THURSDAY nights I go to bed early. I get up before 6 Friday mornings to broadcast on ``Morning Edition'' for National Public Radio. One recent Thursday night, however, I stayed up. Larry King had as his guest Willie Mays. I had to see that. The question I have been asked most often is ``Who was the best ballplayer I ever saw?'' The answer was: ``Willie Mays.'' He could do it all - run, steal, throw, hit for average as well as for power, and play day after day. If Mays had not lost two years in the Army, and played those 14-odd years in the swirling winds of Candlestick Park, he might have passed Babe Ruth's total of home runs before Henry Aaron did. Even so he is still third on the all-time list with 660.
Certainly, Mays's catch of Vic Wertz's tremendous drive in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series turned the entire Series around, and the Giants swept the favored Cleveland Indians. That to me was the greatest money catch in baseball.
Bobby Thomson in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the 1951 playoff, the Giants against the Dodgers, hit the home run off Ralph Branca that won the game, the playoff, and the pennant. But Thomson would not have batted, in fact there wouldn't have been a playoff, except for Mays. Willie was brought up to New York earlier that year and sparked the Giants in their amazing surge that brought them from 13 games back of the Dodgers in August to a tie at the end of the regular season.
But for one man's misjudgment, Willie might well have wound up playing for the Dodgers instead of for the Giants.
Mays, talking with Larry King, remembered what happened. He said he was playing left field for the Birmingham Barons, against a barnstorming team headed by Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. Both Jackie and Roy sent word to Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey to get a scout down to Birmingham quick to see this teen-age Willie Mays. The scout came down, saw Willie play, and sent back a negative report indicating that he couldn't hit a curveball. The New York Giants sent down their scout, he recommended Willie, and the Giants signed him.
In those years of great teams at Ebbets Field, the Dodgers always needed a star left fielder. Wouldn't that have been something, either Mays or Duke Snider in left and the other in center?
What would you think of a Dodger outfield of Mays, Snider, and Mickey Mantle? Tom Greenwade scouted for Rickey and the Dodgers for many years. Tom claimed he was the first scout to recommend Jackie Robinson to Rickey. Greenwade scouted the Oklahoma area. Larry MacPhail of the Yankees offered Tom more money, and Tom became a Yankee scout just before he first saw Mantle.
There is a telling phrase in an old prayer, ``amid the changes and chances of this mortal life.'' Suppose the Dodgers in addition to Mays, Snider, and Mantle had had Yogi Berra dividing the catching and the hitting with Roy Campanella?
Berra and Joe Garagiola grew up together in St. Louis. Both were catchers. Rickey was running the Cardinals, and he signed Garagiola for the farm system. Berra wanted to be signed also and went to see Rickey.
By then Rickey knew his days at St. Louis were ending, and that he was going to Brooklyn, but he couldn't tell Yogi any of this. He wanted Yogi for the Dodgers very badly, but all he could say was, ``Be a little patient, Yogi - wait awhile until you hear from me.''
Yogi was envious of Garagiola's getting a small signing bonus and being a professional ballplayer. So when a Yankee scout offered him a minor league contract, Yogi jumped at it. Shortly thereafter, Rickey took the Brooklyn job, but it was too late for him to get Mr. Berra, as Casey Stengel always called Yogi.
I thought of many things as I stayed up watching Larry King and Willie Mays. I thought, too, it was just as well the Dodgers didn't have Mays, Mantle, and Berra in addition to Robinson, Snider, Campanella, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese & Co. Nobody would have played with them.
I'm grateful I saw all of them. Mays with the Giants, Snider with the Dodgers, Mantle and Berra with the Yankees - all at their prime, at the same time, and in the same city. I don't think we'll see those days again.