COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Fifty-six years ago this week, in the first game of the 1954 World Series, New York Giants manager Leo Durocher walked to the mound to bring on reliever Don Liddle to face Cleveland Indians’ slugger Vic Wertz.
As dramatic moments go, it didn't shape up as much to remember. But four pitches later, fate and the skills of a legendary Hall of Famer combined to provide one of the most legendary plays in baseball history.
With the score tied 2-2, the dangerous Wertz stepped in with runners on first and second and nobody out in the top of the eighth inning. The first baseman was 3-for-3 on the day, having singled twice and tripled in his previous at-bats.
After working the count to two balls and a strike, Wertz drove Liddle’s fourth offering deep into the Polo Grounds’ cavernous center field, where Willie Mays turned and ran “like a scared deer,” wrote The Sporting News.
The ball traveled about 460 feet before Mays made an over-the-shoulder grab to save two runs.
“I had a good lead on it all the way, so I just ran until I got it,” Mays told United Press International. “Anyway, any ball that is hit that high ought to be caught.”
Durocher removed Liddle from the game immediately following the long drive. Marv Grissom came on and walked a man before retiring Dave Pope and Jim Hegan to end the inning.
With the game still tied at two in the 10th inning, the Giants’ Dusty Rhodes hit a pinch-hit home run to give New York a 5-2 win. Wertz could only watch as the ball landed less than 260 feet away in the Polo Grounds’ short right field grandstand.
“I thought it was just another fly ball,” Bob Lemon, the Cleveland hurler who gave up the home run, told the New York Telegram.
After the game, writers immediately started to compare Mays’ catch to the greatest defensive plays in the history of the Fall Classic. Telegram columnist Dan Daniel likened it to two other game saving plays: Dodgers left-fielder Al Gionfriddo robbing the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio of a three-run home run in 1947, and Washington’s Sam Rice’s full speed charge into the right-centerfield bleachers to make a catch in 1925.
Daniels concluded “the Mays classic moves to the top.”
Willie Mays retired in 1973 with a .302 career batting average, 660 home runs, 1,903 RBI and 338 stolen bases. He played in 24 All-Star games, won 12 Gold Glove Awards and was named the 1951 National League Rookie of the Year.
A two-time NL MVP, Mays won the award in 1954 after hitting .345 with 41 home runs and 110 RBI. He won again in 1965 after the team had moved to San Francisco, hitting .317 with 52 home runs and 112 runs batted in.
He participated in four World Series, playing on the winning side once – in 1954 when the Giants won with help from “The Catch.”
The Say-Hey Kid was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot.
Chris Blake was the 2010 publications intern in the Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum