May 25, 1951: Willie Mays makes his major-league debut with Giants
On May 25, 1951, the New York Giants were in the final stop of a five-city road trip, and although they were in fifth place with a 17-19 record, they were only 4½ games behind the first-place Brooklyn Dodgers. On the previous day they had held a press conference in New York, announcing that the contract of Willie Mays had been purchased from their Minneapolis affiliate, where he had compiled a .477 average (leading Triple-A batters by nearly 100 points) with eight home runs and 30 RBIs in 35 games.1 The New York Daily Mirror wrote, “Today, he’s a Giant … the regular center fielder, shoving Bobby Thomson, the best CF in the National League, to left field. …” (although Duke Snider might have quibbled with that pronouncement). 2
Interest in the game extended beyond the normal late May contest, as black fans, who usually came out in big numbers only for the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson’s visit to the City of Brotherly Love, came out in the “hundreds” for this particular Friday night tilt.3
In the New York Times’ account of the game, John Drebinger wrote, “During batting practice, Willie brought rounds of ‘ah’s’ from the early arrivals by driving three tremendous drives into the left field stand.”4 Giants manager Leo Durocher confirmed this in his book Nice Guys Finish Last:
I saw something then that I had never seen before in my life. The Philadelphia ball club was warming up on the sidelines getting ready to take infield practice when Willie stepped into the batting cage for the first time, and every player there stopped dead in his tracks and watched him. He hit balls on top of the roof, into the upper deck, the lower deck, all over the park, and everything he hit was a screamer.5
After his hitting display, Mays went to shag flies in the outfield. He threw the ball from deep center field to both third base and home plate on the fly.6
The game pitted Giants hurler Jim Hearn vs. the Phillies’ Bubba Church. Durocher had Mays batting third against the Phillies right-hander. The Phils drew first blood in their first time at bat, when Eddie Waitkus singled, was sacrificed to second by Richie Ashburn, and scored on Dick Sisler’s three-bagger, which was misplayed by Mays.7 The Giants answered in the second, tying the score on a walk by Henry Thompson, followed by two singles. Solo homers by the Phils’ keystone combo of Granny Hamner and Mike Goliat as well as by Giants catcher Wes Westrum accounted for the 3-2 Phillies lead entering the home sixth.
The Phillies extended their lead to 5-2, scoring two unearned runs on one hit plus infield errors by Eddie Stanky, Alvin Dark, and Whitey Lockman. The Giants answered with a run of their own in the top of the seventh, and after Hearn was lifted for a pinch-hitter, Giants relievers George Spencer and Sheldon Jones retired nine of the last ten Phillies batters. The Phillies’ lone hit in the last three innings was a double by Waitkus.
The Giants took the lead for good when they sent 10 men to the plate in the eighth, scoring five runs, capped by Lockman’s bases-loaded double. In the inning Mays reached base for the first time as a major leaguer, on an error by Hamner. He had made two loud outs to end both the fifth and seventh innings; Drebinger described them as “a lusty clout to deep right center which [Del] Ennis hauled down” and one that “sent Dick Sisler to the left-field wall [with another powerful drive].”8 The Giants won, 8-5.
In the ninth inning, Mays’s “great speed almost brought him into a collision with Monty [sic] Irvin. … Monty failed to hold onto the ball, and it went for a double.”9 It appears that, from then on, Durocher ordered Mays to catch anything he could reach, and Irvin and Thomson were to play closer to the foul lines.10
Mays went 0-for-12 in the series in Philadelphia, but the Giants won all three games. They took a .472 winning percentage into Willie Mays’s debut, and went 79-39 (.669) the rest of the way. Mays played every day, batting .281 after the Philly series and earning NL Rookie of the Year honors.
This article appeared in "The Team That Time Won't Forget: The 1951 New York Giants" (SABR, 2015), edited by Bill Nowlin and C. Paul Rogers III.
1 James Hirsch, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 76, 81.
2 Hirsch, 81.
3 Hirsch, 94.
4 New York Times, May 26, 1951.
5 Leo Durocher with Ed Linn, Nice Guys Finish Last (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975), 272-73.
6 Hirsch, 95.
9 New York Times, May 26, 1951.
10 Thomas Kiernan, The Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975), 78.