SAN FRANCISCO -- It was easy to admire Willie Mays, as long as you didn't stand 60 feet, six inches from him."He wasn't the most fun to pitch against," former Houston Astros ace Larry Dierker recalled. "But he was definitely the most fun to watch." Energy waited to be unleashed when Mays prepared to hit. He windmilled his bat and rocked in a mild crouch as he'd slightly flex his knees, suggesting a boxer about to throw a punch.
"I can still see him pumping the bat, and he always had that 'lift.' Really dynamite," said Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, the Dodgers legend.Though Mays often seemed to throw his whole body at a pitch, he also could exercise control. "He was the only guy I ever saw who had such great hands that he could reach out and flip the ball out of the ballpark," said Hall of Fame broadcaster Lon Simmons, who witnessed Mays' entire tenure in San Francisco from 1958-72. "And don't ever throw him a changeup." Playing home games at Candlestick Park, where the notorious wind knocked down drives to left field, the right-handed-batting Mays coped by learning to stroke the ball to the opposite field. Dierker recalled a 1970 game in San Francisco in which Mays demonstrated this skill.
"In the first inning, there wasn't much wind. I threw him a breaking ball away and he pulled it down the left-field line for a homer," Dierker said. "Later, there was a gale blowing out to right field. He sliced one to right-center for another homer. Neither one would have gone out if he hit them in reverse order. I had the sense that he played the wind on me."
Mays always looked loose in the batter's box, partially out of necessity. Through a significant portion of his career, many pitchers he faced readily threw at hitters to back them off the plate or attempt to gain a psychological edge."That was kind of a mean era," said right-hander Stan Williams, a former starter and reliever. "It was more of a knockdown era than a hit-a-guy era. You might knock a guy down three times in a row. It took a lot of courage to hit in those days." Mays prided himself on avoiding getting plunked. He was never hit by more than four pitches in any of his 22 Major League seasons.
"He told me once, 'You'll never hit me,' " related Williams, who opposed Mays regularly while pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1958-62. "I said, 'Willie, is that a challenge?' But he was quick enough that he could get out of there."Following is a series of remarks from a cross section of pitchers -- left-handers and right-handers, All-Stars and Hall of Famers -- who recalled what it was like to face Willie Howard Mays: Steve Blass
Career vs. Mays: .375 BA, 2 HRs
"I grew up in Connecticut, so he was a hero of mine when I was younger and he played for the New York Giants. When I faced him for the first time at Candlestick, I think I still had his bubble-gum card in my wallet. I had him up on a pedestal.
"He was intimidating, with that big, wide stance. I was just trying to find my way along in the big leagues. Even though I perfected my slider, it still wasn't working against him. He was that good. I was trying to get beyond the intimidation and picture him as a normal baseball player, which I don't think I ever did. He was too far up that pedestal for me."
Career vs. Mays: .316 BA, 7 HRs
"He could hit about any pitch, and he was a good guesser. If he guessed right, he would hit the ball really hard. You'd hope he hit the ball hard at somebody. I had no special way to pitch to him. I might have a good slider or a good curveball, and I'd try to get him out on whatever I had working."
Career vs. Mays: .284 BA, 4 HRs
"I felt like I had a chance against him if I made my pitches, because he swung hard. I think he walked a lot because people were afraid of him, but if you were around the plate, he looked like he was trying to hit a home run every time.
"In my first start, on my 18th birthday, I struck him out in the first inning. I threw him a changeup for strike two that was a 450-foot foul, then threw a slider that broke on the inside corner and he took it."
Career vs. Mays: .300 BA, 4 HRs
"At Candlestick Park with the wind blowing in, I might pitch him inside to get him to pull the ball. The wind would help me a little bit. I had a lot of success throwing fastballs to him, more than offspeed pitches. I had a pretty good sinker. You couldn't go to sleep with him on base. He might steal second and third."
Career vs. Mays: .282 BA, 7 HRs
"Our manager, Chuck Dressen, had a theory that Willie was a first-ball hitter. We called them 'Bible' hitters -- 'Thou shalt not pass.' Dressen said that if you let him hit the first pitch, it would cost you $50. So I always made sure that I threw the first pitch in some location where he couldn't hit it.
"I told Willie in one of our social gatherings that I couldn't afford to let him hit the first pitch. I might have to knock him down. He said, 'I'll just bounce right up and hit the second pitch.'
"He wasn't afraid to duck, just like Jackie Robinson. They both had the quickest reflexes and would not allow themselves to get hit. Willie came up to swing the bat. He didn't care what you threw him. If it was in his zone, he would swing at it."
Career vs. Mays: .257 BA, 5 HRs
"You had to try to pitch him inside. He stood close enough to the plate where if I could make my pitch, I at least had a chance. I tried to 'back up' my pitches and catch the inside corner.
"It was exciting to go against him. There were locations you tried to stay away from. At Candlestick, they had that jet stream in right field where they could shoot it out of there. I threw a lot of fastballs to him. I thought I was doing him a favor by throwing him a breaking ball or an offspeed pitch."
Career vs. Mays: .289 BA, 2 HRs
"He was one of the most aggressive hitters. He never got cheated. Willie wasn't up there to take pitches. He was swinging from -- from you-know-where, from both barrels.
"I crowded him all the time with hard sliders and cutters. I kept it in on him and down quite a bit. He threw the bat at the ball, and if he got the barrel on it, it was gone."
Career vs. Mays: .208 BA, 0 HRs
"Don't make a mistake. Don't give him a breaking ball where he can get to it. I didn't pitch against him when he was young. That's usually the course -- your fastball hitters become really good breaking-ball hitters."
Career vs. Mays: .286 BA, 4 HRs
"I threw extremely hard and I was intimidating, and Willie didn't like pitchers who were a little wild. He didn't want to stay in there too long. The lower half of his body bailed out while the upper half stayed there. I'd make my first pitch a little out of the [strike] zone. I'd throw a sinker and he'd ground it to the shortstop or hit a single."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.