On Jan. 13, 1954, the New York Giants received some great news. Willie Mays was being discharged from the duties involved in defending freedom three months earlier than expected.
An army spokesperson explained that freedom defenders who held professional contracts or who wanted to return to college qualified for early release under a selective service rule that covered such situations.
Willie received his freedom at the beginning of March. He had spent 21 months in the army. Stationed at Ft. Eustis, the New York Giants’ center fielder played two seasons of service baseball where he, as usual, excelled.
In 1952, Mays batted a gaudy .420. His batting average and outstanding play really did remind some individuals of the great Ty Cobb. The following season, Willie batted “only” .389.
Arriving at the Giants’ training facility in Phoenix, Willie immediately signed a contract without even looking at the numbers. For the young Willie Mays, baseball, not money, was the name of the game. How things have changed.
The contract called for a $13,000 salary, which was the same as the one that expired when Willie left the Giants.
Manager Leo Durocher was almost beside himself now that Willie had returned. “What a difference Mays makes. Just look around. Everyone’s hustling. Everyone’s alive. You can thank Willie. He’s great. Just great.”
Later, in the clubhouse, Durocher went out on a limb.
“I’ve been around a long time. I’ve seen the great ones, DiMaggio, Moore to name a couple. Willie is their equal on the field. Catch, run, throw, come in, go back, scoop up grounders, he can do all these things. Now in hitting, I can’t tell right now. Let’s give him a few more seasons.”
A few weeks later, the Giants were scheduled to play the Cleveland Indians in an exhibition game in Las Vegas. The game was rained out (yes, it does rain there), which gave Indians’ great Bob Feller a chance to evaluate the Giants, who had finished a distant fifth in 1953, 35 games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Feller emphasized the Giants’ pitching problems, but thought that if Sal Maglie and Larry Jansen returned to form, the Giants would have a chance to win the pennant, a statement that most baseball writers took with more than a grain of salt.
The 35-year-old Feller was asked about Willie.
“Willie has a chance to be a good ballplayer. Now he has a tendency to swing at high bad pitches. Changed of speed seem to fool him. He seems to be swinging from the heels too much.
“Mays is a little behind Mantle. Willie does not have as much power as Mickey has. Mickey has overcome his tendency to swing at bad pitches from the left side. I think Mickey is better as a right-handed hitter. He rarely goes for a bad pitch from that side.”
After 11 games, Willie was batting .429 with six home runs and 17 RBIs.
Willie had an excellent attitude. He was eager to improve.
“Gosh, I wish people would come to me and tell me what I do wrong in center field every day. There are a lot of things I’ve got to be told.”
Good News for Giants. (1954, January 14). New York Times (1923-Current file),35. Retrieved November 10, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007). (Document ID: 83316762).
GIANT OUTFIELDER EN ROUTE TO CAMP :Mays, Discharged From Army After 21 Months Service, Flying to Phoenix. (1954, March 2). New York Times (1923-Current file),28. Retrieved November 10, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007). (Document ID: 83747908).
By LOUIS EFFRATSpecial to THE NEW YORK TIMES.. (1954, March 4). LOCKMAN, GOMEZ ARRIVE AT CAMP :Noble Only Member of Giants Absent at Phoenix — Mays Gets $13,000 Contract. New York Times (1923-Current file),35. Retrieved November 10, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007). (Document ID: 83322625).
By LOUIS EFFRATSpecial to THE NEW YORK TIMES.. (1954, March 21). Feller Rates Giants Highly As Rain Keeps Teams Idle :GIANTS ARE RATED HIGHLY BY FELLER. New York Times (1923-Current file),S1. Retrieved November 10, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007). (Document ID: 92555206).