Willie and Monte: Game Called. A New York Kid Remembers

Willie and Monte: Game Called. A New York Kid Remembers

“The one constant through all the years has been baseball.”

—Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams

Willie Mays

Willie Mays died June 18th at 93. His old friend Monte Irvin pre­ced­ed him in 2016 at 96. Among the dwin­dling band of one-time New York young­sters, a cache of fond mem­o­ries died with them.

I grew up on Stat­en Island, home of Bob­by Thom­son, whose play­off-win­ning, walk-off home run was dubbed “The Shot Heard Round the World.” It came on 3 Octo­ber 1951, after the New York Giants had come from 13 1/2 games behind in August to tie the mighty Brook­lyn Dodgers for the Nation­al League pen­nant. Dri­ving by “Bobby’s house,” at the junc­tion of  Todt Hill and Rich­mond Roads, was required of every kid’s dad when we were in the cars.

New York­ers most­ly liked the Yan­kees and Dodgers, but if you lived on “The Island” in that brief shin­ing moment, the “Jints” were num­ber one. Root for them and you were soon reel­ing off the whole lineup.

Willie Howard Mays, Jr. had come up to the majors in May of that glo­ri­ous year—only to be draft­ed into the Army just after the sea­son end­ed. (To the cha­grin of “The Island,” the Giants lost the ’51 World Series to the all-pow­er­ful Yan­kees in six games, despite win­ning the first two of three.) Willie rejoined the team in 1954—and one of his many dates with destiny.

“The Catch”

Willie’s immor­tal back­wards-bas­ket-catch of Vic Wertz’s dri­ve in the 1954 World Series. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

I’m not going to limn his career, which you can find on Wikipedia and many oth­er sources. Just want to remem­ber our Giants roar­ing back in the World Series of 1954. We beat the “indomitable” Cleve­land Indi­ans, who’d won 111 games that year. (Dis­grun­tled Yan­kee fans said the oth­er teams had thrown games to the Indi­ans just to keep the Yanks back. “We could have beat them, too,” we chorused.)

It was Game 1, eighth inning, scored tied 2-2. Up stepped Cleve­land slug­ger Vic Wertz, who had bat­ted in the Indi­ans’ two runs with a first inning triple. With two run­ners on, Wertz sent a dri­ve to deep cen­ter. Willie took off—vainly, we all thought. It looked like anoth­er sure triple.

Run­ning flat out, his back to the ball, Mays made this impos­si­ble, mirac­u­lous, over-the-shoul­der bas­ket catch. Cleveland’s ral­ly fiz­zled and the Giants won with Dusty Rhodes‘s three-run homer in the tenth.

It broke the Indi­ans’ hearts. They nev­er came back. Despite an ace Cleve­land pitch­ing staff, the Giants won four games straight, and all us kids at Pub­lic School 19 were in ecstasy.

“Too good for this world…”

We stopped fol­low­ing the Giants when they left town for San Fran­cis­co in 1958. But Willie stayed with the team—and stood the boo­ing SF fans gave him ear­ly on, though he soon became a favorite. He retired in 1973 after a two-year stint back in New York, this time with the Mets. By then he was a fix­ture, an Amer­i­can hero, hon­ored every­where from the White House to the Gold­en Gate.

How good was he? Just look at the stats: 660 home runs. 3293 hits. 1909 runs bat­ted in, 339 stolen bases, life­time bat­ting aver­age .301, twen­ty-four All-Star Games. And there was always “The Catch.”

Rober­to Clemente said: “To me, Willie Mays is the great­est who ever played.” Willie Stargell, whom Mays once threw out from 400 feet, “couldn’t believe he could throw that far. I fig­ured there had to be a relay. Then I found out there wasn’t. He’s too good for this world.” Ty Cobb said Mays was the only play­er he’d pay to see.

Leo “The Lip” Durocher, the scrap­py Giants man­ag­er in those two World Series, did not issue praise light­ly. “If some­body came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases and per­formed a mir­a­cle in the field every day, I’d still look you in the eye and say Willie was bet­ter.” Then there was the Dodgers’ Don Zim­mer: “In the Nation­al League in the 1950s, there were two oppos­ing play­ers who stood out over all the oth­ers—Stan Musial and Willie Mays…. I’ve always said that Willie Mays was the best play­er I ever saw.

Monte Irvin

Monte Irvin on a Bow­man card from 1953. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

I can’t think of Willie in those long-van­ished days with­out recall­ing my oth­er Giants hero, Mont­ford Mer­rill Irvin. He too made the Hall of Fame, but didn’t enjoy the longevi­ty Willie did. Monte came up to the Giants in 1949, played through 1955, and then a year with the Chica­go Cubs. Sad­ly, a back injury dur­ing spring train­ing in 1957 end­ed his career.

