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What It Takes: Willie Mays

Willie Mays
Willie Mays
What It Takes: Willie Mays
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00:00:02 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:00:08 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:00:14 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:00:19 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:00:27 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:00:34 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:00:39 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:00:52 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement's recorded collection. I'm Alice Winkler. On every episode of What It Takes, you'll hear a revealing conversation with someone who has changed the world: Rosa Parks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Linus Pauling, to name just a few. Their personal stories may be vastly different, but all of them are inspiring, and it's the Academy of Achievement's mission, after all, to show you don't have to be a superhero to make a difference.

00:01:27 Now some might argue that Willie Mays, the subject of today's episode, actually comes as close to being a superhero as any human, but in this 1996 interview, Mays said no. Go ahead and look up to him if you like, but a hero he is not.

00:01:46 WILLIE MAYS: When you’re talking about heroes, I think the heroes should come from your mother and your father, because they're the ones that have to teach you right from wrong. Now you can admire whomever you want to admire, but that particular person's not going to teach you. You’re going to go out and try to emulate whatever he does, but your mother and father's going to be there with you every day, from day in and day out.

00:02:13 They are your heroes, I feel. My father was my hero, you know?

00:02:19 ALICE WINKLER: Willie Mays’s father was a pullman porter on the trains, and a steelworker, who also played baseball on the steel mill’s Negro team. He made a good living, and so Willie never had to worry about going hungry, like a lot of the people he knew growing up in the 1930s. Willie Mays’s mother was a great athlete, too, a track star, so Mays admits he was born with an overdose of athletic prowess.

00:02:46 Talented as he was at sports, though, it didn’t occur to him that he would play in the major leagues, let alone become one of, if not the greatest all-around baseball players of all time. He was born into the segregated South, after all, just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. So there were limits, but Willie Mays insists the circumstances didn’t fill him with anger.

00:03:11 WILLIE MAYS: Well, I was — like I say, I was very fortunate to play sports. All the anger in me went out. I had to do what I had to do, you know. And you — if you stay angry all the time then you really don't have a good life, you know. We knew what was going on, you know, but again, you — if you just stay focused on what is happening as far as your life is concerned, I don't think you have a hard time.

00:03:40 Sure, we went to an all-black school. I didn't — you know, it wasn't mixed or anything, and when you say there had to be some anger there, sure, but what good was it going to do? Who are you going to go to, to tell about what is happening as far as your community was concerned? So you — my father was a type of guy that would go and pull the punches for me when — like I said, when I had a job that I didn’t like and it wasn't good for me, he would say, "Hey, don't work. You’re going to play baseball."

00:04:14 And I really didn’t understand what he was talking about at that time, but he was saying, "You're not going into a cotton field, that's number one. That means picking cotton down there and putting it in the sack, carrying it on your shoulder. You're not going to do that. You're going to play baseball. You're going to be the best."

00:04:30 He just drilled it. I had the best shoes. I had the best glove, the best everything as far as sports was concerned. So my house was like a sporting goods shop. When kids didn’t have shoes, they'd come and get my shoes, wear them, bring them back. We had a good relationship in my community when I played, you know.

00:04:50 ALICE WINKLER: Willie Mays’s father may have done whatever he could to pave the way for his son to make it in sports, but he also insisted that Willie finish high school. When the Birmingham Black Barons made an offer to sign the 15-year-old, his dad struck a deal with the team’s manager. Willie would continue to go to school five days a week and play for the team on weekends and in the summer. His high school coaches actually weren’t too happy about the arrangement.

00:05:19 Once he went pro, Willie wasn’t allowed to play for his school teams anymore, and he had been the star of all three — football, basketball, and baseball.

00:05:30 WILLIE MAYS: Basketball was my second sport. Football was my first. Baseball was my last, but I picked baseball because it was the easiest of the three, and I don't think I had a problem with that, but the others I thought I would get hurt in, so I just picked that. And my father didn’t have money for me to go to college, and at that particular time, they didn’t have black quarterbacks, and I don't think I could have made it in basketball because I was only five-eleven, so I just picked baseball.

