I was flipping channels Thursday night, the eve before a vacation day at work, and ended up landing on the MLB network watching one of the installments of Ken Burns Baseball. I’m not sure which “Inning” was being aired – his documentary is broken into nine DVDs labeled innings instead of chapters or episodes – but it was the one that chronicled the 1950s to the 1960s.
I’m a baseball nerd, but I’m admittedly not much of a baseball historian. But I’d certainly like to become more of one. And that fact jumped out at me as I sat there fascinated by the story of Willie Mays.
He is arguably the best all-around player to have ever lived, yet my knowledge of him is limited to his career home runs total (660) and that magnificent, over-the-shoulder catch we’ve all seen replayed time and time again.
But there is a lot more to the man than highlights and numbers, and Ken Burns Baseball shed some light on that.
For example, we’ve all heard tell about Ted Williams leaving baseball for a couple seasons to serve in the military during World War II and again during the Korean War. What I had never heard before was that Willie Mays also gave up almost two full seasons in 1952-53 to serve his country in Korea after being drafted.
When Mays returned to the New York Giants for the 1954 season, he put together the best season of his career. He batted a league-high .345 and slugged 41 home runs, won the National League Most Valuable Player and Hickok Belt as the best professional athlete in the nation, and helped lead the Giants to the World Series championship.
I didn’t know that Mays started playing professional at age 16. Sixteen years old! His professional career put his eligibility to play high school sports in jeopardy. This put him at odds with the school administration who had been banking on Mays to participate in athletics to boost ticket sales.
I didn’t know that throughout his professional career, Mays often would visit Harlem to play some old school stickball with the public. Stickball is a version of baseball played in the city streets with a rubber ball and a broom handle. It was said that Mays regularly hit it six sewers – the distance between six city manhole covers.
I also had never heard this amazing little diddy before:
It made me think about Kyle Alvey’s column about baseball needing more “mustache”; needing more pizazz, more marketability, more things that create general buzz and interest. When’s the last time a musician recorded a song solely about a baseball player? It put things in perspective.
I know that what I learned from that Ken Burns documentary about Willlie Mays only scratches the surface about the man and the period during which he played. But it stirred up the baseball geekery in me. It makes me want to learn more about baseball’s past.
Maybe by exploring more of baseball’s past, we can get a better understanding of why the sport has seemed to have taken a turn for the worse among American sports popularity these days.