Saturday, October 3, 2009

Happy Bobby Thomson Day

October 3, 1951. For New York Giants fans -- the baseball version -- it was a glorious day. For Brooklyn Dodgers fans, those still alive, it remains a date which lives in infamy.

One such Dodger fan was my grandmother. When she heard, over the radio, "Now coming in to pitch for Brooklyn, Number 13, Ralph Branca, she knew that, gopher-ball-prone as he was, Branca couldn't be trusted in a situation like that. She turned off the radio, and later had her fear confirmed: Giants 5, Dodgers 4.

It just occurred to me as I was typing that score: The exact same score as the Bucky Dent Game, 27 years later. Coincidence? Not that any Brooklyn Dodger fan still alive cares. They hated the Yankees almost as much as they hated the Giants, and were probably Met fans by 1978, rooting for the Red Sox in the Bucky Game.

Of course, the youngest of those Dodger fans is now 60 years old. Oy, I don't recall growing older, when did they?

It's been 58 years since Bobby Thomson hit "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" -- and although most sports fans outside the U.S., being more interested in sports like soccer, cricket, tennis, field hockey and track & field, wouldn't have cared if they'd heard about it, it was possible, thanks to Armed Forces Radio.

George Plimpton, who wrote some terrific books about sports and other subjects, was in Cambridge, England, playing bridge. A Giants fan at the time, he claimed to have been so thrilled by hearing about Thomson's homer over the radio on AFR, he threw his cards in the air, and his hand came down and hit the table and knocked the cards over.

According to one of my favorite websites,, the following players from the two teams' rosters are still alive as of October 3, 2009, 58 years later:

Giants, 12 left: Third baseman Bobby Thomson, the entire starting outfield of Monte Irvin in left, Willie Mays in center, and Don Mueller in right (Mays and Irvin are Hall-of-Famers); first baseman Whitey Lockman, shortstop Alvin Dark, All-Star pitcher Larry Jansen (normally a starter, he won the game in relief of Giant ace Sal Maglie), reserve outfielder (but future All-Star) Davey Williams, reserve infielder Jack Lohrke, one-time phenom pitcher turned reserve outfielder Clint Hartung (the Hondo Hurricane), reserve infielder Artie Wilson (only 24 at-bats in the majors, all that season, but the last guy to bat .400 in a full season in the affiliated minor leagues), and pitcher George Spencer.

Dodgers, 13 left: Hall-of-Fame center fielder Duke Snider, left fielder Andy Pafko (over whose unfortunate head the Thomson homer sailed), pitchers Ralph Branca, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Clyde King and Johnny Schmitz; rookie reserve infielder (but later All-Star for Pittsburgh) Rocky Bridges, reserve outfielders Gene Hermanski (a Seton Hall graduate) and Don Thompson, reserve infielder (and later Hall of Fame manager) Dick Williams, reserve infielder (and later coach for several teams) Wayne Terwilliger, and jack-of-all-positions Tommy Brown (who, as a 16-year-old emergency callup during World War II, became the youngest player ever to hit a home run in major league play). Pitcher Preacher Roe died earlier this year.

Red Smith, writing for the next day's the New York Herald Tribune, showed why he might have been the greatest sportswriter of all time:

"Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again."

I love this game. I should say, "I love this sport," so as not to confuse it with the actual game in question. After all, with both teams already in California for a dozen years before I was born, I had no stake in it.

But I love this game.


October 3, 1915: Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers steals his 96th base of the season, a new major league record. He also gets caught stealing for the 38th time, another new major league record. Both records were taken by Rickey Henderson, with his 130-steal season of 1982, although the record for steals in a season was intermediately raised by Maury Wills with 104 in 1962 and 118 by Lou Brock in 1974. The Tigers close the season with 100 wins, but the Boston Red Sox win the Pennant. This is the first time in baseball history that a team won 100 but did not finish first.

October 3, 1947: Game 4 of the World Series at Ebbets Field. Floyd "Bill" Bevens pitches for the Yankees, and with one out to go in the bottom of the 9th at Ebbets Field, he has not allowed a hit. There's never been a no-hitter pitched in a World Series game to this point. But he has walked 10 batters, and now the tying and winning runs are on base. Harry "Cookie" Lavagetto, a veteran slugger now playing out the string, comes to pinch-hit for Eddie Stanky. He smacks a double off the right-field wall, and the runners score. Dodgers 3, Yankees 2. The Dodgers got one hit, but won. The Series is tied a 2 games apiece, and this game is one of the most fondly-remembered in Brooklyn history.