00:06:02 There was no height limit then in baseball. You’d just go and play and have a good time.

00:06:07 ALICE WINKLER: It may not have been his number one choice, but lucky for baseball, Willie Mays realized he loved the game.

00:06:14 WILLIE MAYS: I love defense more than offense, and defense, to me, is the key to playing baseball. I know people say, "Well, you’ve got to score a run," but you’ve got to stop them before you can score runs, and I used to love to run at a fly ball. I used to love to throw a guy out, but of course, I played good offense too.

00:06:32 But I just felt baseball was a beautiful game, especially at night.

00:06:38 The sun — I mean, you have the lights out there, and all you do is go out there, and you're out there by yourself in center field, and it's just a beautiful game. And I just felt that it was such a beautiful game that I just wanted to play it forever, you know. When — where I used to go to — you know, when I was in Birmingham, I used to go to a place called Rickwood Field, and I used to get there — for a two o’clock game, I'm there at twelve o’clock. Because why can you make this kind of money playing sports?

00:07:07 It was just a pleasure just to have me go out and enjoy myself and get paid for it. I didn’t understand why people didn't want to play, you know. So it kept — stayed with me all the time when I — until I got to professional ball, and then when I got to professional ball, I would try and help everybody because the game was so easy for me, you know. And it was just, like, hey, walking in the park again.

00:07:31 ALICE WINKLER: So how did Willie Mays get to be as good as he was before he’d even gotten to high school?

00:07:36 WILLIE MAYS: I don’t know. It wasn’t hard. It wasn't anything that I had to look for. When you say, how did I get to be as good, well, I was there. If you're talking about throwing a football, I could throw a football farther — if you're throwing a baseball, farther than anybody in my community or anybody around that area. Basketball, I would score 20 points, stop. That was enough. We used to have — guys used to bet on things: "Hey, he's going to score 20 points tonight," you know.

00:08:07 So I would never bet, but the guys around me — because I could hear them: "You’ve got to get 20 tonight," so I would — I was probably one of the best basketball players in my area, and when you say how did I get that, I really don't know. I just was creative. I just did what I had to do. You know, some guys that are so-called superstars can't tell you how they do things.

00:08:31 It's creative. You just do it — and whatever comes out, it comes out good. I never had any training. I never had a guy say to me, "Do it this way. Do it that way." Every team that I was on, I was the last guy to get picked. I'm talking about as I'm growing up now. I was the last guy to get picked. The reason for that is that whatever a guy couldn't play, that's what I did.

00:09:00 If a guy can't — if everybody came out, there was a pitcher needed, I’d pitch. If there was a catcher needed, I’d catch, and then I caught, but if that was the first baseman, shortstop, whatever position they needed, that's what I played, and I felt I was the best athlete around that particular team that I could do that. Most of them couldn’t do that. Everybody wanted to play a position. It didn't matter what I played, you know. So I just had fun and enjoyed it.

00:09:31 ALICE WINKLER: And what about all the hard work? The countless hours of practice under one of the

toughest, most demanding managers in baseball, Leo Durocher? Well, turns out...

00:09:41 WILLIE MAYS: Let me tell you something. I came out of the Army in 1954. I hadn't played in the Army. I hadn't played for, I would say, about five months, because in Newport News, Virginia, where I was located, we played — we didn’t play from September until around April or something. I get out of the Army, three months early. I get out in February, end of February. I show up at spring training. I get there at five — I mean, twelve o’clock.

00:10:11 The game started at 1:05. Leo said, "Go put on a uniform." I go put on a uniform. I haven't — I'm getting off the plane, though. I haven't thrown a ball, haven't seen a ball in five months. I put it on, on the plane. He said, "Want to play?" I said, "Okay, I’ll go out." First ball hit was over my head against the fence. This was in Phoenix then. It was on Central Avenue, okay?

00:10:35 Next ball hit through the middle. I threw out a run. I go on to third. Next ball. Then Leo said, "Gee, you want to hit?" First time up, home run. Now I never worked at anything pertaining to sports. I think I should have, but I think — now it's two things, two parts here. I think that all athletes should practice. They should practice because you want to know what's happening as far as where the game is concerned.

