The Day Private Willie Mays Threw Out My Dad
On May 29, 1952, Army draftee Willie Mays reported for duty at Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia. The reigning National League Rookie of the Year would see no action during his nearly two years of service—except on the baseball diamond, as the center fielder for the Fort Eustis Wheels. Mays later estimated he played in about 180 games while in the Army.
In one of them, the opposing center fielder was my father.
For Private First Class Mays, that particular contest in June 1953 was probably not noteworthy. (It was surely not as memorable as one the following month, in which Mays broke his foot and ended up in the base hospital, his military baseball career over.)
But Dad—officially, Photographer’s Mate Jim Shoop of Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Maryland—would never forget the game. Because in it, he learned firsthand why many people would later make the case that Mays was the greatest all-around baseball player ever to take the field.
Beyond that, there’s a broader significance to the matchup. Mays and Dad have intersecting and divergent stories of life in the military, in baseball and in American society during the Korean War era.
A Star and a Sailor
The two men came from very different backgrounds, but had much in common. Both, for instance, were not exactly enthusiastic about the prospect of military service.
“Naturally, I’m not interested in the Army,” Mays told the Birmingham (Alabama) News before his draft number was called. “But if I have to go, I’ll make the best of it.” Later, Mays would contend that the 274 major league games he missed cost him a legitimate shot at beating Hank Aaron in the race to break Babe Ruth’s home run record.
Mays’ military experience was a study in contradictions. On the one hand, he had it much easier than the average soldier. Classified as a baseball instructor, his whole military life revolved around playing ball. He wasn’t assigned KP or guard duty. He was at no risk of being shipped overseas.
But when it came to baseball, the Army cut Mays no slack. “If you didn’t feel like soldiering, they didn’t mind,” Mays said in Willie Mays: My Life In and Out of Baseball, an autobiography. “But if you didn’t feel like playing that day, they got mad as hell.”
The Army sought to make the point that famous men weren’t exempt from the draft, but also wanted Mays in uniforms of both the military and baseball variety for the PR and entertainment value of showcasing his skills.
“Mays never asked for special treatment,” writes James Hirsch in Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, an authorized biography. “He was just given it.”
We had some good teams in there, a lot of good players, a lot of major-league players.
Willie Mays on military service leagues during the Korean War
Unlike Mays, Dad wasn’t drafted. He volunteered for service in the Navy. But he did so in part to avoid the possibility of ending up in the Army’s ground forces in Korea, and in the hopes of being sent east, in the opposite direction from the war zone. The strategy worked. Dad spent much of his service time in basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois, in photography school in Pensacola, Florida, and at Pax River. When he did serve on an aircraft carrier, it was in the Atlantic, not the Pacific.
Mays enjoyed privileges in military life due to his status as a baseball star. But he also routinely suffered the indignities of being a Black man in the Jim Crow era, especially since he was assigned to a military installation in the American South. Mays was allowed to live off base, but ended up an hour away in a cheap apartment building, Hirsch writes, where he resided with the family of a teenage boy he had befriended. He drove his own convertible, rather than riding on the team bus, but was pulled over by white police officers on rural roads.
On top of that, his star status worked against him in painful ways.
After he was drafted, Mays applied for a hardship exemption on the grounds that his mother and nine half-siblings relied on him for support. It was denied. The Army wanted him and his talents. In January 1953, he applied for a hardship discharge, listing 12 dependents who relied on him. Again he was denied. On April 15, his mother died in childbirth. Certain that this time he would be allowed to leave, he applied again. The Army still refused to release him.
“I always have believed that if a lesser-known soldier had gone through that ordeal, he would have been free to leave,” Mays said in Say Hey, another autobiography.
For a much lesser-known sailor, that turned out to be the case. When Dad applied for a hardship discharge because his father was suffering from prolonged mental illness, he was just another seaman to the Navy. And when he took his case to his representatives in Washington, they listened and intervened—not something many Black Americans of the time could count on.
