#52 in '65
I had one hand right on it: number 52.
Willie Mays would never hit more in one season. And I had a hand on
it, squeezing it, trying desperately to wrest it from this kid's two hands, but he had the
ball in a full-lock Nelson, pressing it tightly against his stomach.
But I should'a been the first one there. I would'a, if…Oh, hell:
could'a, would'a, should'a.
A group of us from Cabrillo Club Sacramento, a Portuguese fraternity, had
piled into several buses and headed west on Highway 80, bound for south San Francisco for the
final Giants' game of the 1965 season against the Reds. The Dodgers had already claimed the
National League pennant. So, the game was meaningless from a standings point of view. But to
a 13-year-old PONY leaguer who valued baseball more than anything, it meant something to me.
It meant seeing the great Willie Mays again.
At age 34, Mays was having a Most Valuable Player-type season (and
would claim the '65 MVP crown) batting .317 with 51 home runs coming into the game. We took
seats in the center field bleachers, and I scored a choice location at the end of the front
row. The only thing standing between me and a home run in the post-outfield grass beyond the
chain link fence was a small cutout in the wall fronting the bleachers.
It was in the bottom of the 4th inning, with the Reds in
front 3-1, when I realized my breezeway was clogged by my younger cousin, who had taken up
residence in the cutout area. He was sitting with his back against one of the sides in the
cutout, facing in to the bleacher section, where he was having a conversation with someone
across the aisle from me. When the PA announcer intoned the leadoff hitter was #24,
Willie Mays, I called to my younger cousin, "Hey, watch out; Mays is up." But he paid no
mind, and kept on talking.
I studiously watched Mays' swing, saw that he made good contact with
Billy McCool's pitch. When I heard the delayed "thock" of bat on ball, immediately I
recognized that this long, arching fly was heading straight for us.
"Jump!" I yelled, but my 10-year-old cousin ignored the demand. He
continued talking, oblivious to my cry. "JUMP!"
I pushed him aside from the opening and leaped to the
ground. I saw the home run ball bounce on the lawn, and raced for it. Out of my periphery, a
smaller, younger boy emerged from my left, beat me to it and landed on the ball. I dove next
to him, hoping he would jostle the prize, but he clung to it. That's when I reached in and
felt my left hand surrounding nearly one half of that ball. I jerked it and the ball
started to slip away. Then another kid arrived and joined in from the other side, trying to
rip the ball free, like one of those ball hawking linebackers from
"C'mon, you guys. I had it first!" whined the boy who first arrived at
the scene. "C'mon, you guys!" he cried.
And I let go. Primarily, because he was right. He had gotten there
first. It now belonged to him. Maybe secondarily I knew he was never gonna release his mitts
from the prized home run ball until somebody lit his toes on fire. So, I let go. I remember
watching the younger boy spring to his feet and climbing back in to the bleachers, knowing it
could'a been mine. Should'a been.
The Angels in the Outfield whispered for me to "let it go." But I
couldn't; I can't, knowing that Mays would never hit more in one season than number 52. And
that I would never come that close to history again.
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