Willie Mays Learned To Hit Curveball Playing Stickball with Kids During Rookie Year In The Bigs
Written by Jim Rednour   
Monday, 31 August 2009

“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 way.

“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 military."

Video of Mays talking about playing stickball