Today in Sports History: September 29th

willie mays catch

9/29/1954 - The Catch

In Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, the Indians and Giants were tied at 2 in the top of the eighth inning. Cleveland had just put Larry Doby and Al Rosen on base, sending Vic Wertz to the plate to face Don Liddle. Wertz collected four hits in this game, including a double and a triple. This at-bat was the only one where he retired, yet it became the most notable of his 17-year career.

On a 2-1 pitch, Wertz hammered the ball deep into center field. 23-year old Willie Mays, in just his fourth season, bulleted towards the outfield wall. The ball was headed to the warning track, just a few yards shy of the wall marked 483-feet from home plate. Mays caught up with it and at the last second made an overhead catch with his back to the infield. Mays then spun back and threw to the infield, preventing both runners from advancing. Marv Grissom came in for Liddle and retired the next two batters. "I never hit a ball so hard in my career as the one Willie caught," Wertz said.

Mays' game-saving catch was so unique and so opportunistic that it completely obscured Dusty Rhodes' three-run walk-off homer in the bottom of the tenth. After the game, Liddle told manager Leo Durocher, "I got my man."

The Giants won the next three games of the series to sweep the Indians and win their fifth World Series title (and their last in New York).

Not only has May's grab become the most famous catch in baseball lore, it has frequently been referenced as the greatest defensive play of all time. Proponents of this opinion note the setting of the catch, the distance he covered just to make the catch, and the avant-garde way in which he made the catch. The distance the ball carried has been disputed though. Several researchers claim that the outfield wall was incorrectly measured and that the baseball really traveled about 420 feet (which is still an impressive feat).

Willie himself said he made better catches over the course of his career; his favorite came in a 1951 game that robbed Bobby Morgan of a hit.

The fame surrounding May's catch underscored what was at the time the largest upset baseball had ever seen. The Cleveland Indians won 111 games that year and posted a .721 winning percentage, still the highest in American League history. Their pitching rotation featured Hall of Famers Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Hal Newhouser, and Bob Feller. The Indians' number five pitcher, Mike Garcia, went 19-8 with a 2.64 ERA. When the Indians lost their fourth game of the series, The Sporting News ran the headline: "Indians' Collapse Seldom Matched in Sports History."

The Catch unknowingly became the first rendition in the quartet of the Cleveland sports curse, later followed by The Drive, The Fumble, and The Shot.

9/29/1992 - Magic announces brief comeback

Eleven months after revealing that he was HIV-positive, Magic Johnson announces that he is returning to play with the Los Angeles Lakers. Johnson had retired from basketball when he learned of his infection in November 1991. He briefly made appearances on the Western Conference All-Star team and the 1992 Dream Team that swept through the Barcelona Olympics. After consulting with his doctors, who confirmed that it was safe for him to play basketball on a regular basis, Johnson decided to throw his hat back into the ring.

"You always run a risk, but I think the positive outweighs the risks," he said at his re-introductory news conference. "Life itself is a risk. But I'm not worried about that. If I was concerned about that, I wouldn't be up here."

Doctors and physicians were fascinated at Johnson's comeback. Never before had an athlete with the AIDS virus returned to compete in his respective sport. Johnson himself was a medical aberration, as most people showed signs of dying within months after contacting the disease. "I am an HIV guinea pig," said Johnson, who was told by doctors to rest on the second night of back-to-backs. "I don't mind that. If people want to use me as an experiment, fine. As long as I'm a basketball experiment and nothing else."

In October, Johnson signed on for what was then the largest annual salary in sports history: $14.6 million. The 33 year-old future Hall of Famer began playing in preseason games later that month and showed that his skills hadn't diminished by much. As the regular season approached, players throughout the league started to voice dissenting opinions. Although AIDS experts found that it would be virtually impossible for Johnson to pass the virus onto a player, many people were frightened nonetheless. Since he announced he had AIDS, the NBA had implemented an infectious disease rule, meaning that any player with a cut or an open sore had to leave the game and get it sealed.

No player expressed his opposition louder than Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone, who had played with Johnson on the '92 Dream Team. "Look at this -- scabs and cuts all over me," Malone once told the New York Times, pointing to a welt on his leg. "I get these every night, every game. They can't tell you you're not at risk and you can't tell me there's one guy in the NBA who hasn't thought about it."

After playing in five exhibition games, Johnson announced that he was re-retiring from professional basketball just four days before the start of the season. Magic cited the backlash from the players as the reason he abandoned his comeback. "It has become obvious that the various controversies surrounding my return are taking away from basketball both as a sport and the larger issue of living with HIV, for me and the many people affected with it," Johnson said.

In 1996, Johnson did at last make an abbreviated return to the NBA. By that point, the feelings about Johnson's illness had tempered and Malone himself called his previous statements "naive." Johnson played in 32 games before calling it quits once again.

9/29/1995 - Sabonis signs with Blazers

Nine years after being drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers, Arvydas Sabonis, a 7-foot-3 center out of Lithuania, at last signs with the Oregon ball club. Sabonis, who had also been selected by the Atlanta Hawks in 1984, was once one of the most respected basketball players of all time. For years he had been courted by the Blazers, who were desperate to add his incredible talent to their already impressive roster. But Cold War politics and other negotiating issues had postponed his arrival by almost a decade.

By the time Arvydas entered the league, it was clear that his best days were behind him. At 30 years old, a series of knee injuries had coupled with his enormous frame to make him the slowest player in the league. Still, he was able to play seven seasons with the Blazers, averaging 12.0 points and 5.7 rebounds per year. Though those numbers weren't anywhere near where he was in 1988, when he helped the Soviet Union win the gold medal in basketball, the fact that he played those years essentially in slow motion was nonetheless impressive.

"That guy, without his injuries, would have been better than David Robinson," said Celtics forward Dino Radja prior to his signing. "Believe me, he was that good. Know him long time. In 1985, he was a beast. He ran the floor like Ralph Sampson. Could shoot the three, dunk. He would have been an NBA All-Star 10 years in a row. It's true, I tell you."

Hazy Sunshine, Vivid Memory

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