Ted Williams once said, “They invented the All-Star game for Willie Mays.” More than any sentence, any statistic, or any phrase etched on his plaque in Cooperstown, this statement outlines the substance of Mays and captures his essence so perfectly as to render all of the numbers accrued over the 22-year career as mere accessories to the historical storyline. More than the Polo Grounds, Seals Stadium, Candlestick Park or Shea Stadium, I think of the All-Star game as the truest and most definitive home for The Say Hey Kid. Willie Mays manned the biggest and most eye-catching booth in a traveling carnival known as the Midsummer Classic on 24 separate occasions, and hit, ran and slid his way beyond the imaginations of the thousands of fans who saw his star take center stage and command the brightest spotlight among a troupe of iconic ballplayers. The All-Star game indeed was made for talents like Willie Mays, for on one special day each summer, this baseball genius found a singular home for the expression of the exceptional, the magical, and the everlasting. In ballparks, stadiums, and fields, the Giants’ centerfielder settled into whatever city was lucky enough to host his abilities, and left behind an encyclopedia of images, memories, oohs, and aahs which comprised a collective experience known as watching Willie Mays.
The Midsummer Classic, like Opening Day or the postseason, offers a concise and impressionable tablet onto which baseball etches its storyline. Once a year, the game’s best challenge each other and measure themselves against their peers – the results can often carry on in our memories and mythologies in a manner that sometimes subtly and sometimes directly encapsulates the past and present. Pedro Martinez’ performance in the 1999 All-Star game, in which he struck out Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire in succession to begin the game lies beside Carl Hubbell’s mastery in the 1934 Midsummer Classic, when he struck out five future Hall of Famers – Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin – in a row. Just this past week, Josh Hamilton capped a fairytale first half with his jaw-dropping display in the Home Run Derby. With home plate in Yankee Stadium his stage, with 50,000 fans on their feet chanting his name, Hamilton rocketed and moon-shot ball after ball into the upper deck, into the black seats in center, and even flirted with that Holy Grail of home run hitting – knocking one completely out of the stadium. Hamilton’s turn under the spotlight made me think back to the All-Star game in 1941, when another left-handed batter with prodigious talents symbolized an iconic season with a single swing of the bat. That year in Detroit, Ted Williams won the game with a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth. For Williams, whose two-for-four-day was not a part of his .406 batting average in 1941, that home run always stood at the apex of his accomplishments on the ballfield.
Reggie Jackson hitting the transformer in the 1971 game and Bo Jackson going way beyond yard off Rick Reuschel in 1989. Curt Schilling daring Alex Rodriguez to try and hit three fastballs in 2002 and Ted Williams swatting Rip Sewell’s eephus pitch into the stands in 1946. A 1-0 game in the year of the pitcher in 1968 (in which the only run was scored by Willie Mays, who led off the game with a single), and a 13-8 slugfest at Coors Field in 1998. Hank Blalock’s two-run home run against a previously untouchable Eric Gagne in 2003 (it was Gagne’s only blown save the entire year). Babe Ruth hitting the first home run in All-Star history in 1933. The 1934 game in which 17 of the 18 starters eventually were inducted into the Hall of Fame (Wally Berger is the only outsider). Terry Steinbach – hitting .217 in the first half of the season – winning the MVP in the 1988 game with a two-run home run that accounted for all the AL scoring in their victory. Each moment stands alone in our All-Star scrapbook, while also claiming a place as an important block in the ever-expanding timeline of baseball. The All-Star game serves as a microscope, into which we peer, examine, and celebrate the nuances and elements that separate good from the great.
As a space in which to shape, witness, and impact an amazing tableau of achievement, Yankee Stadium has stood atop the baseball mountain for the better part of nine decades. Yankee Stadium is the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore, and Washington Monument rolled into one. People come to its gates to sit atop the baseball world – always cognizant of what has played out on the field in the past; and always hoping to witness one more iconic moment. Few have ever walked away disappointed.