00:11:03 I didn’t have to do that. End of spring training, when people go out running, you know, like they run laps around things. I would go in and sleep. I would sleep until they got through. Then I would go out, and then I would go out and run around the bases for a minute, and then I would hit. That's my spring training. I'd never had any problem as far as my body was concerned. I was very blessed with a good body. Never got hurt.

00:11:30 Never was in the hospital. The only time I was in the hospital was when I would get exhausted a little bit and go in for a checkup or something, but I was blessed with a body that I didn’t have to do all that, you know. Like, if I went 0-for-5 or 0-for-6, and I didn't get a hit for two days, I wouldn't take any batting practice for, like, two or three days because I felt I was tired. So I would go in and just rest and go play the game. Show up — if the game is one o’clock, I’d show up at twelve, go play the game, go back home, come the next day, play the game.

00:12:03 Never practiced, never did anything, but then when I got my body back together, I would go out and let the opposition see me. Only because, the opposition, let them see me, that I still can throw. That means I'm not sick. I'm just resting. That means don't run. That means I still can throw. So you had to do all of that in order to play sports, but my body stayed the same all the time, but — now you're talking about young people.

00:12:32 I think young people, when they go into sports, should practice. They should take orders as far as the manager, you know, whatever he gives you. I was lucky. I managed myself. Every manager that I had said, "Hey, play your game. You know what you have to do, but I have to manage the other 24 guys." I understood what he was saying to me, but I didn’t get out of line. I didn’t make mistakes. I would have a manager like Leo.

00:13:02 If you make a mistake, one hundred dollars. If you make not just a mistake — one mistake, then that's a hundred dollars. If I made another mistake, two hundred dollars. So I used to make maybe three mistakes a year, out of 154 games, so I had to do a lot of things where other guys can make mistakes all the time and nothing — you know, nobody said anything because they were supposed to make mistakes. Not me.

00:13:27 ALICE WINKLER: Playing the game of baseball may have been a walk in the park, but being one of the first black players to integrate baseball was not. Willie Mays told the Academy of Achievement in this interview about the earliest days when he was signed to a minor league team where he was the only African American player.

00:13:46 WILLIE MAYS: And we played in a town called Hagerstown, Maryland. Oh, I'll never forget this day, on a Friday, and they called you all kinds of names there, nigger-this, nigger-that. And I said to myself, "Hey, whatever they call you, they can't touch you. Don't talk back." Now this was on a Friday, and the Friday night I hit two doubles homerun. They never clapped.

00:14:15 The next day, I hit the same thing. There was a house out there, in the back there. I hit that twice. Now they start clapping a little bit. You know how that is. You know, they clap a little bit. By Sunday, there was a big headline in the paper, "Do Not Bother Mays." You know? Understand what I'm saying? They could call you all kinds of names. Now these were the first two games I played, and by Sunday, I come to bat, they’re all clapping for you.

00:14:43 And I'm wondering, "Wait a minute. What happened to the Friday? What happened to the Saturday?" This is running through my mind now. I couldn’t stay with the ball club, and when they dropped me off in Hagerstown, downtown in the black area, about two o’clock in the morning, three players came through the window, and they slept on the floor.

00:15:07 There's — one of my right fielders, Hank Rowland, one of the catchers, Herb Perelto, and another guy, Bob Easterwood, slept on the floor until about six o’clock in the morning. And I said, "Hey, man, I don't need any help here." I said, "I think I can handle whatever happens." "No, no, no. We’re going to stay here." They stayed with me until six o’clock in the morning. They got up, went back out the window, and came back around four o’clock, picked me up.

00:15:35 We drove back to the ballpark. Nobody knew about it. But I did. I was so thankful, not because of what happened to me. It's because those guys understood my problems. They knew that, hey, if something would happen, I might have gotten hurt, or I would have hurt somebody, and then I wouldn't have had a career. So my first three or four days in the minor league were my crucial days, and I over — you know — came that without any problem.

