It was a windy, slightly chilly August afternoon, the sun shining brilliantly out of a hard blue sky, while down below on the grass and dirt of San Francisco's Candlestick Park the Giants and the Dodgers were having it out. Then, on July 15th, the steamship Excelsior pulled into San Francisco bay, and the fever exploded into pure frenzy. What a lot of hairy-faced men there are around nowadays.
Nature Man and Natural Boy's mustaches have been buried. Stolen from their comfortable perch upon the California lip. Forced to work as sled dogs. Next time you see a man with a hairy face(which will probably be as soon as you step out onto the street) maybe you will look at him more closely and start wondering about some of these things.
Willie Mays was one of these very hairy-faced men. He did not read the newspapers. Quantity of growth being nearly as important as quality. Otherwise, he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tidewater dog faced man, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. An All-Star ballgame.
“I want to walk this guy,” Shank said.
“You can't,” the catcher said. “You ain't allowed to. That's putting the winning run on.”
There are national security regulations against this sort of thing.
“You can't,” Shank said. “I can. I want to walk him.”
“This is about as exciting as a Mr. America contest.”
This puzzled him. The onlookers laughed uproariously, and he felt ashamed, he knew not why, for it was his first beard.
He hadn't washed it for years. The answer is never, not even on Sundays.
And Shank probably wanted to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.
Myth and fact are intertwined until Art Gropper was once quoted: “These dog faced men were not dogs and men. They were savages, all of them, who knew no law but the law of club and pinetar.” But the hairy man cannot do that. Put the winning run on. Jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. Like a piece of maggoty green cheese or a moldy old cornflake or even the slimy tail of a tinned sardine. It is also an extract of a remark attributed to Joe DiMaggio.
Yet it was a secret growth. By sticking out his tongue and curling it sideways to explore the hairy jungle around his mouth, DiMaggio has recreated our youth, freshened our memory, confirmed that it is a game. Willie Mays, too, kept much of it alive, ending his first year in the Giants organization with a twin hammer mustache and five inch growth down his chin in only 81 games.
There was no hope for him.
The ugliness had grown upon him year by year as he got older. So Mays boarded the steamship Excelsior.
“I was scared,” Mays recalled. “I really didn't want to.”
And then there was the glass eye. Willie Mays had a glass eye that was always looking the other way. You can play a lot of tricks with a glass eye because you can take it out and pop it back in again any time you like.
The first time he stood quietly by as right handed Shank curved a ball over the outside corner, and Mays was called out on strikes. He rushed the mound, as though attempting the old shoulder trick, but at the last instant swept low to the field and in. There was a crunch of breaking bone, and the man with the white dog beard faced him on three legs. He caught a big one down by the pond and carried it back secretly in a box. And let him have it.
As Ross Hodges, TV play-by-play announcer, reverently recalls it, “Willie began to comb the beard.” Despite the pain and helplessness, Shank struggled madly to keep up. Then he got going on his own beard and waited for the fun to begin. Until, finally, Ross Hodges said, “Mays is off to such a great start, you can expect Shank to wind up in a hospital earlier than ever.”
The exact answer arrived the night of May 25, 1951, nineteen days past the arrival of steamship Excelsior. He wore his gray flannel Giants traveling uniform lower that night than he does today. He wore his cap then, as he does today, tilted forward. He used an extra-big fielder's glove then, as he does today, because he has extra large hands. His beard, as it is today, huskily bred into a magnificent workhorse.
The French-Canadian radio announcers had their say:
“Eh? Wot I say? I spik true w'en I say dat Shank pitch two devils.”
“Dat Willie Mays hit lak hell,” Perroualt said, as he surveyed the gaping rips and cuts.
“An' dat Shank pitch lak two hells,” was Francois's answer.
Willie stood up from the bench, listening and scenting as he walked onto the field. From far away drifted a faint, sharp yelp, followed by a chorus of similar sharp yelps. In a situation like this, Mays has no choice. He must try to hit a homerun, go for the downs, go for the pump. So Shank knew that Mays would be dug in, swinging from his heels. Shank reacted oddly. You would expect him to throw dinky little curves, snip at the corner, hope to get Mays off balance and have him pop up or hit a ball in the dirt. Instead, Shank pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike; it was his ancestors howling down through the centuries and through him. And his pitches were their pitches. His cunning was wolf cunning, and wild cunning; his intelligence, shepherd intelligence and St. Bernard intelligence. But Mays was a carnivorous animal living on a straight meat diet, he was in full flower. And as the duel developed, Shank throwing fast balls, Mays swinging from his heels, their beards began to grow. “I'd give back this thick beard any day for a victory,” Shank later said.
The count went 3-and- 2—twice Mays had swung so hard that he had fallen down—when finally, Shank threw his tenth straight fast ball—Mays swung, a snapping and crackling followed the bat, each hair on his face discharged a spent magnetism at the contact: the ball bellowing into the left-field seats of Candlestick Park. Mays trotted off the field shortly after hitting the home run.
But he is not alone. When the long winter nights come on and the wolves follow their meat into the lower valleys, Willie Mays may be seen running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great beard a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the hairy men of San Francisco.