Willie Mays basket catch, explained: How MLB legend made iconic play famous

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When it comes to imitating baseball players, there are a plethora of pros that young kids take after. 

A majority of the time, it’s about emulating pitcher windups or batting stances. There have been iconic movements from the mound, such as Dontrelle Willis’s high kick or Tim Lincecum’s whipping motion. In the batter’s box, kids loved to recreate Kevin Youkilis’ awkward stance or the Jeff Bagwell squat. 

When it comes to making defensive plays, there are fewer examples that young ball players can use. For ground balls, it’s all about attempting to make the jump throw like Derek Jeter. 

However, when it comes to catching fly balls, there truly is only one way to field a pop fly that stands out above the rest — Willie Mays’ basket catch.

The Giants legend was known for his nonchalant way of grabbing the baseball out of the air, which involved dropping his glove to his waist in order to make the play. Whether he did this strategically to trap the ball or to simply put on a show for the fans, it’s lived on in baseball lore and baseball movies alike.

Mays died on June 18, 2024, but his legacy will live on forever as one of the greatest players to ever grace a diamond. One of those ways will be by keeping his infamous basket catch alive. 

MORE: Why Willie Mays was called the ‘Say Hey Kid’

Willie Mays basket catch, explained

Mays was known for his superb defense in the outfield. His speed allowed him to track down balls that appeared to be far out of his range, but his vision was second to none, as he showcased an elite ability to read balls in the air. 

He made plays that should have been difficult look incredibly easy. Well, maybe they were easy for Mays. 

With the glove at his waist, the Giants star was notorious for making catches at the belt. Instead of getting two hands up in the air like every Little Leaguer is taught, Mays defied the norm, allowing the ball to come to him rather than going up and nabbing it out of the air. 

By the time he got to the MLB, making the basket catch was routine for Mays. However, it took years for him to perfect. 

It was during his time at Fort Eustis in the U.S. Army that Mays learned his signature defensive play. Fellow Fort Eustis soldier and outfielder, Al Fortunato, showed him the basket catch, and Mays worked on it until he had it down. It took two years for him to land the maneuver on a regular basis, and he brought that technique with him into his professional career. 

“When I came out of the Army, Leo [Durocher] said, ‘You could do it, but don’t miss the damn ball,'” Mays said in the book, “24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid.” ”I missed two. Ten years apart.”

MORE: Behind the numbers of Willie Mays’ exceptional MLB career

Willie Mays’ ‘The Catch’

While Mays made plenty of basket catches during his MLB career, there is one that stands out about the rest — “The Catch.”

During the 1954 World Series between the Giants and the Indians, Mays made a game-saving grab on a long fly ball hit in the eighth. With the game tied at 2-2 Cleveland’s Vic Wertz sent a blast off San Francisco’s Don Liddle that seemed destined to fall. That is, until Mays raced to the falling ball, put his glove at his waist, and hauled it in for the out, maintaining possession as he fell to the ground.

“I always played shallow when I was young,” Mays said. “I didn’t think nobody could hit a ball over my head. That’s the way I felt when I played center field. When Vic hit the ball, in my mind, I was always going to catch the ball.”

MORE: Willie Mays’ ‘The Catch’ among his best career highlights

He immediately popped up, turned, and fired the ball to the infield, keeping the runner from first from tagging up and getting into scoring position. No runs were scored in the inning, the Giants went on to win in extra innings. 

To the average fan — and even the average baseball player — it was an incredible play that seemed nearly impossible. To Mays, it was just another day at the office. 

“Everyone said, ‘Well, it was a hard catch,'” Mays said. “I said, ‘Nah, it was an easy catch.'”

Since that day, the unique style of coming up with a fly ball has been synonymous with Mays. Little Leaguers to budding pro stars all have tried to recreate the over-the-shoulder play. However, there’s a reason why only the best of the best are able to pull it off on a consistent basis. 

“Now, if you want to try the basket catch, that’s your decision,” Mays wrote in “24.” “But if you get hit in the head, remember I warned you.”

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