00:16:05 ALICE WINKLER: A year later came the call from New York Giants Manager Leo Durocher. It was time.

00:16:12 WILLIE MAYS: I said, "No, I don’t want to come, Leo. I think I'm having a good year here. I don't think I want to come up there." So he said, "Be on the next plane." That's the way Leo talked. "Be on the next plane." So I'm on the next plane. Actually, I was on the road. I didn’t even go back to get my clothes. They had to send for — when they called me, and I was in a movie, and it came across the screen and said, "Willie Mays, report to the box office."

00:16:38 Now I'm saying to myself, "Who knows me in Sioux City? This is my first time." So I go to the phone there, and Leo says, "Go to the hotel. I want to talk to you." You know, Leo had those — he had a very, very deep voice. "Go to the hotel, and I want to see you." So I went there, and I hear — Mr. Storm got on the phone, and he says, "We'd like to have you in New York. Do you think you can play a piece — how much can you hit? Can you hit 250?" I said, "I can walk that."

00:17:04 You know? So he says, "Okay, you be on the plane the next morning." You know, so that was Leo. You know, he was one of those guys; he had so much confidence in himself that he put it all in other people, you know.

00:17:15 ALICE WINKLER: But for the first time, Willie Mays found himself lacking confidence.

00:17:20 WILLIE MAYS: Not because of playing. I was nervous because I couldn’t hit. I was crying. I'm telling you. I — we had a pitcher by the name — he was coaching at that time. It was Freddie Fitzsimmons. He was my first-base coach, and he was, like — my guy would pitch me a lot of batting practice and stuff, so I was crying in there at my locker, and he came in, and he saw me, so now he goes to Leo, and he tells Leo, "Well, you better go see about your boy. He's in there crying."

00:17:51 You know, because I had played four games. I didn't get any hit, or got one hit, or whatever, you know. So I'm — hey, I'm nervous now. He’s going to send me back very quickly because that's the way they do it in the majors. If you don't hit, you’re gone, you know. So he came out, and again, he said to me, "Hey, you’re my center fielder. Don't you worry about anything else. Just go on home and relax." You know. So Leo Durocher was like my father away from home.

00:18:18 ALICE WINKLER: Leo Durocher is the guy who is cited as having coined the expression, “Nice guys finish last.” Actually, that’s not exactly what he said, but close enough, and it’s odd because Willie Mays has always been pretty universally thought of as a very nice guy, and he for sure never finished last. Among his many achievements, along with the 660 home runs and a place in the Hall of Fame, is a single catch he made on September 29, 1954, during the World Series. For baseball fans, it’s known simply as The Catch.

00:18:57 ANNOUNCER: There's a long drive, way back in center field! Way back, back! It is caught by Willie Mays! Willie Mays just brought this crowd to its feet with a catch which must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people!

00:19:15 WILLIE MAYS: People talk about The Catch, and I think — and I've said this many times, that I made better catches than that many times in regular seasons. But, of course, during the regular season, you didn't — and in my time, you didn’t have a lot of television, so a lot of people didn't see me play. A lot of people didn't see me do a lot of things, but I think the key to that particular play was the throw.

00:19:41 I knew I had the ball all the time. I — in my mind, because I was so cocky at that particular time when I was young, whatever went in the air I felt that I could catch. That's how sure that I could — I was — you know, be about myself. When the ball went up, as I'm running, I'm running backwards, and I'm saying to myself, "How am I going to get this ball back into the end field? How am I going to get this ball back in the field?"

00:20:05 Now as I'm — I got halfway out. Well, as I'm catching the ball, I said, "Oh, I know how I'm going to do it." And I said, "You stop!" And this — I'm visualizing this as I'm running, and I — it's hard to tell people that, you know, how — what I'm doing as I'm running. And I know people say, "Well, you can't do all that and catch a ball." And I said, "Well, that's what I was doing, okay?" I was running, and I was running. I'm saying to myself, "How am I going to get this ball back in the end field?"

