He is the last man standing, the last living player from the 1951 New York Giants, winners of one of the most memorable pennant races in baseball history.
Willie Mays is 87 now, an old man with memories of a magical baseball summer, a time when hits, runs and errors were the game’s important statistics and when he was in the middle of one of baseball’s greatest comebacks.
Mays was a 20-year-old rookie that summer, the catalyst as the Giants put on an August-September charge to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers and force a three-game playoff for the pennant. The Giants had been 13 ½ games behind on Aug. 12 but then won 37 of their final 44 games to force the playoff.
It was a classic New York baseball summer with the Giants chasing the Dodgers and the majestic Yankees in the midst of their dynasty, waiting for the survivor in the World Series.
Mays had a brilliant summer but was locked in a late-season slump and dropped to seventh in the Giants batting order, just behind Bobby Thomson. That meant he was on deck, a little scared, as Thomson stepped to the plate in the midst of a ninth-inning rally in the final game of the playoff.
The Giants were trailing 4-1 as they came to bat in the ninth. But Dodger starter Don Newcombe was running on fumes and after hits by Alvin Dark and Don Mueller and an RBI double by Whitey Lockman made it 4-2, Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen called for reliever Ralph Branca. With runners at second and third and Branca taking his warmup pitches, Giants manager Leo Durocher huddled with Thomson and offered some advice, “If you ever hit one,’’ he said, “hit one now.’’ Thomson tried to clear his mind as he prepared for the at-bat. “Stay back, stay back,’’ he told himself,. “Give yourself a chance,’’
Branca’s first pitch was a strike and on the Giants bench, the players moaned. The pitch had been in Thomson’s wheelhouse, a pitch to hit. They thought he would never get another one that good from Branca.
And then, he did.
Thomson hit the next pitch into the left field stands at the Polo Grounds for a three-run homer, touching off bedlam. Broadcaster Russ Hodges screamed “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! They’re going crazy!’’
Thomson’s teammates raced to home plate as he circled the bases. All except second baseman Eddie Stanky who went straight to the third base coaches box to celebrate with manager Leo Durocher. It was an explosion of emotion that had built up all summer.
They hugged each other in a joyous release of the tension they had battled down the stretch of a classic pennant race that electrified the city they shared with the Dodgers.
Now it was over. Now it was time to celebrate.
They are all gone today, memories of a moment that is etched in baseball history. They are all gone, all except Willie Mays, who was a scared rookie on Oct. 3, 1951, 67 years ago Wednesday.
He is the last man standing.