The iconic and the grand – Babe Ruth christening the Stadium with a home run on April 18, 1923, Lou Gehrig’s speech on July 4, 1939, the perfect games twirled by Don Larsen, David Wells, and David Cone, two ninth-inning, game-tying home runs on two consecutive World Series nights in 2001, Roger Maris’ 61st home run in 1961, Mickey Mantle Day in 1969, All-Star games in 1939, 1960, 1977 and 2007 – have permanently lifted the ballpark to a singular position in the national pastime. But the intimate has also thickened the space with ghosts, constricting the vastness of Yankee Stadium to a deeply personal set of diary pages. We all have our own moments at the Stadium: the small gestures, accomplishments, connections and performances that have melded and contrasted to construct innumerable homes that we each call our own. These are the elements that give life to any ballpark, for the ghosts have no animation without our memories or stories. The ballpark holds onto each and every one of our recollections – protecting, burnishing, storing safely until we sit down in a seat, look out to the field, and say, “I remember when.”
On September 26, 1981, in the bottom of the ninth inning of an Orioles-Yankees game on a Saturday afternoon in the Bronx, a pinch-hitter walked to the plate. The Yankees, trailing 4-3, had the tying run on second and the winning run on first with one out. The pinch-hitter on this early fall afternoon strode to the plate, heard the volley of cheers cascading down from the nearly 31,000 fans in the seats, and took his place in the left-handed side of the batter’s box. The pinch-hitter had been in this spot many times before, and was accustomed to being the epicenter of great expectations and hopes. 16 years earlier, the pinch-hitter had made his debut for the New York Yankees against the Washington Senators. On that day, he was a 19-year-old shortstop from Oklahoma whose hometown, powerful left-handed swing and original position on the diamond necessitated comparisons to a baseball legend, Mickey Mantle. Although the 19-year-old never did match the career of Mantle, he carved out a memorable and long-lasting entry of his own. For a time, when the Yankees were suffering their worst World Series drought since their first pennant in 1921, Bobby Murcer gave fans a reason to hand a ticket over, walk through a turnstile, and take a seat at Yankee Stadium: three consecutive Top-10 MVP finishes from 1971-1973, five straight All-Star berths from 1971-1975, a Gold Glove in 1972, a few positions atop the leaderboards in various categories, the most runs driven in and scored in the AL from 1971-1974. Bobby Murcer also provided a link – he had not only been compared to Mickey Mantle, Murcer had played with him, and had eventually taken Mantle’s spot in centerfield. And so the legacy continued – from DiMaggio to Mantle to Murcer. And if that connection was interrupted by a trade to San Francisco after the 1974 season (Murcer was traded for Bobby Bonds, who had come to the big leagues saddled with comparisons to that other centerfielding legend, Willie Mays), the separation and eventual return in 1979 only reaffirmed
how much Bobby Murcer meant – as both ballplayer and symbol – to the franchise and to the fans who had grown up with tales of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle.
On September 26, 1981, with the crispness of autumn issuing a soft reminder of what was to come, I sat and watched pinch-hitter Bobby Murcer walk to the plate. Whatever chants Murcer was hearing were drowned out by a singular voice to my right. For above my right shoulder, my mother stood, hands clasped in front of her, smiling, intoning “BobbyBobbyBobbyBobby……(pause)……. BobbyBobbyBobbyBobby…… (pause)……. BobbyBobbyBobbyBobby.” And then, somewhere in the moment between a pause and the intake of more air, Bobby Murcer swung and hit a ball into seats in right field to win the game.
