Wednesday, September 29, 2010

September 29, 1954: The Catch

NEW YORK - Baseball history is full of iconic home runs and legendary hits, great offensive feats that decided a championship and are remembered forever. It is full of great pitching performances that are talked about for generations afterwards, games where one man was so thoroughly dominant that he won a game by himself.

But there are few iconic defensive plays in baseball history. Part of this might be because fans looking back through past box scores and play-by-plays of game played before the television era can't look at a fielding play and tell if it was routine or remarkable, and part of it might be because, quite simply, great offensive plays are more exciting than great defensive plays.

Whatever the reason, the defensive gems stand out more because of their rarity. And none stand out more than the play that has become known forever as The Catch.

Players who played with and against Willie Mays swore he made better defensive plays than the catch he made in the top of the 8th inning in game 1 of the 1954 World Series. In fact, some players on the Indians' bench claim they knew the ball was an out the moment it was hit. But the fact that the play came late in a tied World Series game - plus that it occurred in one of the first nationally televised games - allowed it to be transformed from a nice catch to The Catch.

With runners on first and second and nobody out in the top of the 8th inning and the Indians and Giants tied 2-2, Cleveland slugger Vic Wertz came to the plate. Wertz had already gone 3-for-3 in the game, and his triple had driven home the Indians' two runs in the first inning. This time, he belted a ball to the deepest part of center field. It was a monumental blast, about as hard as a ball could be hit, but the Polo Grounds contained the deepest center field in all of baseball. As soon as the ball was hit, Mays turned his back to the infield and took off on a dead sprint. He reached up over his shoulder and hauled the ball in, catching the ball about 450 feet from home plate.

Everybody remembers the catch, but what Mays did afterward may have been most impressive. While still gathering the ball, he stopped, spun, and fired a bullet back to the infield, a throw that allowed only one of the baserunners to advance. While the catch was brilliant, it was the throw that might have saved the game for the Giants, as they escaped the inning without giving up a run.

But the game was still tied, and the Giants needed somebody to be a hero with the bat. Their hero came in the bottom of the 10th when, with two men on base, pinch-hitter Dusty Rhodes lifted a short flyball to right field that the Cleveland second baseman started to drift back on. But see, while the Polo Grounds had an incredibly deep center field, it was also very shallow down the lines, including a cozy 254 feet to the right field corner. So Rhodes' hit, which would have been a lazy, harmless fly ball in any other park, nestled nicely into the first row of the right field bleachers to give the Giants the game 1 victory.

In most cases, it would have been Rhodes who was celebrated as the hero, as it was his hit that decided the game. But Rhodes home run was a matter of luck more than anything else, while Mays' catch was the ultimate display of athleticism. Plus, Rhodes was a journeyman outfielder who did more pinch-hitting than anything else in his career, and Mays is on the short list of greatest all-around players of all time. It's fairly easy to see why The Catch has lived on in the memories far longer than Rhodes' home run.

In any case, the heroics of their outfielders gave the Giants the kick-start they needed. Though Cleveland won 111 games in 1954, they didn't win any in the World Series, as the Giants swept the series.

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