Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Day Willie Mays Played Shortstop

Willie Mays turned 80 this week and terrific stories have been written about the great player. His reception in San Francisco was really well done and well deserved. But while others have celebrated the great career of Willie Mays and recounted his exploits over and over, this writer thought he would celebrate the greatest player he ever saw in a different way. This is a story of the craziest game in which Willie Mays ever participated. The game was so crazy that Willie Mays actually played shortstop for three innings. He was 33 years old at the time.

It wasn't Willie's first foray at short. He played shortstop for one inning in 1963. He didn't get any chances in that game and strangely enough, he didn't get any chances in this particular game either. Which was probably just as well. Though we would like to think that if somebody had actually hit the ball to Mays, Willie would have made the play. But everything was strange about this game which took place as the second game of a double-header on May 31, 1964 at Shea Stadium. After playing nine innings the first game, Mays played 23 innings of the second game. Yes, that's right. 23 innings.

The Giants had won the first game behind Juan Marichal's complete game victory. Mays had gone one for three in that game with a walk and a run score. At the start of the second game, Willie was batting .382 with an OPS of 1.260. The Giants were in second place at the time and were only a half a game back of the league leader. They would eventually finish in fourth place despite 90 wins that season. Alvin Dark was the manager. The Mets were in last place, as usual, a place they had never relinquished since coming into the league in 1962. Casey Stengel was still their manager and the Mets "improved" in 1964 from 111 losses the year before to "only" 109 in 1964. But on this day, they played one of the longest games ever.

The second game of the double-header on May 31, 1964 in Shea Stadium started normally enough for Mays. He was in center field where he belonged. The Giants started Bobby Bolin. Bolin was 25 at the time and was a good pitcher for the Giants for many years. He was a swing man who made 23 starts in 1964 but also made 15 relief appearances. That was the way Bolin's career went. Baseball-reference credits him with 50 saves while also compiling 34 complete games in his career. Whatever you needed from Bolin, he would give it to you.

The Mets started Bill Wakefield, a native of Kansas City, MO. 1964 would be Wakefield's only season in the majors, which is surprising because he didn't have a bad season in 1964. He started four games that season and relieved in 58 others and ended with a 3.61 ERA in 119+ innings. Wakefield didn't last long in this game, which was his second start of the season. He pitched two innings and gave up two runs. The Mets had a rally going in the bottom of the second and George Altman pinch hit for Wakefield. Little did Casey Stengel know that he needed every inning out of his pitchers he could get.

By the end of the third inning, the Giants had taken a commanding 6-1 lead and the Mets had gone through two pinch hitters and three pitchers. A fourth pitcher, Al Jackson, was used as a pinch runner in the second inning rally that resulted in the Mets' lone run. Willie had gotten a single in the first inning to drive in a run but grounded out during the big four-run rally the Giants put together in the third inning.

Leading 6-1 would seem like an easy win for the Giants, but the Mets got to Bolin late in the game. Eddie Kranepool drove in a run with a triple and later scored in the Mets' sixth inning off of Bolin and an inning later,  Joe Christopher hit a three-run homer to tie the score at 6-6. 1964 was the only season Joe Christopher saw full-time duty and it was his only good season. He ended up with a 134 OPS+ in 1964.

Meanwhile, Tom Sturdivant and Frank Lary had held the Giants scoreless to allow the Mets to come back and tie the game. Kranepool hit a double after Christopher's home run, but Bob Shaw came in for the Giants to end the threat. Christopher's homer was the last run either team would score for the next fifteen innings!

On the Mets side of things, Larry Bearnarth started the eighth inning and pitched seven scoreless innings. Bearnarth was a nondescript pitcher who pitched parts of five seasons. This was probably the game of his life. Galen Sisco came in to start the 15th inning and pitched eight scoreless innings. For the Giants, Ron Herbal began the ninth inning and pitched four scoreless innings. Herbal was another swing man for the Giants and was a pretty good pitcher for them for several seasons. He gave way to Gaylord Perry.

Gaylord Perry was just 25 years old at the time and in his first full season for the Giants. He too was a swing man that season and made several starts in 1964 but also pitched many times in relief. What the future Hall of Fame pitcher did in this game is legendary. He began his quest in the 13th inning and pitched ten scoreless innings! The only trouble he had was in his first inning of work when the Mets got back to back singles but right fielder, Jesus Alou threw out Amando Samuel trying to go from first to third. That must have made old Casey happy.

