Monday, October 5, 2009

Mickey Owen: Give Him a Break

Let me now say a kind word about Arnold Malcolm Owen. He was a 4-time National League All-Star as catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, was elected a County Sheriff, and ran the Mickey Owen Baseball School, and for the last 64 years of his life was decent enough to field questions about the one part of his life that everyone seems to remember.

October 5, 1941. Game 4 of the World Series. Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. I saw an interview once, with a Dodger fan, whose name I've forgotten, citing a far more important, and more traumatic, event that happened just two months later: "I was there. I remember that like I remember Pearl Harbor."

The Dodgers led the Yankees 4-3 in the top of the 9th. Two out. Reliever Hugh Casey was on the mound for the Dodgers, and Tommy Henrich came to bat for the Yankees. Casey got two strikes. Then he threw…

He said it was a curveball. Henrich also thought it was a curveball. But many observers, including the Yankees' rookie shortstop, Phil Rizzuto, thought it was a spitball.

Henrich swung and missed. Strike three. Ballgame over. Dodgers win, and the World Series is tied at 2 games apiece.

Except… Owen didn't catch the third strike. The ball tailed away from him, and he couldn't hold onto it. It rolled all the way to the screen. Henrich saw this, and ran to 1st base, and Owen didn't even have a chance to throw.

It is the most famous passed ball in baseball history, but if it was a spitball, which was and remains an illegal pitch anyway, then it should be the most famous wild pitch, and Casey rather than Owen should be faulted.

No matter. Casey only needed to get 1 more out. Even if Henrich represented the tying run and the next batter represented the winning run. Just 1 more out.

The batter was Joe DiMaggio.

Uh-oh, you don't give DiMaggio a written invitation to keep a game alive. Especially not in 1941, when he had his 56-game hitting streak and had become the most celebrated athlete in America, ahead of Ted Williams and his .406 average, ahead of football stars Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman and Don Hutson, ahead of even heavyweight champion Joe Louis.

DiMaggio singled to left. Now the tying run was on 2nd, the winning run on 1st. But there were still 2 outs. If Casey could get the next batter, it would still end with a Dodger victory.

The batter was Charlie Keller. At this point in his career, before a back injury curtailed it, he looked like he was headed to the Hall of Fame. And he did nothing to dispel that in this at-bat: He rocketed a Casey delivery off the right-field wall, and Henrich and DiMaggio scored.

Keller would later say, "When I got to second base, you could have heard a pin drop in Ebbets Field." The noisiest, most raucous ballpark of that time had been stunned into silence.

The Yankees scored 2 more runs in the inning, won 7-4, and won the World Series in the next day's Game 5.

But don't blame Owen. It was Dodger manager Leo Durocher who messed up the pitching rotation that had won the Dodgers' 1st Pennant in 21 years. It was Yankee pitcher Marius Russo who, the day before, had not only pitched brilliantly but hit a line drive off the knee of his opposite number, Fred Fitzsimmons, literally knocking him out of the game and the Series. And, frankly, the Yankees were just the better team.

This, despite a lot of talk from the Dodgers and their fans (at least, according to Keller's account, and I have no reason to doubt him) that, having overtaken the Giants as New York’s top National League team, the Dodgers were now going to beat the Yankees and "take over New York."

Such talk rarely pans out. You'll notice that, when the Mets won the Series in 1969, their fans didn't talk about "taking over New York" from the Yankees. Considering the Yanks' 1965 collapse, on the field and at the box office, it had already happened.

I wonder if a lot of the accolades that came the way of Roy Campanella were due to what became known as "Mickey Owen's Muff." That Campy might have been cheered not just for what he was, a fantastic player and a good guy, but for what he wasn't: Owen.

It's not fair to Owen. He was widely respected, and for the most part, Dodger fans didn't go on to hate him. Certainly, he escaped the scorn that was heaped on Ralph Branca. And neither one of them got the kind of treatment that Bill Buckner got from Boston fans.

Which is a good thing. Nobody deserves that. Well, maybe not nobody… But certainly not Buckner, nor Branca, nor Owen.


October 5, 1821: Henry Chadwick is born in Exeter, England. At the age of 12, his family took him across the Atlantic Ocean to Brooklyn. Eventually, the rise of baseball caught his attention and turned him away from cricket, baseball's relative and his first love.

Writing for the New York Clipper, Chadwick was said to have invented the box score (a myth since debunked), and his writings, including editing some of the earliest baseball reference books, helped make baseball what it was first identified as in 1859: "The National Pastime." He died in 1908, and when he was elected to the Hall of Fame, his plaque declared him "The Father of Baseball." He didn't invent the game, but he sure did make it our game.