00:20:33 So now as I'm — I catch the ball. If you watch the film closely, I catch the ball, I stop immediately, I make a U-turn. Now if I catch the ball and run and turn around — Larry Doby, who is on second, Al Rosen on first — Larry can score from second because Larry told me — I didn’t see this. Larry has told me many times, "Willie, I was just about home when you caught the ball. I had to go back to second and tag up and then go to third."

00:21:01 So he would have scored very easily, so I said, "Well, as I'm running, I’ve got to stop and make a complete turn." You watch the film, and you'll see what I'm talking about. I stopped very quickly, made a U-turn, and when I threw the ball, I'm facing the wall when the ball is already in the end field. So when you talk about The Catch, the throw was the most important thing because only one guy advanced, and that was Larry from second to third.

00:21:33 Al was still on first, and that was the key, to me, with the whole World Series.

00:21:38 ALICE WINKLER: It was one of the most famous catches of all time, for sure, but did Willie Mays think of it as his best catch?

00:21:46 WILLIE MAYS: I made a catch in Ebbets Field off a guy by the name of Bobby Morgan, and it was in the tenth inning, bases loaded. A ball was hit over the shortstop — on a line over the shortstop. Now you’ve got to visualize this — over the shortstop. I go and catch the ball in the air. I'm in the air, like this, parallel. I catch the ball. I hit the fence. Ebbets Field was so short that if you run anywhere, you’re going to hit a fence.

00:22:20 So I catch the fence, knock myself out, and the first guy that I saw — two guys. It was two guys — when I opened my eyes, were Leo and Jackie, and I'm saying to myself, "Why is Jackie out here?" Jackie came to see if I caught the ball, and Leo came to see about me. So I'm saying to myself, "This guy is thinking, ‘Very cool.’” You know? I'm talking about Jackie now. He wasn't even on the field. He was in the dugout.

00:22:48 Now I — this is my thinking. He may have a different reason, you know, but that was my best catch, I think.

00:22:54 ALICE WINKLER: After a lifetime of hits and runs and defensive plays, what did Willie Mays say was the greatest challenge of his career?

00:23:03 WILLIE MAYS: The greatest challenge, I think, is adjusting to not playing baseball. The reason for that is that I had to come out of baseball and come into the business world, not being a college graduate and not being educated to come into the business world the way I should have, and, instead of people doing things for me, I had to do things for myself.

00:23:33 I think that was nerve-racking for me because, after coming out of baseball, being this star for so many years, and now all of a sudden you're not the star, and that was frightening to me. I had to learn how to live life outside, but I'm a very lucky guy, you know, because I had so many things that I had to go through, and I had so many people that had helped me over the course of so many years, that I never had many problems.

00:24:08 Because if I had a problem, I could sit down with someone, and they would explain the problem to me, and the problem becomes like a baseball game. You're at home plate now. How do you get to first? How do you get to second? How do you get to third? Now, when you get back to home, the problem is solved, and that's when I used the business world. I used it as a baseball game, and once you start thinking the way you've been taught to think over so many years, you have no problems.


00:24:40 When he hits the ball, it’s long gone man

He hits it farther than Campy can

Swings the bat like a little lead pipe

When they reach the ball it’s overripe

Say hey

(Say who?)

Say Willie

Say hey

(Say who?)

Swinging at the plate

Say hey

(Say who?)

Say Willie

That Giants kid is great

00:25:07 ALICE WINKLER: That's Willie Mays, baseball legend, speaking to the Academy of Achievement in 1996. Next time you’re in the market for great stories and a dose of inspiration, come visit us again, or maybe you’ve got time for another one right now. Thanks for listening today to What It Takes. I’m Alice Winkler.

00:25:29 Funding for What It Takes comes from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation.


00:25:33 When Willie served his Uncle Sam

He left the Giants in an awful jam

But now he’s back, and he’s Leo’s joy

And Willie’s still a growing boy

Say hey

(Say who?)

Say Willie

Say hey

(Say who?)

Swinging at the plate

Say hey

(Say who?)

Say Willie

That Giants kid is great

That Giants kid is great

Say Willie

Whatcha gonna say?

Say hey

What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.