As I watched Brooks Robinson, Ernie Banks, Bob Feller, Willie Mays, and all of the other Hall of Famers standing at their positions before this year’s All-Star game at Yankee Stadium, I thought about Bobby Murcer for a moment. Once upon a time, scouts, fans and writers saw this lefty from Oklahoma and felt enough excitement and hope to compare him to Mickey Mantle. Other comparisons to Mantle had been heard the night before the All-Star game, when Josh Hamilton stood into the left-handed batter’s box during the Home Run Derby and launched majestic home runs to very part of Yankee Stadium. And then when four Yankee legends – Reggie Jackson, Yogi Berra, Goose Gossage, and Whitey Ford – took their baseballs from George Steinbrenner and made their graceful and deeply personal gestures of a hug or a kiss on the cheek, I again thought of Bobby Murcer and all the deeply personal images I have witnessed at the Stadium. Don Mattingly walking from third to first after the last out in the bottom of the third inning on September 23, 1995, when the fans rose as one and gave him a standing ovation for everything that he had represented; a chant – in order to express all of those same sentiments – for Paul O’Neill in Game Five of the 2001 World Series; Tom Seaver retiring Don Baylor on August 4, 1985 to record the final out in his 300th win; Bernie Williams crushing Randy Myers’ flat slider in the bottom of the 11th inning in Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS; sitting with a friend down the left field line and watching Andy Pettitte beat the Orioles in a prelude to his wonderful 2003 playoff run; taking my own personal walk through Monument Park to gaze at the plaques. And of course, listening to my mother chanting BobbyBobbyBobbyBobby and watching a connection to the past introduce himself to a new generation.
We never know when a moment will arrive and hand us another tile for our ever expanding mosaic. Sometimes – like waiting anxiously for the moment when Mariano Rivera was going to enter this year’s All-Star game – we anticipate and hope and sweat out the proceeding moments. Sometimes – like Josh Hamilton’s awe-inspiring performance in the Home Run Derby – we consider but hold our hopes in check. Sometimes – like the pregame ceremony before the All-Star game – we are content to sit back and absorb. Sometimes – like Fernando Valenzuela striking out five straight batters in the 1986 All-Star game – the moment instantly connects to a different era and moment and seamlessly bridges generations and decades. And sometimes – like a pinch-hit home run by Bobby Murcer in 1981 – a moment lies beneath the surface, waiting for the proper amount of time and context to reveal its hidden meaning and importance. But always, our ballparks welcome us, patiently offering us the chance to witness and connect to the game and the men who assemble the shapes and memories that we know as baseball.
Thanks to baseball-reference.com and retrosheet.org for information that helped with this piece.
The lefty came from California, just another face in a sea of baseball prospects bobbing here and there among the rolling tide of a vast and expansive farm system. The righty came from the south, plucked from playing fields of the Negro Leagues. The switch-hitter – named for a Hall-of-Fame catcher – came from the Midwest, an unpolished jewel full of jaw-dropping potential. Each would find himself inextricably connected to baseball’s story in his first season in the big leagues and emerged as a footnote in a larger and more dramatic essay. The switch-hitter would play alongside Joe DiMaggio in the Yankee Clipper’s final campaign in the Majors, a rookie quietly deferring to the icon and waiting for his chance to roam centerfield. The righty would be waiting in the on deck circle with a unique vantage point for Bobby Thomson’s home run that gave the Giants the pennant. The lefty would make his Major League debut just two days after his teammate Jackie Robinson trotted out toward first base for his first game in the Majors. Each would struggle in that first season, too. The switch-hitter famously considered leaving the game after failing in his first taste of the Majors. The lefty batted only 89 times in his debut season, and failed to hit a single home run while striking out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances. And the righty would start off hitless in his first 12 at-bats before homering off Warren Spahn for his first big league hit. Each would patrol centerfield in a ballpark in New York. Each would blast out home runs in prodigious quantity. Each would be held up by his fans as the best the town had to offer. And each would settle into a magnificent playing career whose chapters would find a permanent home in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.
In the nineteen-fifties, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider stood at the epicenter of the baseball world. In ballparks as famous and iconic as the players would someday become, they ran down long fly balls, hit searing line drives, and led their teams to pennants. Willie Mays flew around a playing field in Manhattan and exhibited a style, grace, and innate sense of baseball-ness that made it seem as if he were born to play the game. Over in the Bronx, Mickey Mantle turned his unique and unprecedented blend of power and speed into the focal point of a dynasty that placed his image atop a totem of greatness and dominance. And Duke Snider, overseeing his kingdom in Brooklyn, followed a path of quieter consistency and demeanor, issuing resounding thwacks with his sweet and powerful swing, offering counterpoints to the cowbells and ringing instruments; the Duke, the regal centerfielder always pushing to elevate his team to the golden promises of next year.
Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. In 1956, Mantle led the Majors in batting average (.353), home runs (52), and RBI (130). The triple crown season remains an apex and symbol of all that could be accomplished when this man was healthy and able to mesh his vast talents and abilities in a concentrated drive toward excellence. In 1957, Willie Mays became the first player in Major League history to steal 30 bases and hit 30 home runs in back-to-back seasons. The accomplishment represents the total package of Mays on the ballfield – the running and hitting, the power and the speed, the promise of any given moment flashing and resonating with wonder. As Leo Durocher once said, Mays could do it all. In the nineteen-fifties, Duke Snider hit more home runs (326) and drove in more runs (1031) than any other player in baseball. Day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out – the remarkable resume of a remarkable ballplayer fulfilling his responsibilities and making manifest the magical qualities that could turn a power-hitting centerfielder into a magnetic and smile-inducing paragon.
Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. The summers were their stage. And the autumns, their encore. Mickey Mantle hit more home runs than any other player in World Series history. Willie Mays used up every inch of his centerfield to run down a drive by Vic Wertz. Duke Snider remains the only player in World Series history to hit four home runs in two different series. In every year from 1951 – 1964, at least one was playing in the Fall Classic. Each brought a title to his team, and each became a little more special for that contribution.
Every ballplayer has his own unique story to tell. For Willie, Mickey, and the Duke, those stories resonate like few others, and sturdily stand on their own myths, facts, numbers, and anecdotes. Still, their juxtaposition to one another expands their legacies, and adds depth and color to their mythologies. Without the others, perhaps they don’t shine as far or with as much wattage. There are numerous combinations like this that texture the baseball timeline. When geography and timing exert their influence, certain pairs, trios, or quartets become so linked that they forever stand together. And when that does happen, we are left with a sum that stands above its parts. Tinker, Evers, and Chance. Ruth and Gehrig. Raschi, Reynolds, and Lopat. Trammell and Whitaker. Mathewson and McGraw. Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey. Smoltz, Maddux, and Glavine. And of course, Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.
Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. As the Hall of Fame writer Red Smith once quipped, Snider, Mantle and Mays. You could get a fat lip in any saloon by starting an argument as to which was best. Thanks in part to a song by Terry Cashman, the three names have become one – a rolling, effluent, harmonious combination that immediately speaks to a different era when three of the greatest to ever play the game shared the same city and magnetized the same baseball universe. A trio of ballplayers – forever linked, forever resonant, forever connected in a perpetually sparkling centerfield of their youth. Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.
To be continued…
10 years and 85 days after Jackie Robinson first emerged from the dugout at Ebbets Field and strode toward first base, four ballplayers stood together under a St. Louis sun, and posed for a group portrait captured on film. The photographer caught them in a moment before the 1957 All-Star game at Sportsman’s Park; they are joking, at ease with each other and the gaze of the lens. These four men were young, entering their primes as ballplayers, ready to continue their odysseys toward four of the greatest careers baseball has ever seen. More than a half-century later, I look with awe upon this moment and this image-for I have the luxury of knowing so much more than these four men could fathom at that particular place and time.
I know, for example, that the 26-year-old shortstop on the far left would soon win back-to-back MVP awards, capture two home run titles, and become so identified with his team and city that in the spring of his 77th year, a statue of his likeness would be unveiled outside his home ballpark.
I know that the outfielder standing next to the shortstop-still only 21-years-old on the day the film image was taken-would become known for a ferocity and will to win that was unmatched. I know that years after capturing the Triple Crown and becoming the only player in history to win a Most Valuable Player award in both leagues, he would become the first African-American manager in baseball history.
I know that the lanky, tall, smiling 23-year-old standing in the middle of the group would hit a pennant-winning home run later that year. And I know of another home run that would sail beyond the fence 17 years later-a home run that would forever link this outfielder with a man named Babe Ruth.
