Giants fans were stunned, and baseball fans everywhere were saddened. An electric, charming, handsome small-town Southern boy who keyed his team’s charge from mediocrity and frustration straight into baseball history would be lost for a year, perhaps never to play again. Was May 29 the end of an era that never really began just a year before?
Fifty-nine years ago today, Willie Mays reported to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, to become Private Willie Mays, US Army. 17 days after walking in his last at-bat in the 1951 World Series, Mays returned to Birmingham, Alabama for Willie Mays Day. Soon-to-be-infamous Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor had other ideas, informing the assembled schoolchildren and marching bands that the event’s permit had been cancelled. Mays was greeted at his house by a letter from the Fairfield, AL draft board instructing him to report for service in the Army. He would later apply for and be denied deferments based on his support of his mother and nine half-siblings. (1)
On May 28, 1952, all had been said and done, orders finalized, and Willie Mays played what, quite plausibly, could have been his last baseball game at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Sporadic fighting continued, as it had for more than a year, along the 38th Parallel "armistice line" in Korea. Seven months would pass before President Eisenhower made his trip to negotiate a cease-fire, and the "permanent" cease-fire wouldn’t take effect for more than a year after the game at Ebbets Field. Wikipedia provides a convenient list of some of the less peaceful moments of the "armistice", namely
the Battle of Bloody Ridge (18 August – 15 September 1951), the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge (13 September – 15 October 1951), the Battle of Old Baldy (26 June – 4 August 1952), the Battle of White Horse (6–15 October 1952), the Battle of Triangle Hill (14 October – 25 November 1952), the Battle of Hill Eerie (21 March – 21 June 1952), the sieges of Outpost Harry (10–8 June 1953), the Battle of the Hook (28–9 May 1953) and the Battle of Pork Chop Hill (23 March – 16 July 1953).
Thus everyone on both benches and in every seat at Ebbets was very mindful of the uncertain ramifications of Mays' donning khaki the next day. The Bleacher Bums cheered Willie Mays’ name when the opening lineups were announced, and cheered him in his last at-bat in the eighth inning from the time he was announced to his tip of the cap as he returned to the dugout after he lined out to Pee Wee Reese. They cheered again when he jogged in from center as the game ended. All four umpires said goodbye to him and famed Ebbets Field organist Gladys Gooding played "I’ll See You in My Dreams" as the Giants beat the Bums 6-2 to send Willie away with a win. (2)
Willie Mays, of course, was not the only ballplayer to be drafted into military service in the era. The Yankees’ Billy Martin and Whitey Ford had been drafted in 1950, and Martin ended up getting drafted twice when he was discharged early on a hardship deferment only 5 months after reporting the first time.(3) World War II veteran pilots Ted Williams and Jerry Coleman were called back to active duty, Coleman flying ground attack missions in an F4U Corsair, and Williams flying F9F Panther jets with wingman John Glenn. And perhaps most famously, Yankee hero Mickey Mantle was drafted and rejected as 4-F more than once because of a childhood illness and was excoriated by many in the New York press and elsewhere for it.
Although he did not pretend to be happy about the situation, Mays put on a brave face as he dealt with his uncertain future.
It’s undoubtedly for the best…I’m still young…If everything goes well, I’ll only be twenty-three when I get out. Many a fellow hasn’t even reached the majors by then, so there will be plenty of time for me to play baseball. I’ll probably be better off, stronger, more mature in every way.(4)
The Giants, of course, had to pick up and move on, a prospect made all the more difficult because Mays’ roommate and mentor Monte Irvin (who batted .312/.415/.514 in the 1951 miracle year) had suffered a ghastly broken ankle early in the season and was assumed to be lost for the year. The next day Hank Thompson moved to centerfield, and 35 year old Bob Elliott moved into left, eventually putting up .228/.323/.375 in 98 games. Chuck Diering, obtained in the offseason from St. Louis to prepare for the loss of Mays, got 4 hits in 24 at bats (3 of them coming in a 17-run game against the Cubs) and by July was headed to Minneapolis to console Millers fans still reeling from the loss of Mays to the big club the year before. Bobby Thomson was already sharing time with Hank Thompson at 3B to cover for Irvin’s absence; the Giants would send Bobby Hofman, George Wilson, Clint Hartung, and others into the vast expanses of the Polo Grounds that year, but none would truly replace Mays. No one ever could of course, which is possibly the only downside to being graced with an irreplaceable player in the first place.
