Thoughts on Leadership: A Tribute to Willie Mays

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me starting Monday at home with my typical WIG calls. On Tuesday, I traveled to Dallas and had dinner with the Prosperity Home Mortgage team. (Yes, it is record cold here). On Wednesday, I attended the Prosperity Home Mortgage National Sales Summit and had lunch with Allie Beth Allman at the Dallas Country Club. I then returned for an evening of events with the Prosperity Home Mortgage team. Today, I attended the Ebby Halliday Companies leadership meeting and the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Sales Convention virtual creative review. This afternoon, I’m up in my hotel room (still shivering) writing this very enjoyable piece on my hero, Willie Mays. 

I have a list of 18 connecting questions that help strengthen team chemistry and allow us to know each other better. One of those questions is, “Who from your childhood had the biggest impact on you?” My answer is always my dad and my mom (naturally) but if I had to pick one other person it is my all-time favorite baseball player, Willie Mays. So, to celebrate Black History Month and highlight Black leaders, I’d like to share a little bit about my hero, Willie Mays.

He was born on May 6, 1931, in West Field, Alabama. His father had been a legendary semi-pro player and trained him to play baseball since before he could walk. Willie Mays first made his mark as a member of the Chattanooga Choo – Choos and later began his baseball career – still just a teenager – playing for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. He was only 19 years old when he signed with the New York Giants in 1951.

Willie Mays was the kind of ballplayer who could do everything. He could run, throw, hit, hit with power and field. He had every tool of a five-star player. Here are a few incredible stats about his career: His lifetime batting average was .302. He played Major League Baseball for 22 seasons and was named to 24 All-Star games. MLB player Ted Williams once said, “They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays.”

Willie Mays was the very first player in the league to join the exclusive 30-30 Club – batters who achieved 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in a single season. For eight years in a row, he drove in more than 100 runs and finished his career with 660 home runs. At the time of his retirement, he had hit more home runs than anyone except Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. In the outfield, he recorded 7,095 putouts, the most in Major League history. According to the New York Yankees great Joe DiMaggio (Joltin’ Joe), Mays had the greatest throwing arm he had ever seen.

There’s one word to describe the way Willie Mays played the game of baseball: excitement. Anyone who saw him on the field felt it because he not only just played that well, it was so evident that he loved what he did more than anyone else. (He once said, “It was such a beautiful game that I just wanted to play it forever.”)

He was more “into” the game than any other player, too. A tremendously focused player every time he stepped on the field or up to bat.

Watching Willie Mays play, I’ll always remember the way he’d run the bases. First, a slam into the outfield and next, he’d skid around second base just like one of the Olympic skiers at the Winter Games but as he ran, you knew he was taking note of every little thing happening on the field. He was at once focused on the task in front of him and the entire game. His teammates and opponents would often comment just how much he knew about the game. MLB player Monte Irvin said, “I think anybody who saw him will tell you that Willie Mays was the greatest player who ever lived.”

Though he set many records, Willie Mays was not the first Black Major League ball player (1951). On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke decades of what was called the “color line” when he appeared on the field to play for the National League Brooklyn Dodgers.

Even if he wasn’t first, and despite the overwhelming admiration people had for his abilities, work ethic and talent, there were still many obstacles to overcome. Here’s a quote from author George Will that perfectly sums up the scenario:

Willie Mays was not the first black ballplayer, but he had his own barrier to break through – a kind of gentle, good-natured racism, but racism, nonetheless. If you remember when he came up, people would say, “Oh, what an instinctive ballplayer he is. What a natural ballplayer he is. What childlike enthusiasm he has!” Well, thirty years on, we can hear with our better-trained ears, the racism in that. [Was Mays] wonderfully gifted? Yes. Great natural ballplayer? Yes. But nobody – nobody – got to the major leagues on natural gifts without an awful lot of refining work.

He was an instinctive ballplayer, but he was also a tremendously smart ballplayer. As a rookie, he’d get to second base, watch two batters go up to the plate, and he’d go back to the dugout, having stolen the signs and decoded the sequence. He’d know the indicator signs from the other signs. Natural ballplayer? Sure. Hardest-working ballplayer you ever saw.

You know in football there’s an iconic play from Dwight Clark called “The Catch”? Well in baseball, there’s an iconic play with Willie Mays called “The Catch.” Let me set the stage for you on that. I was not born yet but I have watched it hundreds of times …

On Sept. 29, 1954, Willie Mays of the New York Giants was facing the Cleveland Indians. It was the World Series, and it was being played at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan. What happened during that epic day is something baseball fans memorialize and will never, ever forget.

It’s the top of the 8th and Cleveland is up. The score is tied 2-2. Don Little, pitching from the stretch, Vic Wertz leans in, Willie Mays waits in center.

Here’s a transcript of the call from Russ Hodges in 1954 of “The Catch”:

There’s a long drive, way back in center field, way back … back … back … it’s … it’s … (he’s about to say off the wall but instead he says …) it’s CAUGHT! Willie Mays just brought the crowd to its feet with a catch, which must have been an optical illusion to many people.

Here’s what Bob Costas said about the Catch:

“It was more than just a great catch; it was a catch that no one had even seen before. When that ball left Wertz’ bat, and this is one of the great things about baseball. A ball’s hit into the gap. How good is the outfielder’s arm? Where is the cutoff man? A quick look and a glance, the runners between first and second, how fast is that runner? How many outs? Should he try for third? Is his history that he’s daring? Will he try for third? What is the third base coach doing?”

It was all overwhelming, but Willie Mays took it in within the span of a few seconds to understand his best possible outcome in this difficult scenario – and did it flawlessly countless times. Here’s how Bob Costas described the Catch:

When the ball left Wertz’ bat, in the massive Polo Grounds, where it was headed, where Mays was standing, there was only one possibility. Could he get to it before it was an inside the park home run? Could he hold it to a triple? Catching it was out of the question and Willie Mays turned and ran to a place, where no one could go to get that ball, starting where he started with the ball hit as it was hit. So, it was more than just a great acrobatic play, it was a play that until that point was outside the realm of possibility in baseball.

And here’s a little-known piece of trivia about that day: In the 8th inning, they brought in the left-hander Don Little to pitch to left-hand-batting Vic Wertz. Little relieved Sal Maglie and was sent in to pitch to one batter only: Wertz. As the story goes, Wertz hits the ball over 450 feet and Mays makes the Catch. Right-hander Marv Grissom is then waved in by manager Leo Durocher. Don Little hands the ball to Grissom and says straight-faced but in a moment of humor, “Well, I got my man.” Later in the game, Mays hit a triple to the exact same spot where he caught Wertz’ long drive and a teammate said, “The only player that could have caught it, hit it.”

A few years back I got Dwight Clark and Willie Mays together to commemorate “The Catch” and “The Catch.” It was a celebration of what in my opinion is the greatest catch in football and the greatest catch in baseball by my two all-time favorite players.

So, what’s the message? Well, here’s the message: We can all learn from Willie Mays to have a greater understanding of whatever our business is, always be the hardest working player on the field and always maintain that child-like enthusiasm. Thank you, Willie. 

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