May 14, 1972: Willie Mays homers in New York Mets debut
In his novel You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe tells the story of a man returning to his hometown in search of his identity. In May 1972, Willie Mays was sort of a George Webber-like character when he came to the Mets after spending the first 21 years of his career with the Giants — for 15 years in San Francisco and, before that, for six years in New York.
The Mets acquired the future Hall of Famer on May 11 for Charlie Williams and $50,000 and Mays debuted three days later, coincidentally, against the Giants at Shea Stadium. With 646 home runs, 1,859 RBIs, 3,187 hits, and countless defensive gems under his belt, Mays was an unquestioned all-time great.
Now, his role would be far less significant — even though his legend had yet to diminish.
Mets owner Joan Payson was in attendance on this Mother’s Day 1972 to watch Mays play. Early in her career Payson had acquired shares in the New York Giants team. Now as part-owner of the New York Mets, she was the third woman to have an ownership stake in a major-league ballclub.1
On May 14, Mays played first base and led off against Giants starting pitcher Sam McDowell, who entered the day with a 5-0 record. Pitching for the Mets was Ray Sadecki, without a decision so far in the young season.
Sadecki got the Giants out in the first inning with the only trouble being a double to right field by Tito Fuentes with one out. Fuentes was left stranded and Mays stepped up to the plate for the Mets in the bottom of the first. He walked. So did the next two batters. All three came around to score on a grand slam by Rusty Staub — a four-run New York frame.
Sadecki kept up the good work in the second inning, allowing just a one-out single to Giants third baseman Jim Ray Hart. McDowell settled down, getting the Mets in order including a strikeout of Mays for the third out of the inning.
In the Giants’ third, all they could muster for an offense was a one-out single to center field by Fuentes. McDowell then dominated the New York lineup, getting three outs on a fly ball, a strikeout, and a groundout.
It was a 1, 2, 3 inning for Sadecki and the Mets in the top of the fourth. McDowell faltered just a bit for the Giants as he allowed a double to left field by Jim Fregosi. After intentionally walking the Mets catcher, Jerry Grote, McDowell put out this fire by striking out his mound counterpart Sadecki to end the inning.
Sadecki came unraveled in the fifth inning: He walked the leadoff batter, Fran Healy. Bernie Williams pinch-hit for McDowell, and tripled to score Healy with the Giants’ first run of the game. Chris Speier, the Giants shortstop, doubled to right field to score Williams and then Fuentes hit a two-run home run to tie the score at 4-4. There were still no outs, but Sadecki struck out Bobby Bonds and got both Dave Kingman and Ken Henderson to fly out.
Don Carrithers replaced McDowell on the mound in the bottom of the fifth, and was to face the number one, two, and three hitters in the Mets lineup: Willie Mays, Bud Harrelson, and Tommie Agee. Mays got his first hit as a Met, a home run to left field that sent the Mets ahead again, 5-4.2 Agee walked and stole second base. Staub was intentionally walked, but the runners were left stranded when Cleon Jones hit into a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning.
The sixth inning was of little excitement to either team. Hart singled to center field off reliever Jim McAndrew, who had replaced Sadecki. McAndrew got the next three outs to leave Hart stranded at first base. Jim Barr replaced Carrithers and, after giving up a single to Ted Martinez, got Grote to ground into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play.
Speier led off the seventh inning by grounding out to second base. Fuentes, who had been a pain to every pitcher the Mets used, got his fourth hit of the day, a double to right field. However, he remained at second base as McAndrew got the next two hitters to fly out. With Barr still pitching for the Giants, McAndrew struck out, Mays walked for the second time in the game, but was thrown out trying to steal second base, and Harrelson flied out to right field.
San Francisco was down to its final six outs. McAndrew retired the first two batters in the Giants eighth on a flyout and groundout. Garry Maddox doubled to right field but Dave Rader, batting for Fran Healy, stranded Maddox when he grounded out to the shortstop, Harrelson. In the bottom of the inning, Barr struck out Agee, Staub, and Jones. Now it was the top of the ninth and the Giants were down to their final three outs.
McAndrew was still on the mound for the Mets and the Giants sent up Al Gallagher to hit for Barr. He grounded out to McAndrew on a comebacker. Speier grounded out to shortstop for out number two. Now it was the Giants’ last chance. Fuentes, who had tormented the Mets so far, walked to reach base for the fifth time in the game. But Bobby Bonds struck out to end the game.
Mays had pulled out some of that “Say Hey” magic one last time; his home run was the winning margin of victory for the Mets. After the game, Mays said, “That was my first hit as a Met. And my first hit as a Giant was a home run, too.”3
He played in a total of 135 games for the Mets, he ended his career with 660 home runs (placing him fifth all-time). He also ended up with 3,283 hits and 1,903 runs batted in. Mays announced his retirement after Game Two of the 1973 World Series pitting the Mets against the Oakland Athletics.4
This article was published in "Met-rospectives: A Collection of the Greatest Games in New York Mets History" (SABR, 2018), edited by Brian Wright and Bill Nowlin. To read more articles from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
The author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org,
1 Payson followed Helene Hathaway Britton who had a ownership with the St Louis Cardinals (1911-1917) and Grace Comiskey who had partial ownership of the Chicago White Sox between 1940 and 1956.
2 Joseph Durso, “Mets Win on Mays’s Homer, 5-4,” New York Times, May 15, 1972: 47.
4 Phil Pepe, “Willie Mays Retires After Game 2 of the World Series in 1973,” New York Daily News, October 15, 1973.