The Giants, absolutely melting the National League with a 26-8 record when a tearful Willie said goodbye to his team on May 28, did not get Monte Irvin back until July 27. They celebrated his return with a three-game losing streak and the Giants fell as far as 10 ½ games back on August 26. But Irvin played in 46 games, batted .310/.365/.437, and future hero Dusty Rhodes replaced the miserable Diering on the roster in mid-July and batted .250/.340/.477 in 200 plate appearances in a promising rookie stint. The Giants tore off several winning streaks (2 of 5 games, 2 of 4 games), but were still stuck in second as the season ended. Brooklyn recaptured first place on Sunday, June 1, three days after the Giants lost their Rookie of the Year, and never relinquished the lead before falling (for the umpteenth time) to the Yankees in the World Series.
Private Mays went on to star for the Fort Eustis Wheels, playing other major leaguers in uniform including future teammate Johnny Antonelli, Vern Law, Dick Groat, Don Newcombe, and many, many others. Crowds of up to 5,000 turned out to thrill to the exploits of these heroes, a kind of built-in USO show to distract the other men and women in uniform waiting for the hot Korean War to turn Cold. In his spare time, kept from more mundane duties because of a concern that star-struck soldiers would make KP or motorpool service impossible, Willie read comic books and learned how to catch fly balls at his belt.(5) Although on his induction Selective Service officials said that he owed "perhaps a greater obligation to his country than other boys, because of his promise in the sports world", they sensibly avoided the morale calamity that would have occurred had Willie been wounded or killed in combat while many others (some of whom are still being mourned by their families this weekend) manned the trenches protecting America and its game.
Of course, Willie Mays suffered nothing more than a sprained ankle during his military career. It may be petty and greedy, in retrospect, to ponder what sorts of numbers and records and legendary baserunning or fielding exploits may have been lost forever. It’s worth remembering that, at the time, not a few were calling the former Rookie of the Year a flash-in-the-pan one year wonder, and he was batting .236/.326/.409 when he reported to the Army. Others speculated that after a year away he’d never approach previous levels of productivity. Instead he went on to mash 660 career home runs, breaking Mel Ott’s career National League home run record in 1966. Had he performed to his 162-game average in a full season in 1952, he’d have hit 692 career homers. If he equaled his 1952 career high in the Polo Grounds, he’d have added 47 to his career total to end with 707. He might have added 300 or so putouts to his career 7,046 in center field, or 10-15 assists to his 188 career total in center.
But those "shoulds" and "mights" have to be subordinated to the hypotheticals that involve bad outcomes. Many servicemen are injured or killed in accidents or other non-combat situations. Had the "armistice" fallen apart, the camp ballclubs may have been a luxury the military could no longer afford.
This, then, is not the first Memorial Day on which the Giants and their fans have felt despondent at losing a Rookie of the Year that, just a year before, changed their team forever. The ceasefire that returned Willie Mays and many other ballplayers to civilian life is still in effect, and young men (and now women) in uniform still stare across the Korean DMZ a half-century later. Other uniformed Americans will be recognized at ballparks across the country while Buster Posey faces surgery and rehab just a year after he joined his team. To paraphrase Willie Mays, if everything goes well, he’ll be back playing baseball before his 25th birthday, and many a fellow hasn’t even reached the majors by then. There’ll still be plenty of time to play baseball.
1. James S. Hirsch, "Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend", p. 143. Hirsch notes that nowadays "the worst thing [Mays] will say about Bull Connor is that he got overexcited announcing ball games."
2. Hirsch, id. at 152.
3. Golenbock, Peter, "Wild, High, and Tight: The Life and Death of Billy Martin", at 80.
4. Hirsch, at 151, citing New York Journal-American, May 28, 1952.
5. Hirsh, at 153.