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  • 9/29/2010

Today in History: The Catch (baseball-1954)


The Catch refers to a memorable defensive baseball play by Willie Mays on September 29, 1954, during Game 1 of the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians at the Polo Grounds in New York. The score was tied 2-2 in the top of the eighth inning.

Starting pitcher Sal Maglie walked Larry Doby and gave up a single to Al Rosen. With runners on first and second, Giants manager Leo Durocher summoned left-handed relief pitcher Don Liddle to replace Maglie and pitch to Cleveland's Vic Wertz, also a left-hander.

Wertz worked the count to two balls and a strike before crushing Liddle's fourth pitch to deep center field. Some reports say the ball traveled 450 feet, which is an exaggeration, but in many stadiums the shot would have been a home run and given the Indians a 5-2 lead. However, this was the spacious Polo Grounds, and Giants center fielder Willie Mays, who was playing in shallow center field, made an on-the-run over-the-shoulder catch (looking like a wide receiver) to make the out. Having caught the ball, he immediately spun and threw the ball, losing his hat in characteristic style. Doby, the runner on second, might have been able to score the go-ahead run had he tagged at the moment the ball was caught; but as it was, he ran when the ball was hit, and then had to scramble back to retag and only got as far as third base. Liddle was then relieved by Marv Grissom, to whom he supposedly remarked "Well, I got my man!"



Jack Brickhouse was calling the game along with Russ Hodges on NBC Television. The audio has appeared on CD in the book And the Fans Roared and also as accompaniment to the World Series film, as with a Youtube item.

"There's a long drive waaay back in center field...waaay baaack, baaack, it is...caaaaaught by Wil-lie Mays! [garbled - some say it sounds like "Say-Hey Mays"] [pause for crowd noise] The runner on second, Doby, is able to tag and go to third; Wille Mays just brought this crowd to its feet... with a catch... which must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people. Boy! [pause] See where that 483 foot mark is in center field? The ball itself... Russ, you know this ballpark better than anyone else I know... had to go about 460, didn't it?"

"It certainly did, and I don't know how Willie did it, but he's been doing it all year."


Diagram of the Polo Grounds from 1951There is some question of the deep center field distance. Sometimes there was a 475 sign in center field, sometimes 483.

The ballpark was demolished in 1964, and it is unclear what was being measured when. One theory (as posed in Mysteries within Green Cathedrals, a SABR article by Phil Lowry) is that the 475 was the distance to the monument and the 483 was to the clubhouse overhang. Either way, the center field corners were well under 460.

Aftermath and responseThe play prevented the Indians from taking the lead and, in the bottom of the 10th, the Giants won the game on their way to sweeping the Series. The Catch is often considered to be one of the best and most memorable plays in the history of baseball because of the difficulty of the play and the importance of the game itself. Some have argued that The Catch is remembered so well in part because it was made in New York City, by a player for a New York team, and on television in a World Series game, whereas other catches (including many made by Mays) were less celebrated because they came in regular season games or in other cities. Mays himself did not believe "The Catch" to be the best defensive play he ever made. In the CD collection Ernie Harwell's Audio Scrapbook, issued in 2007, Mays talks about a running bare-hand catch he made at Forbes Field in 1951, in which the Giants' players teased the young rookie by treating him with complete indifference when he returned to the bench. Mays used to cite a catch he made against the center field wall at Ebbets Field, in which he had to scurry back so fast he did not have time to turn around. Other observers have noted that Mays' quick relay throw from deep center field was the most important part of the 1954 play, the catch itself being merely a matter of Mays outrunning the ball.


In 2006, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign physicist Dr. Alan Nathan found that if the weather had been one degree warmer on the day of The Catch, it would not have happened. If the temperature had been 77 degrees Fahrenheit rather than 76, the ball would have traveled two more inches, just enough to bounce off the edge of Mays' glove. Nathan said, "This is the ultimate proof of the old adage that 'baseball is a game of inches.'

However, the actual film footage shows that Mays "watched" the ball into his glove, thus the U of I physicist's basic assumption, that Mays just barely caught up to the ball, is undermined.

 Mays is seen running and also watching the flight of the ball over his left shoulder (a fact also described in the Arnold Hano book, A Day in the Bleachers). As the ball is coming down, Mays veers just a little bit to his right, then reaches towards his left at the last second to catch the ball, which may be why viewers of only the still photos think that he just barely caught up to it. Immediately after catching the ball, as he turns he works to get a grip on the ball, then throws as hard as he can, using an underarmed motion to release the ball as quickly as possible from the way he caught it, then spins around and falls from his own momentum.

Source: encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com

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