Life, Death & Willie’s Catch
In 2002, as I fixed him tea, my father-in-law Pete told me he had been at the 1954 World Series game where Willie Mays made his famous over-the-shoulder catch; a catch so exceptional that it became known in baseball lore simply as “The Catch.”
I was speechless.
Pete had not been easy for me to connect with. He was 77 years old, an attorney, accomplished and kind, but reserved, and somehow just out of reach to me. He was a leader in life – to his law firm and his family, with just an edge of intimidation. I, on the other hand, was a young wife and novice attorney, eager to get to know him. There was a new bride/esteemed father-in-law awkwardness that had us stalled in the “polite” gear.
At this particular moment, cancer had spread throughout Pete’s body; he had been sent home from the hospital for his final days. He could not be alone, but he was proud, and he didn’t want anyone seeing him in his diminished state. I spent some time with him in these last days, but a stillness hung in the air. I knew I was about to see him slip from his normal self into oblivion. Sitting with our tea that day, as we made conversation, I was surprised to learn not only that he had been at that game, but that he had been a New York Giants fan in his youth.
With his casual mention that he was at the game, I was stunned. How did I not learn this until he had days left to live? I am a lifelong baseball fan. How had I not tapped into this commonality years ago? I silently scolded myself for the missed opportunity. As I peppered him with questions about The Catch, his eyes began to dance as he traveled back in time. He described it vividly, despite the years. He was basking in the role of storyteller with a rapt audience of one. “The ball flew so high, so far, it was clear it would be absolutely impossible to catch.” He said when Willie caught it, the crowd was first incredulous, then jubilant. I sat, mesmerized, present, hanging on every word. For that moment, the cancer and our too-good-manners relationship were forgotten. We were two baseball fans. And we were having fun.
Over the next few days, Pete lost the ability to communicate, and a few days after that, he was gone. To this day, the Willie Mays exchange stays with me. An extraordinary catch in 1954 leads to a deathbed connection 48 years later: I have struggled to parse this complex beauty. For true fans of the game, where does baseball end and our real, meaningful, lives begin? Maybe it’s okay if the line is blurred. My love of the game makes me love the people I enjoy it with. That afternoon with Pete, when he shared his memories, for the first time, I felt like we had found an authentic common ground. A rally in the bottom of his ninth.
I wish I remembered more of what Pete said that afternoon. But isn’t that always the way – when we are old enough to want to remember what our elders said, they are no longer with us. All I can tell you is when the New York Mets retired Willie’s number in a surprise ceremony on Old Timers’ Day, I watched from the couch, weepy. I’m not sure why. Maybe because in the end, all we have is life, death, and Willie’s Catch.