“You don’t hit 660 home runs without knowing how to hit a breaking ball, and I learned to hit curve balls playing stickball with youngsters in Harlem” – Willie Mays
Today’s elite athletes rely on high-priced personal trainers and
high-tech equipment to prepare them to compete at the highest levels.
Not so for “Say Hey” Willie Mays. When it came to preparing to face
the major’s best pitchers, he learned by playing stickball with kids in
the streets of New York. During his first two years with The New York
Giants (including his Rookie-of-the-Year season in ’51), Willie took to
the streets with neighborhood kids to hone his skills the old-fashioned
“We played with a mop handle, cut the top off. The stick
was small; the ball was small, too,” explained Willie with a youthful
sparkle in his eye. “We'd play on 155th Street in Harlem, in between
the cars. And if you hit it over the roof you were out…because you'd
lose the ball!” he said with a laugh.
When asked if manager
Leo Durocher had problems with his stickball, Mays just smiled. "Leo
didn't want me to play there - he didn't want me to get tired. But it
was good for me, because that's how I learned to hit the breaking
ball,” Mays explained. “Guys would bounce the ball to you, and you'd
have to hit it, and sometimes it would bounce this way, that way.
That's a breaking ball. I could hit anything that moved -- the
change-up, breaking ball, curveball."
"I played stickball in the
morning, around 10, for about an hour. There was a bunch of kids.
They'd come and knock on my window, 'cause my window was on the ground
level. I could walk from where I lived down the street to the Polo
Grounds. So I'd buy the kids ice cream, then go to the ballpark. I did
that all year in '51, and in '52 till May, when I went into the
Video of Mays talking about playing stickball