April 18, 1952: Willie Mays makes his greatest catch — no, not that one

This article was written by Glen Sparks

New York Giants fans loved Willie Mays, the exciting young outfielder who could do it all. (SABR-Rucker Archive)

New York Giants fans loved Willie Mays, the exciting young outfielder who could do it all. (SABR-Rucker Archive)


Willie Mays Sprinted deep into the Polo Grounds outfield to make his memorable over-the-shoulder catch of a Vic Wertz fly ball in Game One of the 1954 World Series. As soon as the ball settled into his glove more than 400 feet from home plate, Mays whirled around and threw a dart into the infield. Larry Doby, the lead runner for the Cleveland Indians, ran to third base but did not score, while Al Rosen stayed at first.1

Gayle Talbot called the catch “truly amazing.”2 New York Giants manager Leo Durocher said, “It was great. The wind was blowing, he had his back to the diamond, and I don’t know how [sic] if he can do that.”3 Broadcaster Jack Brickhouse described the robbery as “an optical illusion.”4

Today, The Catch, as many insist it be spelled, is the stuff of legend, and footage of the play is available on YouTube and other social media channels. But was it really the greatest catch of Mays’ incredible career? Vin Scully said that Mays made an even better one more than two years earlier, and the Say Hey Kid agreed.

The Giants were playing their fiercest rival, the Brooklyn Dodgers, at Ebbets Field on April 18, 1952. A crowd of 31,032 filed into the cozy ballpark on Sullivan Place. The host Dodgers had a record of 3-0 after sweeping their opening road series against the Boston Braves. The Giants, meanwhile, opened at home against the Philadelphia Phillies and split a two-game set.

Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen named 25-year-old right-hander Clem Labine as his starting pitcher. Durocher countered with 31-year-old righty Jim Hearn, the one-time St. Louis Cardinal.

New York took an early lead with a big first inning. Labine failed to retire even a single batter. Davey Williams led off with a double and scored on Al Dark’s base hit. Bobby Thomson’s single put runners on first and second. With Hank Thompson batting, Labine uncorked a wild pitch that veered far enough from catcher Roy Campanella for Dark to score and Thomson to advance one base. Hank Thompson grounded an RBI single to right field.

After Mays walked, Labine’s day was done. Dressen called on Carl Erskine to provide some relief. The first batter “Oisk” faced, Don Mueller, struck out swinging. Whitey Lockman and Wes Westrum followed with RBI singles, and New York took a 5-0 lead.

Brooklyn got one run back in the bottom of the first when Campanella singled home Billy Cox, who had lined a one-out triple.

The Dodgers scored three more times in the second. Andy Pafko drew a leadoff walk and Gil Hodges singled. Carl Furillo followed with an RBI base hit but was thrown out trying to stretch his single into a double. Hearn left the game after walking Erskine.

Durocher summoned Hoyt Wilhelm from the bullpen. The knuckleball pitcher from North Carolina was making his big-league debut at the age of 29. He went on to pitch 21 seasons and earn a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Nicknamed “Old Sarge,” Wilhelm served in World War II and was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. He taught himself the knuckleball while still in high school.

Brooklyn shortstop Pee Wee Reese, the first batter Wilhelm faced, drove a pitch deep enough into center field for Hodges to tag and trot home. Cox’s double advanced Erskine to third. Wilhelm, maybe with some first-game jitters, walked Jackie Robinson and, with Campanella batting, threw a wild pitch that scored Erskine. Wilhelm’s shaky debut concluded after he walked Campanella. Dave Koslo entered the game with two outs. Duke Snider, Brooklyn’s reliable slugger, ended the rally by grounding out. New York led, 5-4.

The game settled down after that early action. Neither team scored over the next four innings. Brooklyn put runners on first and third with one out in the sixth, but Koslo got Robinson to hit into a double play.

New York scored once in the seventh after Erskine loaded the bases with two out and Don Mueller at bat. This time, it was the Brooklyn pitcher’s turn to uncork a wild pitch, the third of the game. Thomson, who started the rally with a two-out walk, ran safely home.

Pafko narrowed the Giants’ lead with his two-out solo home run in the bottom of the seventh. Brooklyn had acquired the hard-hitting outfielder from the Chicago Cubs in June 1951, and the new Dodger hit 18 homers in just 84 games. After Pafko’s big hit, Hodges singled and Furillo drew a walk. Dressen sent Bobby Morgan, a second-year infielder, to pinch-hit for Erskine.

Morgan ripped a liner into left-center-field and Mays began his sprint toward the wall. According to a reporter from Baltimore’s Afro-American, “[I]t was doubtful that anyone in the park, even the most optimistic of the Giant rooters, entertained a hope that (Mays) would catch it.”5

Mays “grabbed Morgan’s blast with a desperation lunge.”6 Dick Young wrote that Mays made “another one of his description-defying catches.” The second-year player “left his feet. He actually bounced, crashed into the wall on the first hop, and rolled over on his back. But he held the ball.”7 Young’s colleague at the New York Daily News, Dana Mozley, insisted “Willie Mays just had no right” to catch Morgan’s liner.8

Brooklyn’s new pitcher, Billy Loes, retired the Giants one-two-three in the top of the eighth. In the bottom half, with George Spencer now on the mound for New York, Robinson homered to tie the score, 6-6.

