Say Hey, He’s the One Who Called the Shots
Just when you think you know everything about baseball, you run into Willie Mays.
Mays was sitting in the Giants’ clubhouse. He is the team’s roving ambassador of good will, a full-time position which requires him to play a lot of golf, shag fly balls in the spring sunshine and say hey to ballplayers and fans.
It’s a job he earned by hitting 660 home runs, losing 7,424 caps and playing the game with a style as unique as that of Ali or Elvis.
Mays also managed the San Francisco Giants for four seasons, which almost nobody knows--until now--because the only official title he ever held was team captain. “I called the pitches,” Mays said at one point in our conversation.
I don’t remember exactly how the conversation wound around to that point, but Mays would come to regret that it did.
I must have looked perplexed. As a baseball expert, I know that Willie Mays played center field and that pitches are called by the catcher or the manager.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Mays said.
While silently acknowledging that possibility, I felt I was on the trail of the elusive nugget of baseball wisdom, and didn’t want to blow it.
“Maybe I would,” I said hopefully.
Mays shook his head.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Give me a shot,” I said coolly, mentally dropping to my knees and begging.
“I managed the field when I played,” Mays said. “The other players played off me, like a quarterback.”
He touched his head, then his chest, then his knees.
“One, two, three,” he said. “Fastball, breaking ball, changeup.”
“Wait,” I said. “ You called the pitches? From center field?”
“I told you you wouldn’t understand,” Mays said. “You think I’m crazy.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy, I just don’t understand. You gave signals to the catcher?”
“He gets them from me,” Mays said. “He gives them to the pitcher. The pitcher can turn and (wiping his hand across the letters of his shirt) rub me off.”
Several Giants were now paying close attention to Mays, and, to my relief, one or two of them seemed as perplexed as I was.
“I’ve heard of a manager calling the pitches from the dugout,” I said, “but never pitches called by a center fielder.”
Mays shook his head.
“Herman (Franks, Giant manager from ’65 to ’68) didn’t interfere with me. He gave me that authority. I managed the field. Whatever went on on the field, I did it. I did every . . . thing. Nowadays, the manager tells everybody what to do, the manager does everything. That’s why you see this.”
Mays pantomimed a catcher repeatedly glancing over at the dugout for instructions.
“When we played, we just looked on the field. Usually it was an infielder. The Dodgers were run by (shortstop) Pee Wee (Reese). (Manager Walt) Alston just sat in the dugout. Usually it was an infielder, but Herman gave me the authority.
“I set the defenses, infield and outfield, and I called the pitches. We had one rule: If you didn’t follow what I said, you didn’t play. Some guys don’t want to play, next day he’s out of the . . . lineup. But first he had to go through me .
“By the same token, when a guy needed something, I got it for him.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Whatever he needed.”
Ron Fairly, the former Dodger who is a Giants broadcaster, wandered through the clubhouse.
“Hey,” Mays called out to Fairly, “on your club (Dodgers), who called the pitches?”
“Gabby (catcher John Roseboro) called ‘em,” Fairly said with a shrug.
“On my team, I did,” Mays said.
Fairly looked perplexed, joining a growing fraternity.
“See, he thinks I’m crazy, too,” Mays said.
Mays explained that during his rookie season of 1951, shortstop Alvin Dark would hold up one, two or three fingers behind his back before every pitch, to let Mays know what the pitch would be. Manager Leo Durocher would set the outfield for every hitter.
The next season, Durocher turned the outfield over to Mays.
“You had to know each guy on your team,” Mays said. “Bobby Bonds (Giant right fielder, ’68 to ’74), for instance, he had more talent than almost anyone, but some days he didn’t want to play. And Bobby is a good friend of mine. Bobby Bonds, you had to stay on his (tail) every day. Hollering. ‘Hey, stay in the . . . game!’ ”
When Herman Franks took over, he expanded Mays’ responsibilities. From center field, Willie would position every outfielder and infielder, and he would call the pitches, in a manner of speaking.
When the Giants were in the field, Franks’ only duty was to chew and spit tobacco, which he did as well as any manager in the game, unless neatness counts.
Still, I was puzzled. Mays called every pitch?
“I told you, you wouldn’t understand,” he said, shaking his head, gleefully anguished. “You’re not listening to what I say.”
Mays has a high-pitched voice, which Giant left fielder Kevin Mitchell describes (to Mays’ face) as “squeaky,” or words to that effect. The more exasperated Mays becomes, the higher his voice becomes.
Now Willie was climbing the octaves. Dogs were starting to scratch at the clubhouse door.
“The catcher would stand up,” Mays said, trying again, now slowly and patiently. “He’d look at me. I’d give the signal, then he’d crouch down and give it to the pitcher. The pitcher could turn to me and rub it off if he didn’t like it.”
“And you called every pitch?”
“You’re not listening to what I say,” Mays moaned. “When every guy came to bat, I would set up the defense for that hitter and I would give one sign (to the catcher). If I called for a fastball, that didn’t mean he (the pitcher) was going to throw all fastballs. That meant, ‘Make this guy hit a fastball. Let him see a breaking ball, but try to make him hit a fastball.
“Then you set the defense according to how he pitches. With Gaylord (Perry) or (Juan) Marichal, if they say, ‘I’m going to make him hit a fastball,’ they’d make him hit a fastball. We had some pitchers, by the fourth inning they didn’t have any idea what they were throwing.
“If I got a pitcher to play with me, 90% of the time we would catch that . . . ball. We all played together. Infield, outfield, together. “
“ Now do you understand?”
“I think so,” I said. “You gave one sign for every new hitter, not for every pitch. I’ve just never heard of an outfielder running the whole team and calling pitches.”
“I told you, you wouldn’t understand,” he whined, and now dogs were leaping into the clubhouse through the transom. “He thinks I’m crazy!”