October 5, 1888: James "Pud" Galvin of the Pittsburgh Pirates defeats the Washington Nationals, 5-1, and becomes the first pitcher to win 300 games in a career. His career win total eventually reached 364, including 2 no-hitters, although it should be pointed out that he retired after the 1892 season, a year before the pitching distance became standardized as 60 feet, 6 inches.

As for his potentially giggle-inducing nickname, it was said that Jim Galvin "made the hitters look like pudding."

October 5, 1889: New York wins the pennant on the final day by beating Cleveland 5-3 while Boston loses in Pittsburgh 6-1. Yet another New York edges out Boston story. Except this might be the first, the League is the National, the New York team is the Giants, and the Boston team is the Beaneaters, who would later be renamed the Braves.


October 5, 1902: Ray Kroc is born. The founder of the McDonald's empire bought the San Diego Padres in 1974, to prevent them from being moved to Washington, D.C. But on Opening Day at San Diego Stadium (later Jack Murphy Stadium and no Qualcomm Stadium), the Padres lost, playing so badly that, late in the game, Kroc grabbed the public-address microphone and apologized to the fans, saying, "This is the most stupid ballplaying I've ever seen." His honesty was refreshing.

Ten years later, in 1984, Kroc died. Only at the end of that season, with the initials RAK on their left sleeves, did the Padres win their first Pennant – the first for a San Diego team since the old Padres won the Pacific Coast League title in 1967. (They also won Pennants in 1937 – with 19-year-old San Diego native Ted Williams – 1962 and 1964.)

October 5, 1906: The Giants give Henry Mathewson, younger brother of their ace Christy Mathewson, a starting chance against the Boston Doves (the soon-to-be-Braves were then owned by a man named George Dovey), and he promptly puts his name in the record books. Henry establishes a modern NL record by walking 14 batters. He also hits one batter‚ allows just 5 hits‚ but completes the 7-1 loss.

He'll pitch another inning next year‚ but this is his only major league decision. For a long time, Christy and Henry held the record for most pitching wins by brothers, 373. Christy won all of them. They have since been surpassed by Gaylord and Jim Perry, and by Phil and Joe Niekro.

When the Perrys surpassed the record, I was watching a Met game on TV, and the trivia question was asked, Whose record did they break? The broadcaster, I think it was Bob Murphy (it definitely wasn't Lindsey Nelson or Ralph Kiner), said, "I’ll give you a hint: It's not Dizzy and Daffy Dean."

October 5, 1910: Philadelphia Athletics manager/co-owner Connie Mack inserts his son Earle behind the plate in a game against the New York Highlanders. This appears to be the 1st time a manager father put his player son in a game. It would not happen again until 1985, with Yogi and Dale Berra of the Yankees.

Earle‚ who hit .135 in 26 minor league games this year‚ responds with a single and triple while catching Eddie Plank and Jack Coombs. The Highlanders beat the A's 7-4, but it was hardly Earle's fault.

Earle will mop up in late seasons games next year and again in 1914‚ and serve for 25 years as his father's coach, before moving into the front office. His brother Connie Jr. would also play for the A's. In 1950, Earle, Connie Jr. and their other brother Roy would finally maneuver their 88-year-old father out of the day-to-day operations of the club.

October 5, 1912: The Red Sox defeat the A's 3-0 for their 105th win of the season‚ an AL record until the 1927 Yankees reach 110.

Also on this day, in their last game at Washington Park‚ the Superbas (Dodgers) lose to the Giants, 1-0. Brooklyn will open next season at Ebbets Field.

Also, the Highlanders/Yankees also play their last game at their original field‚ Hilltop Park‚ beating the Washington Senators‚ 8-6‚ on the strength of Hal Chase's 3-run homer in the 8th and another homer by Jack Lelivelt. They finish last anyway, 50-102. Next year, the team will begin sharing the Polo Grounds with the Giants.

October 5, 1916: With the Braves ahead 4-1 in the 8th inning‚ Phillies manager Pat Moran puts Billy Maharg in as a pinch hitter. Maharg grounds out, and then plays left field before returning to his real duties as chauffeur for Phils catcher Bill Killefer.

Maharg, whose real name was William Graham (spelled backwards, it became "Maharg," and I guess he didn't want to be known as Billy Graham) had also appeared in 2 innings as a replacement Detroit Tiger in 1912, as "scabs" when the Tigers went on strike to protest a punishment for star Ty Cobb. Maharg was the only one of those sub '12 Tigers to ever play in another major league game, and it was only this one. He would later be involved in the Black Sox Scandal.