Neither team mounted much of a threat over the next 3½ innings. The Giants managed two singles, one in the ninth and one in the 10th, while the Dodgers were held hitless. Pafko led off the bottom of the 12th and drove a Spencer pitch over the right-field fence to give Brooklyn a 7-6 victory. “This one disappeared amid the advertising signs and chicken wire at the far end of the scoreboard,” wrote the Brooklyn Eagle’s Harold C. Burr.9 Spencer’s won-lost record fell to 0-2; Loes went to 1-0.

After the game, the talk turned more to Mays’ catch than Pafko’s heroics. “The greatest catch I ever saw in my life,” Reese said. “He came with it. I know that. There’s no argument. It was in his glove when he turned over, and Thomson went over and picked it out.”10

According to Burr, “It looked as if the best Willie could do with the drive was to hold it to the double.”11 Morgan, still in disbelief after being robbed of extra bases, said, “I guess he must have caught it. You could have knocked me over with a feather when the ump waved me out. I was going for three for sure when I saw him on the ground.”12 Durocher called the catch “great, great, the greatest.”13

In between sips from his soft drink, Mays told reporters, “I didn’t think I had a chance at all to get it. It was sinking fast and seemed to be curving away. But I stayed with it and got it on the dive – with both hands together. Slid along the ground and got shaken up, that’s all. Little bruise here on my right side.”14

Compare those comments to the ones that Mays made after he snagged Wertz’s drive. In 1954, Mays shrugged off any praise directed at him for that catch. “I had that ball all the way,” he said. “There was nothing too hard about that one. … That catch today, you should never miss those kind.”15

In an interview decades later, Mays said, “In my mind, I was always going to catch the ball. It was just a matter of how I’m going to get the ball back to the infield. I think I was more proud of the throw than I was of the catch. … I think a lot of people saw it in the World Series. They picked that catch as the catch of the century.”16

Mays celebrated his 85th birthday on May 6, 2016. On that day, Scully was in the early months of his 67th and final season broadcasting Dodgers games. He told his television audience, “I was privileged to see Willie make the greatest catch of his career, and he agrees with me that it was.”

Scully said that as soon as Morgan hit the ball “you knew it was an extra-base hit. Everyone knew that except Willie.” Scully described how Mays ran and leapt parallel to the ground “like an arrow” to snare the ball. Mays hit the gravel warning track and “bounced headfirst into the concrete wall.” He rolled onto his back but held on to the ball. “That,” Scully said, “was the greatest single play I’ve ever seen.”17

In 2020 Mays wrote the book 24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid, with John Shea. He tells readers, “That (the catch off Morgan) was a good catch, better than the World Series catch. I believe my best catch.”18



In addition to the specific sources cited in the Notes, the author used the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for general player, team, and season data and the box scores for this game.





1  Sal Maglie started Game One for the Giants against the Indians and allowed two runs over seven-plus innings. He allowed two runners in the eighth and made way for reliever Don Liddle, who gave up the fly ball to Vic Wertz. Giants manager Leo Durocher lifted Liddle and brought in Marv Grissom. Grissom walked Dale Mitchell to load the bases but struck out Dave Pope and got Jim Hegan to fly out. New York won the game, 5-2, and swept the World Series.

2  Gayle Talbot, “Dusty Rhodes’ Homer Big Blow, But Mays’ Catch Saved Giants,” Elmira (New York) Star-Gazette, September 30, 1954: 40.

3  Ted Smits, “Wasn’t Trying for a Homer, Confesses Giants Hero Rhodes,” Elmira (New York) Advertiser, September 30, 1954: 11.

4  James S. Hirsch, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend (New York: Scribner, 2010), 195.

5  Hirsch, 149.

6  Dick Young, “Flock Nips Giants in 12th, 7-6.” New York Daily News, April 19, 1952: 140.

7  “Flock Nips Giants in 12th, 7-6.” New York Daily News, April 19, 1952: 143.

8  Dana Mozley, “Mays’ Catch Greatest, Dodgers, Giants Agree,” New York Daily News, April 19, 1952: 28.

9  Harold C. Burr, “Pafko’s Bat Can Spell Pennant for Flock,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 19, 1952: 6.

10 Mozley.

11 Burr, “Pafko’s Bat Can Spell Pennant for Flock.”

12 Burr, “Mays’ Catch Greatest, Dodgers, Giants Agree.”

13 Burr, “Mays’ Catch Greatest, Dodgers, Giants Agree.”

14 Burr, “Mays’ Catch Greatest, Dodgers, Giants Agree.”

15 Jim McCulley, “Mays Catch Saves Game; Indians Blame Wind,” New York Daily News, September 30, 1954: 81.

16 Willie Mays reflects on “The Catch” in 1954 World Series – YouTube

17 Vin Scully tells great Willie Mays story on the Giants legend’s 85th birthday | FOX Sports.

18 Willie Mays with John Shea, 24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid (New York: St. Martin’s, 2020), 90.

Additional Stats

Brooklyn Dodgers 7
New York Giants 6
12 innings

Ebbets Field
Brooklyn, NY


Box Score + PBP:

Corrections? Additions?

If you can help us improve this game story, contact us.