Sunday, October 4, 2009

October 4 is Johnny Podres Day: Brooklyn Triumphant

The Brooklyn team that was sometimes, and eventually officially, known as the Dodgers won a postseason series against the Boston Red Stockings, Champions of the American Association (and not to be confused with either the team later to be known as the Boston Braves or that known as the Boston Red Sox), in 1890. In 1899 and 1900, the "Superbas" finished first in the National League. This made them, de-facto, three-time World Champions of baseball. So they had been World Champions.

But once the World Series began in 1903, they found it frustrating:

1916: Lost to the Boston Red Sox, thanks to some superb pitching by a 21-year-old Boston lefthander named George Herman Ruth.

1920: Lost to the Cleveland Indians, victims of the first grand slam in World Series history (Elmer Smith), the first home run by a pitcher in World Series history (Jim Bagby Sr., whose son would also work his way into baseball history as a Cleveland pitcher), and what remains the only triple play in World Series history (Bill Wambsganss -- unassisted).

Then a long period filled with frustration, misery and clownishness, when they became known as "The Daffiness Boys" and, in the Brooklynese dialect, "Dem Bums." Until, finally...

1941: Lost to the New York Yankees. More on that tomorrow.

1942: Won 104 games, still a record for the Dodger franchise, but lost the Pennant to the St. Louis Cardinals by two games.

1946: Finished in a tie for the Pennant with the Cardinals, but lost a best-2-out-of-3 Playoff with them, largely thanks to the pitching of Harry Brecheen (which worked out very well for the Cardinals) and Ralph Branca (which didn't work out at all for the Dodgers -- foreshadowing).

1947: Lost the World Series to the Yankees in 7 games, in what might have been the best World Series ever.

1949: Lost the World Series to the Yankees in 5 games.

1950: Lost the National League Pennant to the Philadelphia Phillies, decided on the last day of the season by an extra-inning home run by Dick Sisler.

1951: Blew a 13-game lead on August 11, and lost the Pennant to the New York Giants on the Bobby Thomson "Shot Heard 'Round the World."

1952: Lost the World Series to the Yankees in 7 games. This one is also a contender for the honor of "Best World Series Ever."

1953: Lost the World Series to the Yankees in 6 games.

So, going into the 1955 season, the Dodgers were 0-7 in World Series play, including 5 losses to the hated Yankees. (It seems strange for me to type that, but Dodger fans did hate the Yankees, almost as much as they hated the Giants.) And if you take away the war years of 1943, '44 and '45, when their team, as much as the rest, was drained by the draft and enlistments, in the preceding 11 seasons (1941, '42, '46, '47, '48, '49, '50, '51, '52, '53, '54), they'd had 9 near-misses: 5 in the World Series, 2 Pennants lost on the final day of the regular season, and 2 Pennants lost in Playoffs.

I've looked it up: Jim Mora Sr. grew up in Southern California, but before the Dodgers got there. I'm not sure if he had a favorite baseball team. But if he had one, and it was the Dodgers, I'm sure he would have agreed with his later self: "Playoffs? Don't talk about Playoffs! You kidding me? Playoffs?"

But in 1955, it all seemed to come together. True, the Dodgers had traded away two of the beloved players who would later be known as "The Boys of Summer": Pitcher Elwyn "Preacher" Roe and third baseman Billy Cox. The team was in transition: Jackie Robinson was still a factor, but his replacements had arrived in Jim "Junior" Gilliam and Don Zimmer. Branca had retired, but the Dodgers still had Don Newcombe and Carl Erskine, and they were joined by a hotshot lefty named Johnny Podres.

Newcombe had a sensational year: Not only did he go 20-5, but he hit 7 home runs, and was often used as a pinch-hitter. A player who won at least 20 games as a pitcher while hitting 7 home runs in the same season? Aside from Newcombe, the only players I can find who did it were Wes Ferrell, who did it with the 1931 Indians and the '35 Red Sox; and Don Drysdale, with the '65 Dodgers. (Nope, Babe Ruth never did it: He won at least 20 in 1916 and '17, but hit just 3 and 2 home runs in those seasons.)

The Dodgers won their first 13 games of the '55 season, and finished 13 games ahead of the preseason favorites, the Milwaukee Braves. But the Yankees took the first two games of the World Series, despite Robinson's steal of home plate in Game 1. But the Dodgers took the next three at Ebbets Field. Then the Yankees tied it up. In fact, the home team won each of the first 6 home games.

October 4, 1955. Game 7 of the World Series. Yankee Stadium. The Boys of Summer were getting old. The younger Dodgers didn't quite seem ready. The team was in transition, and it did seem like it had been a seamless one; but for veterans like shortstop Pee Wee Reese, first baseman Gil Hodges, center fielder Duke Snider and catcher Roy Campanella -- along with Robinson, all but Hodges are in the Hall of Fame and he damn well should be -- it was now or never.

Podres was the choice of manager Walter Alston, having won Game 3. Yankee manager Casey Stengel, with ace Whitey Ford having pitched brilliantly in Game 6, had to go with Tommy Byrne, a lefty who was occasionally wild, but had come up big for Stengel in several big games.

