Iconic Willie Mays, 93, amazed Hi Corbett crowds during Giants’ spring training games with Indians

1964 Arizona Daily Star clipping before the 1964 spring-training opener between the Cleveland Indians and San Francisco Giants

Symbolic that Willie Mays blasted a 370-foot home run to left field over the scoreboard at Hi Corbett Field in his very last spring training appearance with the San Francisco Giants at Hi Corbett Field on March 11, 1972, when he was 40 and near completion of his historic career.

Mays captivated the Tucson crowd many times during the 20 years he played sping training games at Hi Corbett Field against the Cleveland Indians. It was only fitting.

The “Say-Hey Kid” passed away from heart failure at age 93 on Tuesday, but memories will live on of his exploits during his storied major-league career, including his many trips to Tucson each spring during the month of March.

His big-league career started with the Birmingham Barons of the Negro Baseball League in 1948 and ended with the New York Mets in 1973. In between, he was with the Giants organization from 1952 to 1972. He left with the club from New York to California as part of the San Francisco Giants from 1958 until he was traded to the Mets two months following his last spring game in Tucson in 1972.

His first spring-training experience in his rookie season of 1951 was at St. Petersburg, Fla.

The Giants had trained in Phoenix 1947 to 1950, but in 1951, the team swapped spring training sites with the New York Yankees, with the Yankees moving to Phoenix and the Giants training at St. Petersburg.

Thankfully, it was a one-year arrangement and the Giants returned to Phoenix in 1952, making it possible for Mays to visit Hi Corbett routinely during spring training.

Coming off his NL Rookie of the Year honor in 1951, leading the Giants to the pennant that season, Mays visited Hi Corbett Field to start the 1952 spring-training schedule.

Mays went 3 for 3 with a double and a run in the game won by Cleveland 11-2 in front of 6,065 fans, a record crowd (at the time) at Hi Corbett Field.

Arizona Daily Star clipping with a photo of a packed Hi Corbett Field for the spring-training opener between the San Francisco Giants and Cleveland Indians in 1952

To accommodate 400 more seats, the Indians moved home plate 20 feet from the stands toward center field, according to a report in the Arizona Republic. That brought left field to 322 feet (it is now at 366 feet). A screen was placed above the wall (made of adobe back then) to make it 25-feet high. When the Indians left after that spring, home plate was moved back and the screen came down.

Mays, known for his defensive prowess at center field robbing hits by tracking down balls, reportedly made a spectacular running catch of a sinking drive hit by Al Rosen in that game against the Indians.

Future Hall of Famers Hoyt Wilhelm of the Giants and Bob Lemon of the Indians were slated to start that game on the mound against each other. Wilhelm was a late scratch, however, and Sheldon Jones started in his place.

The managers for each team were also later inducted into the Hall of Fame — Leo Durocher of New York and Al Lopez of Cleveland.

Arizona Daily Star clipping of the lineups for Willie Mays’ first spring training game at Hi Corbett Field on March 8, 1952
Box score in the Arizona Republic for Willie Mays’ first spring training game at Hi Corbett Field on March 8, 1952

Mays was drafted into the Army in 1952 and missed most of the next two seasons, playing on a military team in Newport News, Va., during the Korean War.

His return to the big leagues was at Hi Corbett Field in the 1954 spring training opener on March 6, 1954. Mays went 3 for 4 with a run and RBI in the Giants’ 10-9 win.

The Giants and Indians eventually met in the World Series at the end of that season.

The 1954 World Series is known for Mays’ iconic catch in Game 1 over his head with his back to the infield near the center field wall (made of concrete 450 feet way from home plate) at the Polo Grounds in New York City.

The catch robbed an extra-base hit from Vic Wertz of the Indians, who were swept by the Giants although they won an American League-record 111 games in a 154-game schedule.

Arizona Daily Star clipping in 1972 of the lineups for the Cleveland Indians and San Francisco Giants in Willie Mays’ last spring training game at Hi Corbett Field on March 11, 1972
Box score in the Arizona Daily Star of Willie Mays’ last spring training game at Hi Corbett Field on March 11, 1972

The odds were not long of Mays catching another fly ball by Wertz in a spring training game at Hi Corbett Field because the teams routinely played in Tucson annually.

Making a similar play as his amazing catch in 1954, robbing Wertz again, could not be repeated, right?

It happened on March 29, 1956, at Hi Corbett.

The account of it written by Abe Chanin of the Arizona Daily Star:

“The Say-Hey Kid pulled a repeat of 1954 World Series history when he raced deep into centerfield to haul in a 400-foot drive off the bat of Vic Wertz. It was a one-handed stab, much like the play he made to rob Wertz of a hit in the ’54 Series when the Giants swept the Indians 1-2-3-4.”

“Willie’s a Dilly”

That was New York Daily News’ headline of the story that included details of Mays’ catch and his performance at the plate that day at Hi Corbett Field.

Mays hit a home run and a run-scoring single off Bob Feller in the Giants’ 10-5 loss. It was his second home run at Hi Corbett in a span of four days.

Jim McCulley of the Daily News had a similar account of Mays’ catch as Chanin but added that Mays caught the ball with one hand while using the other hand to back himself away from the wall.

Remarkably, starting in 1957, Mays won 12 consecutive Gold Glove awards for his defense in center field.

The Say-Hey Kid collected more Gold Gloves than any other center fielder in history, even though the award did not exist until his fifth season in the majors.

Mays was called the “Say-Hey Kid” because a New York sportswriter noted Mays’ habit of saying, “Hey,” to start a sentence when he had something to say, according to biographer James S. Hirsch, author of “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend,” published in 2010.

San Francisco again opened its spring training schedule at Hi Corbett Field in 1964, two years after Mays and the Giants lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series.

The Arizona Daily Star reported on the day of the opener against the Indians on March 7, 1964 that Mays was one of baseball’s highest-paid players earning approximately $105,000 that year. He was coming off a season in which he batted .314 with 38 home runs and 103 RBIs.

That was in the midst of Mays winning the NL home run title in 1962, 1964 and 1965.

He finished with 660 career homers, ranking third in MLB history at the time. He is now sixth on the all-time list.

Arizona Republic clipping of Willie Mays taking a cut in batting practice before a 1965 spring training game between the San Francisco Giants and Cleveland Indians at Hi Corbett Field

Mays’ career batting average was .301. He was selected an All-Star 24 times (some seasons when he played featured two All-Star games).

He capped his career with 3,293 hits, including 10 hits in the Negro League that were added to his total this year.

Mays’ final public statement came on Monday, a day before his passing, to the San Francisco Chronicle when he mentioned he chose to stay in California and not attend the MLB at Rickwood Field game between the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals that is scheduled for Thursday at Birmingham, Ala., where he played with the Barons of the Negro League 76 years ago.

Mays, who passed away at his care home in Palo Alto, Calif., will not be one of the 8,300 expected fans in attendance at the quaint Rickwood Field where Mays played with the Barons.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred released a statement after Mays’ death, stating, “Thursday’s game at historic Rickwood Field was designed to be a celebration of Willie Mays and his peers. With sadness in our hearts, it will now also serve as a national remembrance of an American who will forever remain on the short list of the most impactful individuals our great game has ever known.”

Tucson experienced that impact annually when Mays visited Hi Corbett with the Giants in a span of 20 years.

Hey, Say-Hey Kid.

Thank you for those memories.


ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator in 2016 and is presently a special education teacher at Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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