Willie Mays' Minneapolis days were brief — but glorious

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 13, 2014 - 12:16 AM

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The Minneapolis Millers left the Twin Cities on May 19, 1951, to start a road trip in Milwaukee. Willie Mays, a center fielder who had turned 20 two weeks earlier, went 4-for-5 with a triple, a home run and two RBI.

The Millers went 3-3 on the trip to Milwaukee and Kansas City. Mays was 14-for-29 with eight RBI and seven extra-base hits. This put his average in 35 games in the Class AAA American Association at .477, to go along with eight home runs and 30 RBI.

The young man’s on-base percentage was .524, his slugging percentage was .799 and, if it was 60 years later, Halsey Hall, the Minneapolis sportswriter and broadcaster, would have said:

“Holy cow, Mays has an OPS of 1.323.”

Memorial Day was getting near. That would be the unofficial start of the summer baseball season, and Millers fans were preparing to descend on Nicollet Park to see this phenomenon of the New York Giants farm system.

The Millers stopped in Sioux City, Iowa, on the way back from Kansas City to Minneapolis. They were scheduled to play the Soos, a Class A farm club of the Giants, in an exhibition game May 24.

Mays went to a movie early in the day, as was his custom on the road. “A message came on the screen: ‘Willie Mays Go To Lobby,’ ” Mays said in a recent interview in San Francisco. “I thought something bad might’ve happened with my family.”

Mays was told by a theater employee to go immediately to Millers manager Tommy Heath’s room at the team hotel. It was there that Willie Mays, 11 months after his high school graduation in Fairfield, Ala., was informed that he was going to New York to sign a big-league contract and take over as the center fielder for the Giants.

“I was doing everything right in Minneapolis; I told Tommy Heath that I didn’t want to go to the Giants,” Mays said. “I didn’t think I was ready for the big leagues. Heath said, ‘I’ll get [Giants manager] Leo Durocher on the phone and you can tell him that.’

“He called and Leo got on the phone. Everyone knows how Leo talked. And he used a lot of his favorite [curse] words telling me to go to the airport in Sioux City and get to New York.”

The top of the Minneapolis Morning Tribune’s front page on May 25, 1951, included a four-column headline on grain relief to starving people in India, a pair of one-column headlines and a two-column headline reading: “Giants Call Up Willie Mays.” Two days later, in the Sunday Tribune, there was an ad signed by Horace Stoneham, the president of the New York Giants, explaining to Millers fans the need for his team to summon Mays to the major leagues.

“I would meet people from Minneapolis for years after that and they would say, ‘Mr. Mays, I never got a chance to see you play for the Millers,’ ” Mays said. “They would tell me they were waiting for summer.”

After Mays had a week from May 7 through May 13, when he went 22-for-30, it would have been advisable for those Minnesotans to move up their timetable for seeing Willie, even if it was on a school night.

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  • Willie Mays batted .477 over a 35-game stretch for the Millers in 1951.

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