COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Throughout all of baseball history, fans have been in awe of the pure amazement that a home run represents. A home run is a combination of many factors: A solid swing, the right park dimensions, a steady breeze, the proper loft, great hand-eye coordination and always a little bit of luck.
One man who seemed to remove luck from the equation with the frequency he propelled baseballs from ballparks was Willie Mays, who hit his 512th career home run breaking the National League record 45 years ago this week.
A frustrated Mays was tied for the NL record with Mel Ott for nine days. On Day 10, he would have to face the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose four-man rotation consisted of three future Hall of Famers and a three-time All-Star.
On May 4, 1966 Mays dug in against left-hander Claude Osteen and struck out in both his first and second at-bats. When Mays came up in the fifth, Osteen was on a streak of 96 consecutive innings without giving up a home run.
Mays had previous success against Osteen, including two home runs the previous year, but so far was unable to put the ball in play during this game. But if Mays was pressing in his third at-bat, he lost those jitters in a split second by sending the first pitch he saw from Osteen 380 feet into the right field bleachers.
“It was a really easy pitch for him to hit,” said Osteen. “But I’m not trying to take anything away from him. He reached a really great milestone.”
Mays, who won the National League MVP award a year before, was relieved to end the chase and help the Giants in the 6-1 win. He had been in a slump since the day he tied the record, going 3-for-23, and actually raised his average from .130 to .167, over the 10 day span, in going 1-for-4 with a home run.
“I was happy to get it over with,” Mays said following the game. “Every day I’ve been trying to get it over with, so I could go back to playing baseball.”
Mays went back to playing baseball for another seven more seasons, totaling 660 home runs and earning him a membership among baseball’s elite in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.
Kevin Stiner was the spring 2011 Public Relations intern for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum