Who’s the greatest baseball player you covered?
Creamer: Willie Mays. Period.
I seem to remember that Bill James, using his fabulous, desiccated statistics, demonstrated that Mickey Mantle, who was Willie’s almost exact contemporary, was actually the better player, and I’m not equipped to argue with Bill, although I’ll try. And there are DiMaggio, Williams, Musial, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez – no, wait. I didn’t cover DiMaggio, who retired after the 1951 season — I didn’t start with Sports Illustrated until 1954. But that’s still a pretty impressive collection of players to put Willie on top of.
I saw Mays play a lot. My father and I were in the moderate crowd at the Polo Grounds in May 1951 when Willie played his first game for the Giants. My father was only a mild baseball fan, although he told me his favorite ballplayer when he was a kid in New York back at the beginning of the 20th century was a bearded outfielder for the Giants named George Van Haltren, which indicates a certain degree of baseball intensity. In any case he and I drove down from Tuckahoe to the Polo Grounds, bought tickets (which you could do then) and sat in the lower stands between home and first base. Willie had broken in a few days earlier in Philadelphia where he went 0 for 12 in three games. He was batting third which if it seems a high spot for a brand-new rookie seemed a proper spot to take a look at a rookie who had been batting something like .477 in the minors.
The top of the first took some of the fun out of the game right away. Warren Spahn was pitching for the Boston Braves and in the top of the first Bob Elliott hit a three-run homer for Boston, which took a lot of the starch out of the Giant fans. If Spahn was on, and had a three-run lead already, we didn’t have a prayer. Spahn set the first two Giants down in order and here came Willie, our fabulous new rookie. I forget what the count went to — a ball and a strike, something like that. Spahn threw the next pitch and Willie hit it on a line high and deep to left center field. I cannot recall if it hit the wooden façade high in left field or went over the roof and out of the park. All I remember is the electric excitement that shot through the park at the sound and sight of our precious rookie in his first at-bat in New York hitting a tremendous home run off the great Spahn. “He’s real!” was the feeling. “He’s real!”
[Photo Credit: When in doubt, laugh]