“Dear Mr. Shoop,” reads a 1954 letter Dad kept among his memorabilia of military service. “This is just a note to let you know I have called Navy Headquarters and expressed interest in behalf of your application for hardship discharge. I will be writing you again as soon as I am advised of the decision made by Navy authorities. I certainly hope it will be favorable. With best wishes, Hubert H. Humphrey, United States Senate.”
The decision was favorable.
Patrolling the Outer Garden
The other thing Mays and Dad had in common was a love for baseball, if with varying levels of talent. Mays, of course, was a phenom, having won National League Rookie of the Year honors in 1951 without even playing a full year for the New York Giants.
Dad, a St. Paul, Minnesota, native, was aware of Mays’ meteoric rise before most of the country had heard of him. Mays had played across the Mississippi River for the minor league Minneapolis Millers for a scant two months in 1951, during his rapid rise to the big leagues. (The Giants took out an ad in the Minneapolis Tribune apologizing for the hasty move.) Dad was a fan of the Millers’ archrivals, the St. Paul Saints. But more importantly, he was a baseball fan. And he knew an exceptional ballplayer when he saw one.
As for Dad’s baseball talent, he was no Willie Mays. But he could hold his own in a military service league that included some of the most gifted players in the country—especially its Army teams.
Baseball commissioner Ford Frick, speaking to legendary sports columnist Grantland Rice in June 1953 about the state of major league baseball, said somewhat defensively, “We have probably had more good young ballplayers than ever before. Where have they been? In the Army.”
Navy installations were at a comparative disadvantage, as the service had no draft, so it couldn’t handpick star athletes. The Army “got practically all of the professional ballplayers who were drafted during the Korean War, and thus it had some outstanding teams, both stateside and overseas,” Harrington E. Crissey, historian of baseball and the military, has written.
“We had some good teams in there, a lot of good players, a lot of major-league players,” Mays said in 24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid.
For example, one of the teams that both Patuxent River and Fort Eustis played regularly was the Army’s Fort Myer, Virginia. Their squad during the Korean War featured pitchers Johnny Antonelli of the Milwaukee Braves and Bob Purkey of the Giants, infielder Danny O’Connell of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and catcher Sam Calderone, also of the Giants. Fort Belvoir, another installation in the same league as Pax River and Fort Eustis, had Dick Groat of the Pirates at shortstop and pitcher Tom Poholsky of the St. Louis Cardinals. Other players Mays and Dad played with or against included Pirates pitcher Vernon Law and Brooklyn hurler Don Newcombe.
The military leagues were well-stocked with minor leaguers, too. One of Dad’s Pax River teammates, catcher Don Loehr, played in the Cardinals organization. On the 1953 Bombers squad, Loehr and Dad were among the standouts as the team got off to a slow start.
“The two brightest spots in an otherwise dim picture, as we see it, are center fielder Jim Shoop and catcher Don Loehr,” wrote “The Old Scorekeeper,” a columnist for The Tester, the Patuxent River base newspaper, in June. “The latter, a Cardinal farmhand, needs no introduction, but young Shoop isn’t known to many local fans. A newcomer to Patuxent, … Jim can patrol the outer garden with the best of them. And what’s more, he can be counted on for a base hit, too.”
Loehr apparently thought Dad was a potential major league prospect.
In a letter home dated July 7, 1953, Dad wrote, “Loehr says to me, ‘If you can get out of the Navy by January, I’ll recommend you to the Cardinals and they’ll send you to spring training for a look-see next year. They told me that if I ever see any ballplayers who look good and want to play pro ball to let them know and they’ll sign them. You have more hustle than 10 men, and I think you have the ability.’”
Dad’s exploits didn’t always involve his hitting or fielding prowess. One Tester article details a Pax River loss to the Washington Receiving Station in 1953 that was marred by questionable umpiring. In the top of the sixth inning, the paper reported, Loehr was ejected for being overly demonstrative in arguing that he had been the victim of catcher’s interference. “One inning later,” the account reads, “another rhubarb took place on the diamond with the result that Jim Shoop, Patuxent center fielder, was elected by the umpire to join Loehr in watching the game from the bench.”