October 3, 1951: On the same day that Bobby Thomson hit the home run and the Giants won the Pennant, the Giants won the... etc., etc., etc.,... David Mark Winfield is born in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Dave Winfield would star for the San Diego Padres and the Yankees, help them to a Pennant in 1981 but infamously go just 1-for-22 in the World Series, fall short with the Yanks in the Division races of 1985, '86, '87 and '88; lead George Steinbrenner to (unfairly) tag him as "Mr. May," hire a criminal to dig up dirt on him, and finally exile him to the California Angels; finally win a World Series as he got the game-winning hit for the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 6 in 1992, collect his 3,000th career hit with his hometown Minnesota Twins, and retire with the Pennant-winning Cleveland Indians of 1995.

His Number 31 was retired by the Padres, but while the Yankees gave him a Dave Winfield Day following his Hall of Fame election in 2001, he has not yet received a Plaque in Monument Park, and his Number 31 has been worn by some rather mediocre Yankees:

Brian Dorsett, Hensley "Bam-Bam" Meulens, Mike Humphreys, Xavier Hernandez, Brian Boehringer, Dan Naulty, Ben Ford, Glenallen Hill, Steve Karsay, Jason Anderson (the first former member of the Staten Island Yankees to reach the majors), Aaron Small (he of the 10-0 record in 2005 but 0-1 in the ALDS and was soon rightfully gone from the majors), Jose Veras, Edwar Ramirez (the jury is still out on the Yanks' current Number 36), Ian Kennedy (now Number 38) and the as-yet-unproven Michael Dunn. But it has also been worn by some good players; all of these were former or future All-Stars, regardless of what they did as Yankees: Bob Wickman, Frank Tanana, Lance Johnson, and a man who should one day join Big Dave in the Hall of Fame, Tim Raines, a contributor to the 1996 and 1998 World Champions. So why hasn't Dave gotten his number retired and his Plaque? Could there still be a grudge in George's heart, after all this time?

October 3, 1954: Dennis Eckersley is born. He pitched a no-hitter for the Cleveland Indians in 1977, so, naturally, that eternally boneheaded franchise had to get rid of him the next season. (Actually, it was rumored that teammate Rick Manning had stolen Eckersley's wife.) Eck then won 20 games with the 1978 Red Sox, but famously lost to a Ron Guidry two-hit shutout, an NBC Saturday Game of the Week that turned out to be Game 3 of the Boston Massacre series, and that game, as much as any of the first 162 games, made the difference in setting up Game 163, the Bucky Dent Game. After 37 wins in his first two seasons with them, Eckersley tailed off a bit, and the Sox traded him to the Chicago Cubs for a former All-Star first baseman you might have heard of: Bill Buckner. Not a good deal in Boston history.

Eck reached the Playoffs with the Chicago Cubs in 1984, but drinking and injuries led to him being shipped to his hometown team, the Oakland Athletics. A's manager Tony LaRussa put him in the bullpen, and Eck went from being a formerly really good starter with flashed of greatness to being perhaps the greatest reliever the game had yet seen. The A's won 4 AL West titles in 5 seasons from 1988 to 1992, including 3 straight Pennants and the 1989 World Championship. LaRussa brought Eck to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1996, and he helped them get to within one win of a Pennant.

Eck and John Smoltz are the only pitchers ever to have a season of at least 20 wins and a season of at least 50 saves. If there's ever been a better reliever than the Eck, it is Mariano Rivera. A member of the Hall of Fame, his Number 43 has been retired by the A's, and the Red Sox, who brought him back for one last season in 1998, have elected him to their team Hall of Fame. With 197 wins and 390 saves, Dennis Eckersley had a hand in 593 victories by his teams -- by comparison, with 511 wins and 17 saves, Cy Young had a hand in 528. However, Eck also coined the phrase "walkoff homer," after giving one up to Kirk Gibson in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.