And finally, I know that the man standing on the far right-the elder statesman of the group, but still the one who is doing the most joking, the one who can’t stand still-would continue to make every ballfield he stepped onto his own personal playground. I know his resume would include 12 Gold Gloves, two MVP’s, a batting title, and four home run crowns.
Ernie Banks. Frank Robinson. Henry Aaron. Willie Mays. Each carved out an historic career-one filled with myriad accomplishments, moments of stunning artistry, and enough hardware to adorn a museum. Each would power out enough longballs to earn membership into the 500-home run club, and each would stand in front of an adoring audience in a small town in central New York, holding up a plaque that would symbolize his membership among the game’s immortals. Before that 1957 All-Star game, they had already begun their imprint on the game: Banks was making his third All-Star appearance, Robinson had been named the Rookie of the Year in 1956, Aaron had captured a batting title that same season, and Mays had won the National League MVP in 1954. Still, in this image they are babies, young men just beginning to write their own chapters. After the 1957 All-Star game, they would combine to make 52 more All-Star appearances, garner 17 Gold Gloves, earn six MVP’s, win two batting crowns, and capture 10 home run titles. I could go on and on citing statistics, but it seems unnecessary. For the names of these four ballplayers reverberate and resonate with every baseball fan, issuing a smile to anyone who chooses to remember or imagine fields and parks that once played host to Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, and Willie Mays.
When these four ballplayers started their Major League careers, baseball was still in the infancy of what Jules Tygiel called “The Great Experiment.” Jackie Robinson had been given the opportunity to write a new chapter of baseball, and the prose and poetry he composed over ten years on the diamond forever changed the game. But by 1957, Robinson had retired, and it was time for a new generation to create their own storylines. For the better part of two decades, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, and Willie Mays did just that. In a way, each seems to have borrowed an element of Jackie’s game and turned it into his own defining characteristic. Ernie Banks played with a joy-an emotion I always think of when I picture Jackie jubilantly clapping his hands as he skips down the third base line to meet his teammates at the plate. Frank Robinson brought an unrelenting desire to win to the ballpark-an emotion that makes me picture Jackie standing behind second base after Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World, making sure that Thomson touched all the bases on his pennant-winning home run. Henry Aaron brought a dignity and grace to his playing-the same grace and dignity that allowed Jackie to fashion a Hall of Fame career in the face of unimagined pressure and vitriol. Willie Mays could make the basepaths his dance floor and engage in a never-ending game of rundown-Jackie would taunt, tantalize, and ultimately defeat other teams as he waltzed, strutted, pranced, dared, dashed, and flew from base to base.
When I look upon that image from the 1957 All-Star game, I stare into the eyes of the ballplayers, mesmerized by their youth and the knowledge of what lies in front of them. And I think of a legacy that has been passed from Jackie, through Banks, Robinson, Aaron, and Mays, and onto today’s generation of ballplayers. 61 years after Jackie Robinson stood with his teammates on a ballfield at Ebbets Field, Derek Jeter-wearing ’42’ for the night-whistled three singles through the middle of the diamond to continue his inexorable march toward 3,000 hits. 61 years after Jackie came to the plate for the first time and stood inside the batter’s box to face Johnny Sain, Ken Griffey, Jr.-wearing ’42’ on his road grays-drove a 2-1 pitch over the wall for his 595th career home run. 61 years after Jackie Robinson gave all fans the opportunity to watch his aggressiveness on the bathpaths, Jose Reyes-wearing ’42’ in a stadium less than 15 miles from where Jackie played on April 15, 1947-sped from home to third on his first triple of the season.
The thread-always with Jackie Robinson as the knot-remains strong and vital. From Opening Day in Brooklyn in 1947, through a moment before the All-Star game in 1957, to the records and achievements waiting to have their time onstage in 2008, baseball keeps taking us back and forth between the past and the present, juggling and shuffling moments and images that connect us all to our national pastime and to the men who have performed so brilliantly on its diamonds. No matter what images resonate with us, they all have their starting point on some field in the past, perhaps even one in St. Louis during the summer a half-century ago, when four young ballplayers started etching their names in the book of baseball.