October 5, 1918: Former Giants infielder Eddie Grant becomes the best-known of the three major leaguers who were killed in World War I, as he is shot in the Argonne Forest in France, as part of the search party for a unit known as the Lost Battalion. Captain Edward L. Grant, known as Harvard Eddie as a rare Ivy Leaguer to reach the majors, was just 35.

A road in The Bronx is named the Edward L. Grant Memorial Highway. On Memorial Day, May 30, 1921, a plaque was dedicated in his memory, in deep center field at the Polo Grounds. This was the first monument ever dedicated to a New York sports star. The Yankees would, of course, follow suit.

But after the Giants' last game at the Polo Grounds in 1957, the plaque was removed. In photos and film footage of Mets games in 1962 and ’63, the monument can be seen, but with no plaque. It would not be until 2000 that the plaque was found: Apparently, a New York police officer had removed it in order to protect it from the fans who stormed the field after the last Giants game, and took it to his house in nearby Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. It had been there ever since. In 2006, the San Francisco Giants erected a replica plaque outside a gate at their new ballpark.


October 5, 1921: The World Series opens at the Polo Grounds, and Game 1 is the first Series game broadcast on radio, by Pittsburgh station KDKA. Why a Pittsburgh station broadcast an all-New York game, I don't know. It was also the first World Series game ever played by the New York Yankees. They beat the Giants, 3-0.

October 5, 1939, 70 years ago today: Monte Pearson carries a no-hitter into the bottom of the 8th inning of Game 2 of the World Series, before Cincinnati Reds catcher Ernie Lombardi singles. The Yankees win, 4-0, but the first no-hitter in World Series play will have to wait. Pearson had pitched a regular-season no-hitter the year before.

October 5, 1947: In Game 6 of the World Series, Dodger left fielder Al Gionfriddo makes a spectacular catch off a Joe DiMaggio drive, against the left-field railing at Yankee Stadium, to preserve an 8-5 Dodger win and set up a Game 7. In a rare public display of emotion, DiMaggio, having seen the catch while running between 1st and 2nd, kicks the infield dirt.

Also on this day, Brian Johnson is born in Gateshead, England, near Newcastle. This makes him a "Geordie," and Geordie was also the name of his first band. He left that band in 1980 because he was asked to replace the late Bon Scott as lead singer of the Scottish/Australian band AC/DC.

Someone once said that no sound more irritates the parents of 14-year-old boys than the voice of Brian Johnson, on AC/DC songs like "You Shook Me All Night Long," "Back In Black" and "For Those About to Rock, We Salute You."

You think he has nothing to do with baseball? A lot of AC/DC songs are used at sporting events. In particular, New Jersey's own Trenton Thunder likes to use "Thunderstruck," while the Devils use "Hell's Bells" as their introduction music.

Trevor Hoffman, baseball’s all-time saves leader, also uses it as his intro music. When Hoffman came in to pitch during Game 3 of the 1998 World Series, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, already a grown man when rock and roll arrived and over 40 when AC/DC first hit it big, heard "Hell's Bells" as Hoffman came in, and said, "When they played that death march, it reminded me of the WWF, when the Undertaker comes in. That's who I thought they were bringing in!" Ah, but how did that encounter end? Stay tuned for my October 20 entry.

October 5, 1949, 60 years ago today: Game 1 of the World Series. Allie Reynolds of the Yankees and Don Newcombe of the Dodgers pitch a scoreless game, taking it to the bottom of the 9th. Tommy Henrich leads that inning off for the Yankees, and shows why Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen nicknamed him "Old Reliable." Or maybe he just liked hitting against the Dodgers. Or maybe he liked October 5 – it was, after all, the 8th anniversary of his benefit of Mickey Owen's Muff. Henrich hits a home run into the right-field stands, and the Yankees win, 1-0.

That was pretty much the Series: Despite putting together one of the best teams in franchise history, the Dodgers couldn't beat the Yankees, winning only Game 2 on a shutout by Preacher Roe. Henrich’s shot is the 1st game-ending home run in the history of postseason baseball, the first October "walkoff."

On this same day, Bill James is born. He would later be known as the author of the Bill James Baseball Abstract, beginning the serious study of baseball statistics. Later still, he would join the front office of the Boston Red Sox, where he would become a dirty bastard.


