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Bill Littlefield, Willie Mays And The 'Cheshire Cat' Grin04:13
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This story originally aired on Nov. 29, 2014. This week it appears again as a part of our ‘Best Of‘ show. 

Willie Mays
Throughout his days
Of playing baseball well
Was celebrated far and wide
And those who saw him tell
Of how the pitchers facing him
Would try to knock him down.
But Willie'd smile and shake his head,
And all about the town
The people who knew Willie, they would grin a little bit,
Because they knew he'd get right up
And get himself a hit.

This week, I was told that Willie Mays, who is 83, had smiled when he'd heard that poem I'd written about him. I learned this from his biographer, Jim Hirsch, who'd sent Willie Mays a copy of my new book, "Take Me Out," in which the poem appears. Willie's assistant, Rene Anderson, read it to him. She said he'd smiled like the Cheshire Cat, and that he'd said, "That's pretty good," which she told me was high praise from Willie Mays.

As a child growing up in New Jersey, I learned what was exhilarating and sustaining about baseball by watching Willie Mays.

Bill Littlefield

As a child growing up in New Jersey, I learned what was exhilarating and sustaining about baseball by watching Willie Mays. I dressed up as Willie Mays for Halloween. In elementary school I argued with my idiot peers who thought Mickey Mantle was better than Willie. When the house next door went on sale, I fantasized that Willie Mays and his wife, who were looking for a new home, might buy it and move in. Then he could come over to my backyard and teach me how to play center field.

So Willie Mays gave me a lot, and it was terrific to learn that he smiled when he heard the little poem that also contains these lines:

Oh, he could hit, not doubt of that,
And he could run as well...
He'd leave his hat behind sometimes
And those who watched could tell
That any ball hit toward him, he could catch it on the fly.
One writer said his glove was where the triples went to die.

Though he liked the verse, which goes on for 60 lines or so, Willie also had a problem it. When Rene Anderson had finished reading it, Willie asked her why it hadn't included a particular catch he'd made in deep right center field at the Polo Grounds off Carl Furillo of the Dodgers in 1951. After that catch, while spinning away from the plate and losing his cap, Willie had thrown out Billy Cox, who'd tagged up and was trying to score from third. Some observers characterized the throw as impossible.

[sidebar title="More From 'Take Me Out'" width="630" align="right"]Sports Illustrated Executive Editor Jon Wertheim interviewed Bill about his new book of sports-themed poetry for children, "Take Me Out." [/sidebar]My poem does reference the catch he made off Vic Wertz of Cleveland in the 1954 World Series, but apparently Willie thought the catch and throw against the Dodgers was at least as verse-worthy. Willie thought there should be a poem about that catch, so Ms. Anderson wrote him one and sent it to me. Here are her lines that describe the aftermath of the throw Mays made to beat Billy Cox home:

The crowd went quiet, stunned, I think,
Not sure what I had done.
Did you sit in the stands that day?
It was August, 1951.

In August, 1951, I was 3 years old. So I wasn't in the stands when Willie threw out Billy Cox. Later I did see him play in the Polo Grounds, and in Philadelphia, and then in New York again when the Mets were born. And I remember cutting from the New York papers the headlines on the sports pages after Willie'd had a particularly unlikely day at the plate against the Braves in 1961. It was Russ Hodges who had the honor of calling the fourth home run Willie hit in the same game.

We'd hoped that the man who'd hit four home runs in a game more than half a century ago would join us on the program today, and I think he almost did. Willie Mays and I did talk on the phone for a little while before he began to worry that an interview with a guy he didn't know except as a fan and an admiring writer might compromise a speaking obligation he had elsewhere. I was disappointed, of course, but, hey, or, better, Say Hey...I'd had a conversation with Willie Mays. He'd even told me I could call back in a couple of months, and maybe he'd come on the show then.

And when he'd heard the poem, he'd smiled.

Willie Mays gave me an image of excellence when I was a child.

Now, in a very small way, I'd returned the favor. I had given him a smile. Even a Cheshire Cat grin. At Thanksgiving time, I'm thankful for that.


Editor's Note: After this story aired, Bill received a note from a fellow Willie Mays fan, who shared these two images of ticket stubs from the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians. Enjoy!

It was in the first game of the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians when Willie Mays made his famous catch. (Courtesy of Dave Buchanan)
It was in the first game of the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians when Willie Mays made his famous catch. (Courtesy of Dave Buchanan)
The Giants swept the Indians to win the 1954 World Series. (Courtesy of Dave Buchanan)
The Giants swept the Indians to win the 1954 World Series. (Courtesy of Dave Buchanan)

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This segment aired on December 26, 2015.

Bill Littlefield Twitter Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.

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