Today is the Say Hey Kid’s 82nd birthday. Happy Birthday, Willie!
Seems like as good an excuse as any to watch him knock a few out of the park.
Note: the above video has no audio.
October of 1962 was a tense time for the United States. The country was in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. James Meredith, escorted by U.S. Marshals, became the first African-American student to attend the University of Mississippi. Jazz composer Charles Mingus, during a chaotic New York Town Hall rehearsal, punched trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth, knocking out a tooth. And the San Francisco Giants and the New York Yankees went seven games in the World Series, one of the longest Series in Major League Baseball history thanks to autumn rain in both New York and San Francisco postponing Games 5 and 6. Game 6 was pushed back four days due to record rainfall in the Bay Area.
How appropriate, then, that the outcome of the World Series that October should come down to a single nerve-wracking at bat in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 at Candlestick Park.
Here’s the scenario, if you don’t know it already.
With the Series tied 3-3 and the Yankees leading the Giants 1-0 going into the bottom of the ninth, Giants pinch-hitter Matty Alou led off with a base hit bunt. His brother Felipe (who would go on to manage the Giants 40 years later) struck out, as did second baseman Chuck Hiller. The Giants were down to their final out. Then Willie Mays came up and hit a line drive double into the right field corner. Alou rounded third and thought about scoring but held up, not wishing to test the strong arm of Yankees right fielder Roger Maris.
With men on second and third and Giants slugger Willie McCovey coming to the plate, Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry had a decision to make. Should he pitch to McCovey, who had a triple in the game and had taken Terry long in Game 2? Or should he walk McCovey to load the bases and take his chances with another Giants heavy hitter, first baseman Orlando Cepeda?
Terry chose to pitch to McCovey.
On the first pitch, McCovey hit a towering fly ball foul near the right field stands. Terry then threw a fastball inside that McCovey somehow got around on, launching a rocket right at Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson. McCovey would later say it was the hardest ball he ever hit. Richardson, however, managed to snag the line drive, ending the game and winning the World Series for the Yankees.
The Series took place several years before I was born. Growing up, I first became aware of it through a couple of now-iconic Peanuts comic strips. I was a big Peanuts fan as a kid and owned several collections of Schulz’s daily strip. I remember well the two strips that referenced that last 1962 World Series game. The first originally appeared a few days before Christmas, 1962. The second appeared a little more than a month later.
As a kid, I took the strips at face value. I knew nothing about the 1962 World Series, but I did know who Willie McCovey was. My brother was a big Giants fan. Willie Mays was his god. He had a huge baseball card collection, including Topps cards featuring Mays and McCovey. I believe he still has them.
Anyway, even though I didn’t know specifically which game Charlie Brown was referring to, I had a good idea of what happened: Willie McCovey came to the plate with two outs in a close game and hit a ball that wouldn’t have been caught if he had hit it a little higher.
It was only years later that I saw footage of that game-ending line drive, and it kind of surprised me. I had always assumed Richardson had to leap to catch the ball. However, as you can see in this screen capture, Richardson actually catches the ball at shoulder level.
So was Charlie Brown right? In the first strip, possibly. A ball hit three feet higher, especially as hard as McCovey hit it, might have gone over Richardson’s outstretched glove, even if he had made a well-timed leap.
But two feet higher? Grab a tape measure and have a look. Personally, I think Richardson would have caught it.
I know, I’m arguing with a cartoon kid who had a lot more going against him than an erroneous view of the 1962 World Series. But I only bring it up because that heartbreaking line drive catch became part of Giants lore as a result of the strip. Charlie Brown seemed to speak for all Giants fans.
More heartbreaking, as far as I’m concerned, was the previous play, in which Matty Alou failed to score on the Willie Mays drive to right. Yes, there were two outs. And, yes, Maris did have a good arm and got to the ball quickly. But look where Alou is when Maris throws the ball to his cutoff man, Richardson.
I think he would have made it. Willie Mays thought so too. And Willie Mays is always right.
He’s a god, after all.
No game tonight, so to feed your Giants withdrawal, here are a few great catches in the outfield.
Kevin Mitchell’s barehanded catch
And, of course, the greatest catch of them all