October 5, 1950: Game 2 of the World Series. An exhausted Robin Roberts somehow manages to hold the Yankees to a 1-1 tie for the Phillies, into the top of the 10th inning. But Joe DiMaggio hits a home run into the left-field stands at Shibe Park, and the Yankees win, 2-1.

The 1st 3 games of this Series are all close, so the Phillies did have their chanes. And it should be noted that their 2nd-best pitcher, behind the future Hall-of-Famer Roberts, was Curt Simmons, and he had been drafted to serve in the Korean War. But the Yankees would sweep the Series.

October 5, 1953: Game 6 of the World Series. Billy Martin singles up the middle in the bottom of the 9th, his record-tying 12th hit of the Series, driving in Hank Bauer with the winning run.

It is the Yankees' 16th World Championship, and their 5th in a row. Doing 3 in a row has been done since, but not 4, and certainly not 5. The Montreal Canadiens would soon start a streak of 5 straight Stanley Cups, but they were unable to make it 6. The Boston Celtics would later win 8 straight NBA Titles, but basketball didn't exactly get the best athletes then.

This was the last World Series, and the last Pennant in either League, won by an all-white team. The next season, the Yanks would lose the American League Pennant to the well-integrated Cleveland Indians, and the argument of, "Why integrate? We're winning with what we've got!" goes by the boards. Elston Howard becomes the 1st black man to play for the Yankees the following April, and the team wins 9 Pennants and 4 World Series in the next 10 years.

October 5, 1957: Bernard McCullough is born in Chicago. He is best remembered as a standup comedian and the star of The Bernie Mac Show. He also starred in the baseball film Mr. 3000, but it was hard to pay attention to baseball with Angela Bassett hanging around.

How good does Angela Bassett look? Let me put it this way: It appears that the secret to eternal youth is to either be Tina Turner or player her in a movie, as Bassett did in What’s Love Got to Do With It. Well, in Mr. 3000, both Bernie’s character and Angela’s found out that love has quite a bit to do with it.

Sadly, Bernie died of a rare illness about a year ago.

October 5, 1958: The Milwaukee Braves beat the Yankees, 3-0, on a two-hit shutout by Warren Spahn, going up 3 games to 1. Yankee Hank Bauer has his record 17-game World Series hitting streak stopped. Roberto Clemente, Marquis Grissom and Derek Jeter have all managed to put together a 14-game Series streak (in fact, Clemente played in 14 Series games and got at least one hit in all of them), but Bauer’s 17 remains the Series standard.

October 5, 1965: A great day for hockey, as 2 future legends are born in the Province of Quebec: Mario Lemieux in Montreal, and Patrick Roy in Quebec City.

October 5, 1966: In the 1st World Series game in Baltimore Orioles history, Polish-born reliever Moe Drabowsky has to bail out Dave McNally, and sets a Series record with 11 strikeouts in relief. Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson both hit 1st-inning home runs, and the Orioles beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, 5-2. They would go on to sweep, with McNally redeeming himself by winning the clinching game.

October 5, 1967: Jim Lonborg pitches the 4th one-hitter in World Series history, and Carl Yastrzemski hits 2 home runs, as the Red Sox win Game 2 of the Series, 5-0 over the St. Louis Cardinals.

October 5, 1985: Doyle Alexander, not once but twice cast off by the Yankees, pitches the Toronto Blue Jays to victory, 5-1, on the next-to-last day of the regular season, to eliminate the Yankees and clinch the AL East title. I was 15 going on 16, and I really, really thought the '85 Yanks were something special. I guess not.

October 5, 2000: In the first-ever postseason series between the Mets and the team they (sort of) replaced as New York's National League team, the Mets even their series with the Giants at one game apiece by winning a 10-inning thriller‚ 5-4.

Jay Payton's single drives home the winning run in the top of the 10th, after yet another postseason screwup by reliever Armando Benitez, who gave up a game-tying pinch-hit 3-run homer to J.T. Snow in the bottom of the 9th. Benitez ended up with the win in relief. Maybe the Mets deserved credit for the win, but Benitez did not.

October 5, 2001: At what was then known as Pacific Bell Park (now AT&T Park), Barry Bonds hits his 71st and 72nd home runs of the season, to set a new major league single-season record… which we now know is bogus. The first-inning homer, his 71st, is off Dodger pitcher Chan Ho Park. But the Dodgers win the game, 11-10, and clinch the NL West. Bonds will raise his total to 73*. With teammate Rich Aurilia's 37 (as far as I know, they're legit), they set a (tainted) NL record for homers by teammates, 110. The major league record remains 115, by Mickey Mantle (54) and Roger Maris (still the legit record of 61) in 1961.

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