bob Lemon both won 23 games. Mike Garcia took the individual ERA title at 2.64. All the above were league-leading totals. And when the starters faltered, they were rescued by a quality bullpen consisting of Don Mossi, Ray Narleski, and Hal Newhouser.
But Cleveland’s opposition, the National League champ New York Giants, were a decent club also. They won 97 games, five more than the second-place Brooklyn Dodgers. The Giants could pitch too, their team league-leading 3.09 ERA said so. They tied for top honors in homers with 186, 41 of those coming off the bat of center fielder Willie Mays in his first full season since returning from US Army duty. Leading the National League with a .345 batting average, his 110 RBIs and 14 outfield assists were equally impressive.
The series opened on Wednesday, September 29, at New York’s massive Polo Grounds, a sunny, 75-degree afternoon in front of 52,000-plus anxious fans. The Indians were 8-5 favorites to take it all home.
The starting pitchers were solid right-handers: New York’s Sal Maglie and Cleveland’s Bob Lemon. With the score tied 2-2 in the eighth, Cleveland’s Larry Doby walked and Al Rosen singled off Maglie. With runners on first and second and none out, New York manager Leo Durocher strolled to the mound. He waved in lefty Don Liddle to pitch to the left-handed hitting Vic Wertz, who had been three-for-three to that point, hitting two singles and a triple.
Liddle had a precise job to do: throw curves to a hitter who apparently couldn’t hit curves thrown by a southpaw. On a one-and-two count, Liddle meant to throw a curve low and away. Instead, he served it up high and across the plate. Wertz swung and hit a high rocket to the right of the center field runway towards the bleacher wall…
Mays turned around at the solid crack of the bat, and with his back to the plate ran like a deer. Moments later, he took one quick glance over his left shoulder to line himself up. As a result, he veered slightly to his right, slowed down a notch, placed his hands high over his left shoulder and after running approximately 90 feet hauled in the ball a few feet short of the right-centerfield bleacher wall. Half-way to third, Doby returned to second. There, Doby tagged up, then headed for third, at the same time that Mays spun around almost 360 degrees and threw a bullet to Davey Williams at second base. All this in only a few seconds. Rosen bolted back to first.
What had just happened?
With the crowd still buzzing and the Indians in shock, Durocher went to the mound again. He waved in righty Marv Grissom, who eventually got out of the inning unscathed. With none out and the score remaining 2-2 in the tenth, Wertz connected on his fourth hit of the day, a liner off Grissom to left-center between Mays and left fielder Monte Irvin. But that was it for the Indians that inning. No runs scored.
Then, in the bottom of the inning, Bob Lemon walked Mays with one out, his second walk of the game. The first time that Mays had walked, the Giants followed up by scoring twice. This time, he stole second to start things. Lemon intentionally walked left-handed hitting Hank Thompson to pitch to righty Monte Irvin. Durocher countered by bringing in pinch hitter Dusty Rhodes, a left-handed hitter. Tired after 10 innings of work, Lemon threw a chest-high curve ball with not much on it that Rhodes swatted down the right-field foul line, barely clearing the 11-foot-high wall marked at 258 feet, for one of those cheap, down-the-line homers often associated with the horseshoe-shaped Polo Grounds. Lemon threw his glove down in disgust. With one questionable clout, the Giants won 5-2.
Defying the odds, New York went on to sweep Cleveland in four games. Ironically, Wertz was the Indians best hitter in the series, collecting eight hits in 16 times up, with two doubles, a triple, and a homer. Although Mays hit only .286 (four-for-14), he did score four important runs. His true value was measured by his defensive prowess, in particular, “The Catch.” In the off-season, Mays took National League MVP honors.
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Looking back at “The Catch” on the NBC newsreel which I had found on YouTube, it had to be one of the most unusual defensive plays. Also, I was amazed at the terrific jump Mays got on the ball and his anticipating where it would land. Overrunning the ball at first, he actually had to slow down to make the catch. His back to the plate and over his shoulder added to the entertainment value. It didn’t hurt being on national television either, where NBC announcer Jerry Brickhouse described it as “…a catch which must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people.” Without a doubt, it broke the back of the Indians offense, and set the course for outcome of the series.
Upon a closer look at the catch, it wasn’t hit as far as so many experienced sportswriters over the years have claimed. Some writers have said 440 or 450 feet. Others as much as 460 feet! Come on, people! Do the math! All one has to do is look at a 1951 Polo Grounds diagram of distances to the fences attached to this article, then take another good look at the famous newsreel (on YouTube) to see where Mays caught the ball.
First off, take into consideration that the runway up to the end of center field (marked on the attached line drawing as 475) was clearly marked at 483 feet in 1954 in the famous telephoto shot of the scene. The drawing, as well as aerial photos of the Polo Grounds, show the runway to be approximately 60 feet long, about the same distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate--which all in-tune baseball fans know is 60 feet, six inches. Subtract 60 from 483 and you get about 425 feet to the right-centerfield bleacher wall, as noted in the drawing.
According to Polo Grounds eye witnesses, Mays brought down Wertz’s blast about 10 feet in front of the unmarked 425-foot part of the right-centerfield wall, which computes to about 415 feet from home plate, with the momentum taking him a few feet more before spinning around and hitting the cutoff man. I think the whole 460-foot myth started right after Mays caught the ball, when Brickhouse said to his NBC color man that the ball “…had to go about 460 feet, didn’t it?” Sorry, no, Jerry, it didn’t. And he should have known better.
Another thing, some baseball people--including Mays’ teammate Monte Irvin--have claimed that Wertz hit the ball so deep that if Doby had stayed at second base and tagged up, he could’ve taken two bases and scored. “That’s how far that ball was hit,” Irvin remarked. Really, how often does a runner take two bases on a 415-foot flyball out? Besides, against Mays’ powerful throwing arm? Still, I don’t mean to minimize the Mays catch. Not at all. It was a beautiful piece of work to watch on the newsreel.
Myth or no myth, I wish I could have been there to witness Brickhouse’s “optical illusion” for myself.
Note: parts of this article were taken from a January 28, 2015 article that I wrote for The National Pastime Museum, whose library is now part of the digital collection at The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York. A special thanks to both organizations in allowing me to use the material.