Sports Collectors Digest: A Day in the Bleachers — The Willie Mays catch

By Marty Appel

No further explanation is really needed, is it? Any baseball fan who can talk about the great plays in history knows about that over the shoulder, back-to-the-plate catch Willie made in Game One of the 1954 World Series (not to mention the throw that followed), and knows it was one for the ages.

But to the people who sat in the bleachers at the Polo Grounds that day, it was a great feat to witness, but then attention moved on to the rest of the game, eventually won by the Giants on a Dusty Rhodes home run. The Cleveland Indians, winners of 111 regular season games, had the wind kicked out of them and never recovered, losing four straight.

“As we left the ballpark that afternoon, the talk was of Rhodes, not of Mays,” recalls Arnold Hano, 83 this year, who sat in the left field bleachers that day, out of camera range. (How unfortunate: imagine if he’d been in the photo of the Mays catch!) Hano had gone to the ballpark, just as a fan, hoping to snare a bleacher ticket to see a World Series game. He hadn’t been to a Series game since ’36, when he sat in the Yankee Stadium bleachers behind a rookie named DiMaggio.

“I did not think at all of writing about the game,” he said, during a recent telephone chat. “I had recently left a job as editor in chief at Lion Books when they had cut our salaries 10% during an Eisenhower era recession. {Editor’s note: Lion was the publisher of the early editions of “Baseball Stars of 1953” etc}. “During pre-game activities, I watched Bob Feller doing lousy pushups in the outfield, and I made a little note about it in my scorecard. As the game progressed, I continued to take notes in the scorecard and in the margins of my New York Times. I was watching pretty much everything that was going on.

“I loved the bleachers, loved the people there. I went to an Angels game last year, sat in some executive box, everyone was watching the game on the TV screens and talking about everything but baseball. The bleachers are still where I belong.

“Anyway, I got home and told my wife that I was going to try to turn my observations into a magazine piece. I wrote 10,000 words and trekked off to “The New Yorker”, thinking it was for them. I arrived unannounced, someone took it upstairs, and an hour later came down and rejected it. ‘It’s not right for us,’ he said, but that was fine, it was great to get such an on-the-spot reading.”

Not to be deterred, Hano and his agent Sterling Lord decided to try to sell it as a book. A full book on a single game. Hano redid it in three weeks, and after a rejection by Crown, sold it to Thomas Y. Crowell for a $500 advance. It was published in the summer of ’55, as the Hanos were driving west to Laguna Beach, California, relocating on the west coast three years ahead of the Giants.

The book, “A Day in the Bleachers,” was an immediate hit – with reviewers. It received 65 reviews, 64 of them glowing, with a full page in the New York Herald-Tribune, and an important review in the New York Times by James (“Studs Lonegan”) Farrell. But it didn’t score with the public – barely 3500 sold in a year, and it went out of print a few years later, only to reemerge in 1982 as a reissue by DeCapo Press, and again, by DeCapo, a year ago in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the game. And this year, of course, marks the 50th anniversary of the book.

Roger Kahn did an introduction to the 1982 edition, while Ray Robinson did a new foreword last year, with Hano contributing a new afterword. One could easily call this a cult classic, and first editions are obviously hard to find. (A recent search revealed one, at $220). To do a full book on a single game required the utmost of observation powers, and the fact that he didn’t intend to write the book when he went makes it all the more remarkable.

“He had turned so quickly, and run so fast and truly that he made this impossible catch look – to us in the bleachers – quite ordinary,” wrote Hano of “the catch.”

“To those reporters in the press box, nearly six hundred feet from the bleacher wall, it must have appeared far more astonishing, watching Mays run and run until he had become the size of a pigmy and then he had run some more, while the ball diminished to a mote of white dust and finally disappeared in the dark blob that was Mays’ mitt.

“….But the throw! What an astonishing throw, to make all other throws ever before it, even those four Mays himself had made during batting practice, appear the flings of teen-age girls. This was the throw of a giant, the throw of a howitzer made human….”

Hano, who still lives in Laguna Beach and has been married for 53 years, was a long-time contributor to SPORT Magazine, writing over 100 features for editors Ed Fitzgerald and Al Silverman, while also developing biographies of Mays, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Muhammad Ali. His debut in SPORT came with an excerpt from “A Day in the Bleachers,” a book that Fitzgerald took an immediate liking to. He also wrote western novels and “novelizations” of motion pictures (stories based on screenplays), like “Marriage Italian Style,” a Sophia Loren film. He wrote some early novels for Lion under “Matthew Gant,” because, “I didn’t want to be publishing myself while I was editor-in-chief!”

Hano had graduated from Long Island University at 19 and went to work as a copy boy for the Daily News that year (1941). He fought in the Pacific in World War II, and then put in a stint as managing editor at Bantam Books in the late ‘40s. But his future was in freelance writing, and he moved easily in different worlds, also writing more than 100 stories for TV Guide.

Hano remains a Giants fan today, but admits it’s hard, with all the player movement and roster upheavals. “You’re really rooting for logos,” he sighs.

“I’d like to get down to the new San Diego stadium this season,” he says. “Do they have bleachers there? That’s where I’d like to sit.”