Still, Dad collected two hits on the day and at that point in the season ranked third on the team in batting with a .320 average.
So Dad could hit, even against professional pitching. And he was wiry, and fast. Which brings us to the evening of June 12, 1953, when Pax River squared off against Fort Eustis. It was a highly anticipated matchup, at least for the Bombers. They knew that a victory over the Wheels might turn around their season.
The Bombers were already in a bad mood when they arrived at Fort Eustis. They’d had their usual rough ride on the team bus, known unaffectionately as the Gray Ghost, whose amenities did not include well-functioning shock absorbers. When the players disembarked from the Gray Ghost at Fort Eustis, they were greeted with copies of the base newspaper, The Sentinel, which declared them to be among the “soft touches” on the Wheels’ schedule.
The Bombers warmed up in the twilight as the usual large crowd gathered, despite threatening skies. The spectators were there, of course, to see Mays. He had already developed a reputation for making impossible plays look routine.
And it was the Bombers who struck first, grabbing a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning. Mays crushed a two-run homer in the bottom of the frame, according to a recap in The Tester. Neither team scored in the second or third innings, but in the top of the fourth, Pax River sent nine men to the plate. Four scored, and the underdog Bombers suddenly had a 5-2 lead.
Mays led off the bottom of the fourth for the Wheels, lashing a ground-rule double. The next hitter struck out. Then Mother Nature cruelly intervened. The skies burst open, and as a downpour raged, the umpires huddled and called the game.
But Dad would always remember one of his at-bats in the abbreviated contest. He got on base—it could’ve been a single (he doesn’t recall), a walk, or perhaps by letting an inside pitch nick his two-sizes-too-large blue-and-gray flannel uniform and earning a free pass. At any rate, he wound up standing on first with two outs. He was held on by Wheels first baseman Vernon Law, the Pirates pitcher, who typically played in the field in military league games to save wear and tear on his arm.
The next hitter settled in, and Dad measured his lead off first. He took note that Mays was playing an extremely shallow center field, as if daring the Bomber hitters to smack one past him. Dad measured his lead, and when he heard the crack of the bat, he took off running, certain that the ball was headed for the right-center field gap. He had good reason to believe he could score.
Dad rounded second at full speed, head down.
As a result, he did not see what was unfolding behind him. Mays had darted to his left, completely eliminating the gap. He snared the liner on one hop, pivoted smartly and unleashed a bullet of a throw to third base.
Dad looked up to check with the third base coach for a signal as to whether he should continue home or pull up at third. But what he saw instead was the coach frantically flapping his arms toward the ground, indicating that Dad needed to slide.
The rest unfolded in slow motion. As Dad chugged along, the third baseman caught Mays’ perfect throw and waited patiently for him to arrive. Dad executed a textbook slide—right into the tag. He was out, he insisted in the many times he retold the story, by 30 feet. It surely couldn’t have been more than 10. Either way, it wasn’t remotely close.
As Dad picked himself up and dusted off his baggy pants, Mays trotted by, sporting a huge grin. He’d done something no one else could—in military service league games, in the major leagues, or in the world.
Dad grinned back. He wasn’t even embarrassed, just awed.
This, it turned out, would be the high point of Dad’s baseball life. He never did get that tryout with the Cardinals. Instead, after his hardship discharge, he used the G.I. Bill to become the first in his family to go to college, and embarked on a distinguished career in journalism. Dad did end up making it to the World Series in 1965—as a reporter for the Minneapolis Star.
Mays’ baseball high points, of course, were considerably loftier. His career featured 24 All-Star Game appearances, a lifetime .302 batting average, 660 home runs—and one mind-boggling play at the expense of a skinny kid from St. Paul.
Published at Sun, 21 Feb 2021 13:00:00 +0000