As another baseball season approaches, we keep hearing sad news about the game’s greats. In total, we’ve lost 10 Hall of Famers in just over a year.
I’d like to share a happier baseball story this week. I am reading an enjoyable book about Willie Mays, “24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid,” by John Shea.
Anyone who follows baseball — past or present — knows about Mays’ greatness. He is arguably the purest definition of an all-around player the game has ever seen. And it’s not much of an argument.
I would need another full page for the “Good Sports” column to even begin listing all of Mays’ career accolades. So just to name a few: sixth all time with 660 home runs; 3,283 hits; 1,903 RBIs; 338 stolen bases; 24-time All-Star; two-time National League MVP; 12-time Gold Glove Award winner; and a member of the Hall of Fame, MLB All-Century and MLB All-Time Teams.
One anecdote I read about was so interesting, I felt I had to share it here. On April 30, 1961 as a member of the San Francisco Giants, Mays hit four home runs in a single game against the Milwaukee Braves. To date, only 18 players in MLB history have accomplished the rare feat, with J.D. Martinez being the last to do so on Sept. 4, 2017 while playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Each one of these four-homer games has its own unique story. Mays’ story shows how his competitive edge and sheer talent were always on display every time he stepped foot across the white lines of the baseball diamond.
The night before his home run barrage, Mays shared a dinner of ribs with teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Willie McCovey — nothing out of the ordinary on a road trip. However, it turned out to be a bad order of ribs, and Mays spent most of the night dealing with a stomach illness.
He arrived at County Stadium the next day, and Giants manager Alvin Dark gave him the day off — an almost unheard-of occurrence for Mays, who was known for his durability throughout his 22-year professional career.
Enter Mays’ teammate Joey Amalfitano, an infielder who attended St. Anthony H.S., a Jesuit school in Long Beach, Calif. While chatting near their adjoining lockers before the game, Amalfitano gave Mays one of his bats and asked him to test out this lighter model during batting practice that day.
In just seven swings with the new bat, Mays hit five home runs. Immediately, Mays convinced Dark to let him play, despite still not being 100 percent.
In their pre-game conversation, Mays told Amalfitano that he was feeling about 75 percent due to the bad ribs. “Your 75 is better than someone else’s 100,” Amalfitano said while instructing Mays to try the lighter bat.
The rest is history, as Mays crushed four home runs in a game the Giants won 14-4. He went on to play in all 154 games that season, finishing the year batting .308 with 40 home runs, 123 RBIs and a league-leading 129 runs scored.
Amalfitano spent parts of 10 seasons as a big-league player and then nearly 20 as a coach, primarily as the third base coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1980s and ’90s. He said it was that moment with Mays when he knew he’d be a coach someday.
Just a few weeks ago, the 87-year-old Amalfitano finally retired after a lifetime in baseball — 67 years to be exact. He most recently served as a special assistant of player development for the Giants.
An important part of being a coach is motivating your players to give their best effort, even if they aren’t feeling their best on a particular day. On the fateful day in 1961, Amalfitano helped Mays realize that even if he wasn’t feeling 100 percent, playing in the game would still give his team the best chance to win.
Not only did the Giants win, but they also trounced the Braves thanks to Mays’ four-homer effort. Yet maybe the thanks should go more so to Amalfitano, or even the chef who undercooked the ribs!
Both played a direct role in Mays’ historic achievement.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at email@example.com.