Some memories don’t fade away: LC’s Dark recalls legendary Mays

Published 5:00 am Thursday, June 20, 2024

By Nick Walsh

Willie Mays created some of baseball’s greatest memories, perhaps none more unforgettable than “The Catch,” as it is simply called.

Thanks to film, fans can relive the iconic moment Mays sprinted back toward the center-field wall 483 feet into the vast outfield of New York’s legendary Polo Grounds to make an over-the-shoulder catch off the bat of Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series against the Cleveland Indians, preserving a 2-2 score in the top of the eighth inning and enabling the Giants to the series sweep.

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Affectionately nicknamed the “Say Hey Kid,” Mays made many sensational plays in his 23-year Hall of Fame career highlighted by 660 home runs.

And Lake Charles’ Gene Dark had a front-row seat to some those feats as a youngster, watching from the dugout with his father, Alvin Dark, a Giants-player-turned manager.

“It was sad,” Dark said upon learning of Mays’ death at the age of 93 Tuesday night in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“I used to shag fly balls with him,” said Dark, who at one time was bat boy for the Giants. “I remember the Polo Grounds, but what I really remember is Candlestick Park.”

Dark recalled one of his dad’s anecdotes from Mays’ rookie year.

“In 1951, when Willie was first coming up, he was struggling,” Dark said. “He wasn’t hitting. Dad asked him, ‘What’s wrong?’ And Willie told him he was afraid he was going to be sent down. Dad told him, ‘You’re the best center fielder I’ve ever seen. You’re not going anywhere.’”

Mays got his first career hit on May 28, 1951, off Hall of Famer Warren Spahn of Milwaukee, ending an 0-for-12 start on his way to being the Rookie of the Year.

But Mays wasn’t always the fearless hitter he became. One pitcher in particular, Hall of Famer Don Drysdale of the Dodgers, was a nasty flamethrower who struck fear into many hitters of the era with a little chin music.

Mays learned quickly not to dig in too deep with Drysdale on the mound.

“Don Drysdale had his number,” Dark said. “He was one of the few pitchers who intimidated Willie.”

That soon changed thanks to a chance meeting working together on “The Donna Reed Show.”

“But then Don and Willie were on a TV show and Willie said Don was friendly and not so bad. After that, he hit (Drysdale) like a drum,” Dark said.

In 227 at-bats against Drysdale, Mays hit .330 with 13 home runs and 29 strikeouts.

Dark said Mays and his dad, who named Mays Giants team captain in 1964, remained friends after their days on the diamond. They were teammates for five seasons in New York before Dark was named manager for four seasons (1961-64) in San Francisco.

“They didn’t see each other much, but they stayed in touch,” Dark said. “But Willie’s eyesight was going, so was his health, and Dad was getting older. They stayed in touch till they couldn’t recognize each other … I don’t think he came to Dad’s funeral, but he did call.”

Mays left baseball as a 24-time All-Star with 3,293 hits, two MVP awards and 12 Gold Gloves in the baseball’s Golden Era.

He was immortalized in music in Terry Cash’s 1980 novelty song “Talkin’ Baseball” in the refrain “They knew ’em all from Boston to Dubuque. Especially Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.”

In the song, Cash casts his vote for Mays, singing, “And me, I always loved Willie Mays, Those were the days!”

“He was such a super nice guy,” Dark said of Mays. “What it is, is all those memories are dying, all those old guys are passing on. Good memories.”