October 3, 1964, 35 years ago: This has nothing to do with baseball, but it is sports-related and worth mentioning. The Anchor Bar in Buffalo, a popular watering hole for fans of the American Football League's Buffalo Bills due to its walking distance to War Memorial Stadium (the stand-in for Knights Field in the film version of The Natural), invents "Buffalo wings."

Holy George Carlin, Batman! Buffaloes don't have wings! (Never mind, Robin, old chum: Have some chicken fingers.)

Teressa Bellissimo, co-founder of the bar with her husband Frank, is credited with the creation of the dish. Her son, Dominic, was tending bar, and a group of his friends came in, having watched the Bills beat the Oakland Raiders, 23-20 at "the Old Rockpile," en route to winning the first of back-to-back AFL Championships. He asked his mother to make something for them.

Before this, wings were usually not a particularly popular part of the chicken, usually cast aside and used to make chicken soup. Teressa deep-fried some wings and covered them in a hot sauce and a margarine-based sauce. This became popular and made "Buffalo-style chicken wings" one of America's signature foods. Chicken wings, Buffalo-style and otherwise, have become a staple of "pub food" in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The Bills moved out to what's now called Ralph Wilson Stadium, in the suburb of Orchard Park, in 1973, and War Memorial Stadium was torn down in 1988, with baseball's Triple-A Buffalo Bisons moving to the downtown stadium now known as Dunn Tire Park at that time. But the Anchor Bar remains open, a Western New York institution.

I've visited Buffalo and the Anchor Bar, but since I can't handle spicy food, I didn't try the wings. But they make a mean Monte Cristo sandwich, and while Buffalo isn't exactly a garden spot these days, in fact it's downright depressing in spots, if you should ever find yourself there, I highly recommend the Anchor Bar. It's the kind of place the title gin joint in Cheers only pretended to be.

October 3, 1966: Darrin Fletcher is born. The son of Tom Fletcher, whose big-league career consisted of one game as a pitcher with the Tigers in 1962, he was a star catcher for both Canadian teams, making the All-Star team with the Montreal Expos in 1994, helping them to baseball's best record before the Strike of '94 hit; and batting .320 with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2000. He's now a broadcaster for the Jays.

October 3, 1971: Wil Cordero is born. A shortstop, he played with Fletcher on the '94 Expos, making the All-Star team.

October 3, 1976: The Detroit Tigers defeat the Milwaukee Brewers, 5-2 at Milwaukee County Stadium. Only 6,858 people come out for the last game of the regular season between the 5th- and 6th-place teams in the American League East. Even they didn’t seem to think there would be anything significant about this game.

Well, there was: The Brewers’ designated hitter, a 42-year-old man from Mobile, Alabama, went 1-for-3 with a run batted in, before being removed for pinch-runner Jim Gantner. It was the 2,297th RBI of his career, and, to this day, no one has more. The hit was the 3,771st of his career, and, to this day, only two players have more. And, while he hasn’t hit a home run since July 20, off Dick Drago, he has 755 home runs, and, to this day, no one has more – not honestly, anyway. The DH will retire in the off-season.

His name is Henry Aaron, and this is his last game, in the ballpark where he first reached the majors 22 years earlier with the Milwaukee Braves. The Braves and Brewers will both retire his Number 44.

October 3, 1986: Vince DiMaggio dies at age 84. The oldest of nine siblings, and the first of three brothers to reach the major leagues, he was an All-Star outfielder for the Boston Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates, but not as good as his brothers Joe and Dom.

October 3, 2004: Former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher John Cerutti, by this point a broadcaster for them, dies of a heart attack at age 44. He was the winning pitcher in the first game at Toronto's SkyDome/Rogers Centre in 1989.

Also dying on this day, at age 77, was actress Janet Leigh, who had a baseball connection, as one of the stars of the original 1951 version of Angels In the Outfield. If you've ever seen her daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis (Leigh was married to actor Tony Curtis at the time), all I can say is, Jamie Lee really, really took after her mama.

Although Janet's best known for playing Marion Crane, the shower-scene victim in Psycho, check her out in Scaramouche, a 1952 period piece set in the lead-up to the French Revolution. Not only is she in full color, but let's just say the period's gowns are done a big favor by her presence within.

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