And what of Willie Mays? How did he get to shortstop? In the top of the eighth inning, Willie McCovey pinch hit for starting shortstop, Gil Garrido. After McCovey struck out to end the inning, Jim Davenport went in to play shortstop. In the top of the tenth inning, Matty Alou pinch hit for third baseman, Jim Ray Hart. Dark wanted to keep Matty Alou in the game, so he moved Davenport to third to take Hart's spot and he moved Willie to short so Matty Alou could play center. The Giants did have another infielder on the bench but it seems obvious at this point that Dark did not want to lose the offense of Alou, so Willie played short.

As mentioned earlier, Willie Mays played shortstop for three innings. How strange that must have looked! Again, unfortunately for us, he never got a chance to make a play there. Herbal was simply mowing the Mets' batters down and only one single went to left. There is no way of knowing that hit's relation to Mays. In the top of the 13th inning, Cap Peterson (Charles was his given name) pinch hit for Herbal. Peterson was a light-hitting utility player who played parts of seven seasons. He started out as an infielder but was used mostly in the outfield by the Giants.

Peterson lined out and the Giants didn't score in the thirteenth inning. In the bottom of the 13th, Dark did a double move when he brought in Gaylord Perry. Dark put Perry in Harvey Kuenn's spot in the line up. Kuenn had made the last out in the top of the inning and was playing left-field. Peterson stayed in the game and moved to third. Davenport moved back to short. Matty Alou moved to Kuenn's spot in left and Willie Mays went back to familiar territory in center. And that's the way it stayed for ten more innings.

Finally, in the top of the 23rd inning, the Giants finally got to Galen Cisco. It appears that it was Cisco's game no matter what happened. Cisco got the first two outs in that last inning without a problem. But then Davenport hit a triple. The next move is baffling and if this author can question Casey Stengel's thinking all these years later, it does seem strange. Stengel ordered an intentional walk to Cal Peterson. Remember that Peterson was not a good hitter and was batting .158 at the time. Sure, the pitcher's spot was next up, but surely, the Giants would pinch hit for Gaylord. They had to. Plus, there were two outs. Why not go after the weak hitting Peterson? But Casey walked Peterson intentionally to make it first and third.

The Giants did indeed pinch hit for Perry. Del Crandall pinch hit. He was the backup catcher which made this move dangerous for the Giants. Tom Haller had already caught 22 innings! Can you imagine catching for 22 innings? Crandall was 34 years old and toward the end of his career. He was probably one of the last guys on the bench. If the Giants didn't score, Crandall probably would have gone in to catch and a pitcher would have had to play the field.

But that became moot when Crandall lined a rope to right field for a double. That scored Davenport. Jesus Alou then singled to score Peterson. Willie Mays grounded out to end the inning. The Giants finally broke the tie and led 8-6. But they still had to get the Mets out in the bottom of the 23rd.

Haller stayed in at catcher to finish his marathon. Bob Hendley, one of the Giants' starting pitchers, came in to pitch. It was to be his only relief outing of the season. Hendley struck out two of the three Mets' batters and the other popped out to end the game. Hendley today would have been given a save.

The game lasted seven hours and twenty-three minutes. If you include the first game of the double-header, the two teams played a total of nine hours and fifty-two minutes of baseball. Shea Stadium had been packed with over 57,000 fans. They got their money's worth. Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Jesus Alou played every minute of those two games as did Christopher, Kranepool and shortstop, Roy McMillan of the Mets. Galen Cisco got the loss despite his heroic outing and went on to lose 19 games for the Mets that season. The Mets lost both games of the double-header.

As for Willie Mays, he went one for ten in the second game with a walk, a strikeout, a run scored and a run batted in. His averaged started that game at .382 and finished 23 innings later at .364. He should have won the MVP that season as he hit 47 homers and was far and above any other player in the league in WAR. But they didn't know about WAR in 1964. The Cardinals won the pennant and Ken Boyer won the MVP, though his season couldn't be counted even among the worst of seasons Willie Mays ever had.

But imagine if you were sitting in Shea Stadium that day and got to see almost ten hours of one of the greatest players of all time? Imagine being a fan in the stands to watch the greatest center fielder of all time coming in to play shortstop for three innings. That would have been something to see! Happy Birthday, Willie Mays.

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