38 Days of Mays: On his last stop before the big leagues, the Say Hey Kid spent five legendary weeks as a Minneapolis Miller

Willie Mays sliding into third base for the Minneapolis Millers // Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Taft ‘Taffy’ Wright ripped a line drive into deep right-center field at Nicollet Park in Minneapolis on a brisk May afternoon in 1951. It was a typical blast from the Louisville Colonels’ hard-hitting slugger. A towering shot with extra-bases written all over it, the ball practically at war with gravity, begging to leave the ballpark. 

The ball fell just shy of home run territory and Wright pulled into second base while his teammate Jim Piersall scored from second. The only problem for Wright was the ball didn’t fall for a hit but was impossibly snatched right out of the chill spring air by the glove attached to the arm of a young man named William Howard Mays, Jr. Wright was in utter disbelief. 

“He made the catch running up the wall like Ken Griffey Jr. or Bo Jackson, years before anyone had seen a player like that,” says Stew Thornley, author of “On to Nicollet: The Glory and Fame of the Minneapolis Millers.” “Wright’s manager had to come out and say, ‘yeah, he caught it.’ Wright wouldn’t believe the umpire. He thought there was no way. Those were the kinds of stories about Mays. Not just that he had good stats, but that he was just this spectacular player to watch.”

After the sparkling catch in the outfield, the Millers’ young center fielder casually tossed the ball back to second, throwing out Piersall and making it look like the easiest double play the Nicollet Park crowd had ever seen. 

Willie Mays suited up in Minneapolis Millers gear // Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Mays’ legend had been growing in the Mill City for a long time before he robbed Wright at the wall just a day after the Millers’ new star turned 20. The phenom hit .353 in 81 games with the Trenton Tigers in 1950. During spring training with the Millers in 1951, while snow covered the ballparks of the Twin Cities, Mays crushed the ball all over Florida, hitting .408, with five home runs, 29 runs batted in, and 24 runs scored in just 19 games. 

In the field, Mays patrolled the outfield grass with the style and grace he’d become famous for in decades to come. When the ball was in his hand, base runners didn’t stand a chance. “He’s as good, at this stage, as any young prospect I ever saw,” said Millers manager Thomas Heath during spring training in 1951. “What do you look for in a player? You look for a good eye, speed, a good arm, baseball sense. He has ‘em all.”

By the end of spring training, Minneapolis baseball fans were ready to meet Mays. 

The weather, however, was not so eager to greet the young man nicknamed ‘Buck’ years before he became the ‘Say Hey Kid.’

“They opened on the road so they didn’t open at home until May 1st and they had 6,500 people at Nicollet Park in a game that was shortened by rain,” says Thornley. “They were home for a couple weeks, but it was cold, and I suppose people just thought they’d get out there to see him when it warmed up.”

Those who braved the elements were treated to a performance that wouldn’t be seen on a Twin Cities baseball diamond again for some time. In 35 games with the Millers, Mays hit for an average of .477, with eight home runs, 30 RBI, and 38 runs scored, helping the Millers to a record of 21-14. But it was in the field where the 20-year-old was truly dazzling. 

“Nicollet Park was a great place to watch a fleet-of-foot center fielder. There was a lot of space to patrol and ground to cover, maybe even more so than the Polo Grounds,” says Thornley. “I know his famous catch was him running back (at the Polo Grounds), but laterally it was so narrow. 

“Think about watching Kirby Puckett in the Metrodome or Byron Buxton [at Target Field] now. It was a great place to watch a great center fielder play. Mays was a lot like Roberto Clemente. You look at all the stats, those guys are great players, but there was something special about watching them play.”

Unfortunately for Millers fans, Mays wasn’t in town long enough for everyone to see him play. Those 35 games included just one extended homestand. In total, Mays played 15 games at Nicollet Park and another game at Lexington Park against the crosstown rival Saint Paul Saints. Mays was simply too good to play anywhere but the world’s biggest stage. 

The Giants called him up to the bigs on May 24, 1951. The Millers were in Sioux City, Iowa, and Mays was in the middle of his road trip tradition of going to the movies when a special message flashed up on the big screen that said: “WILLIE MAYS CALL YOUR HOTEL.” 

Willie Mays signing an autograph as a New York Giant // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Buck was playing major league baseball by the next afternoon.  

The concept of Minnesota Nice appeared to have rubbed off on the Millers’ parent club in the Big Apple. After calling Mays up to the bigs, the New York Giants ran an ad in the local Twin Cities papers apologizing for depriving the good people of Minneapolis of Mays’s talents. 

We feel that the Minneapolis baseball fans, who have so enthusiastically supported the Minneapolis club, are entitled to an explanation for the player deal that on Friday transferred outfielder Willie Mays from the Millers to the New York Giants… …We honestly admit too, that this player’s exceptional talents are the exact answer to the Giants’ most critical need. Please be assured that the New York Giants will continue in our efforts to provide Minneapolis with a winning team. The Millers won the Pennant in 1950, and another in 1951 is our objective. 

Sincerely yours, 

Horace C. Stonham, President

It’s hard to blame them. After starting his big league career 0-for-11 from the plate, Mays homered off Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn en route to the National League Rookie of the Year award. The Giants won the pennant, and Mays went on to become arguably the greatest baseball player of all time.

The Miller fans who didn’t make it out to Nicollet to see the wonder that was Willie Mays were left with a baseball eternity to contemplate their mistake. According to Thornley, only 1,351 lucky patrons were in the stands to see Willie climb the right-center field wall to rob Taffy Wright on that chilly May afternoon. The fans who stayed home that day were unfortunately not the last to squander such an opportunity, but one can guess it marked the very last time an opposing batter ever presumed to believe they hit a shot to center that Willie couldn’t track down.