Monte was over­shad­owed by the illus­tri­ous Willie, but the two were close friends. I can­not improve on the Wikipedia report about Mays’s 1951 arrival at the Polo Grounds, home of the Giants:

Dur­ing that sea­son, Leo Durocher asked Irvin to serve as a men­tor for Mays, who had been called up to the team in May. Mays lat­er said, “In my time, when I was com­ing up, you had to have some kind of guid­ance. And Monte was like my broth­er…. I couldn’t go any­where with­out him, espe­cial­ly on the road….

It was just a treat to be around him. I didn’t under­stand life in New York until I met Monte. He knew every­thing about what was going on and he pro­tect­ed me dear­ly.” Irvin lat­er replied, “I did that for two years and in the third year, he start­ed show­ing me around!

Giv­en such a short time, Monte’s stats were impres­sive: life­time bat­ting aver­age .305, 160 home runs, 604 runs bat­ted in. Both Mays and Irvin aver­aged 86 RBIs per year. Before the majors. Irvin spent nine pre­vi­ous years in the old Negro Leagues, where he bat­ted .358. His career there was inter­rupt­ed by the Sec­ond World War. He served three years with the Army Engi­neers, was deployed to Eng­land, France and Bel­gium, and fought in the Bat­tle of the Bulge.

Ser­vice to his coun­try left Monte Irvin ever con­scious of the con­tri­bu­tions of vet­er­ans. In the Base­ball Hall of Fame he served on the Veteran’s Com­mit­tee. For many years after he left base­ball, he also par­tic­i­pat­ed in Vet­er­an charities—notably the Amer­i­can Vet­er­ans Cen­ter and World War II Vet­er­ans Com­mit­tee.

Meeting Monte twice

I enjoyed a clos­er rela­tion­ship with Monte Irvin than Willie Mays because I met Monte twice—some forty years apart.

The first was at the Polo Grounds in 1952. Monte was play­ing his usu­al left field, and I was in the grand­stands. (It bears men­tion­ing that Irvin at that time was a proven star, while Mays was in the Army. The year before, Irvin had sparked the Giants’ pen­nant race come­back, bat­ting .312 with twen­ty-four homers and a league-lead­ing 121 RBIs.)

“Hey Monte!” I yelled from he stands. “Hit one out today?” He heard and gave a thumbs-up. And lat­er he did.

Forty years passed. In the 1990s on behalf of the Churchill Cen­tre I attend­ed a World War II vet­er­ans con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton. The Com­mit­tee often host­ed base­ball celebri­ties who were also vet­er­ans, and Irvin was was a fre­quent pres­ence. Also present were two great pitch­ers: War­ren Spahn of the Braves and Bob Feller of the Indi­ans. But my atten­tion was riv­et­ed on Monte. I hadn’t seen him since the Polo Grounds.

I greet­ed him at the bar: “Hul­lo, Num­ber Twenty!”

Monte said, “You remember?”

“I do. I yelled to you from the out­field stands forty years ago. You hit one out. I root­ed for you even more than Twen­ty-four.” (That was Willie.) He laughed and said, “Yeah, but he last­ed longer.”

“Maybe so, but the word was, you got more dates.” Laughs all around.

Field of Dreams

Odd how mem­o­ries come flood­ing back. “Mem­o­ries so thick,” says “Ter­ence Mann” in Field of Dreams, that we “have to brush them away from our faces, as if we dipped our­selves in mag­ic waters.”

Think mighty façades sprout­ing flags and pen­nants. Long dark cor­ri­dors smelling of beer and tobac­co and hot dogs. And then emerg­ing onto the biggest expanse of man­i­cured green you’ve ever seen. Of the nation­al anthem, the roar of the crowd, the crack of the bat when your hero con­nect­ed. I loved those guys.



“Game Called”

by Grantland Rice

Game Called — and silence set­tles on the plain.
Where is the crash of ash against the sphere?
Where is the mighty music, the refrain
That once brought joy to every wait­ing ear?
The Big Guys left us lone­ly in the dark
For­ev­er wait­ing for the flam­ing spark.
Game Called — what more is there for us to say?
How dull and drab the field looks to the eye
For those who ruled it in a gold­en day
Have waved their caps to bid us all good-bye.
Those guys are gone — by land or sea or foam
May the Great Umpire call them “safe at home.”

More baseball

“The Dodgers’ Immor­tal Vin Scul­ly,” 2013.

“Moe Berg: ‘Give My Regards to the Catch­er’ —Franklin Roo­sevelt,” 2014

“God is a Nats Fan: A Kid from New York Remem­bers,” 2019.

“Ty Cobb: Incon­ve­nient Truths,” 2016.

“Nats Win: It’s 1924 All Over Again,” 2019.

“Base­ball 2018: But Some of Us Still Remem­ber When,” 2018

2 thoughts on “Willie and Monte: Game Called. A New York Kid Remembers

  1. Thank you for reviv­ing such won­der­ful mem­o­ries of a dif­fer­ent time.

  2. Great base­ball arti­cle. I saw Willie Mays in per­son many times from 1962 to 1973. Great per­son­al­i­ty and in his prime per­haps the great­est all around posi­tion player.

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