The Dodgers scored a run in the 4th and another in the 6, to take a 2-0 lead. But the Yankees got two men on in the bottom of the 6th. And Yogi Berra, as much a "Mr. October" as the Yankees have ever had, was coming up. Yogi had delighted in hitting Series homers off the Dodgers, and would again. To hell with the lefty-on-lefty matchup: Yogi had no fear. And, despite usually being a pull hitter, Yogi hooked the ball down the left-field line, into the corner.

Left field had long been a troublesome position for the Dodgers. Gene Hermanski. Cal Abrams. George "Shotgun" Shuba. Andy Pafko had played it well, but for whatever reason they got rid of him. Now Zimmer was the usual left fielder, though he was a natural infielder. But Alston had pinch-hit Gilliam for Zimmer, and put Gilliam in at second, replacing the righty-throwing Zimmer in left with lefty-throwing Sandy Amoros, a Cuban whose English was halting but whose play, on this day, changed baseball history.

A righthanded fielder, like Zimmer, never could have caught this ball, no matter how fast he was. But Amoros was fast and lefthanded, and he stuck out his right hand and caught the ball. Then he wheeled it back to the infield. Reese relayed it to Hodges, and Gil McDougald was unable to get back to first in time. Double play end of threat.

Doris Kearns was a 12-year-old girl living in Rockville Centre, Long Island at the time. Years later, award-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin would cite Amoros' robbery of Berra and the ensuing rally-killing double play as a sign that the Dodgers would win. "There's always these omens in baseball," she said. Translation: If the Dodgers could get Yogi out in a key situation, then that was it, the Yankees would not threaten again.

Bottom of the 9th. Two out. Podres has pitched a stomach-churning game: Eight hits, but no runs. The last batter is Elston Howard. Six months earlier, Howard had become the first black man to play in a regular-season game for the Yankees, and was now the left fielder and Yogi's backup at catcher. By 1959, they had switched positions, and Ellie would become one of the game's best catchers. In 1955, he was a 26-year-old "rookie," having played in the Negro Leagues for a while.

Howard grounded to short. It was so appropriate that it went to Harold Henry Reese, the Dodgers' Captain and senior player. Pee Wee threw it to Gil Hodges, and Hodges, perhaps the best-fielding first baseman of his era, had to trap it on the ground to keep it from being an error and bringing the tying run to the plate. But he got it.

Ballgame over. World Series over. With Red Barber having been chased out of Brooklyn by team owner Walter O'Malley, it was Vin Scully who got to make the announcement over the airwaves: "Ladies and gentleman, the Brooklyn Dodgers are the World Champions of baseball."

It had been 55 years -- or 52 years if you count only from the first World Series forward. The 0-for-7, and 0-for-5 against the Yankees, no longer mattered.

“Please don’t interrupt,” Shirley Povich wrote for the next day's Washington Post, “because you haven’t heard this one before: The Brooklyn Dodgers are World Champions of baseball.” (Povich wrote for the Post from 1924, when Walter Johnson finally pitched them to the World Series, until his death in 1998. His son is the TV journalist Maury Povich.)

And they did it at Yankee Stadium, no less. They never clinched a World Championship at Ebbets Field -- although the Yankees had, in '41, '49 and '52, and would again in '56. Not until '63 would the Dodger franchise clinch a World Series win on their home field.

The party in Brooklyn was the biggest since V-J Day ended World War II 10 years earlier. Scully told the story: "When we were riding through Manhattan, it was fall. Football was in the air. We came out the other end of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, and it was New Orleans chaos!"

No more "Wait 'Til Next Year." This was Next Year. The next day's New York Daily News had the famous headline, "WHO'S A BUM!" Willard Mullin, who had drawn the "Dodger Bum" cartoon character, drew him again, a big nearly-toothless smile, for that front page, consisting only of that headline and that drawing.

Two personnel notes should be made. One is that Mickey Mantle was injured and unable to play in Game 7 for the Yankees. Does that mean the one and only World Series won by the Brooklyn Dodgers should have an asterisk?

No. There's no guarantee that Mickey would have made the difference, even though he had hit the Dodgers hard in the '52 and '53 Series, and would again in '56. Although he was one of the true Mr. Octobers, he didn't always have a good Series, and in fact went only 2-for-10 in the 3 Series games he did get into in '55, even if one of those hits was a homer off the same Johnny Podres in Game 3.

The other is that Jackie Robinson was not put into the lineup in Game 7. The noblest character in the history of baseball was deemed unworthy of this moment by his manager. Alston was not a Jackie Robinson fan. Neither was owner O'Malley. But on the highlight film, you can see Number 42 running onto the field. After all he'd been through, at 36 he still had enough energy to be one of the first men into the celebratory pile, if not enough energy to persuade his manager to put him into the lineup. But can we really argue with the decision? After all, it worked.

Of the 1955 World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers, the following eight players who got into at least one game of that World Series are still alive: Snider, Zimmer, Shuba, and pitchers Newcombe, Erskine, Billy Loes, Roger Craig and Ed Roebuck. Two other pitchers who did not get onto the World Series roster, but did pitch for the Dodgers that season, and who are still alive, would go on to make their marks on baseball history after the Dodgers left Brooklyn: Sandy Koufax and Tom Lasorda.

Octber 4, 1955, 3:43 PM Brooklyn Standard Time. Dem Bums had finally dooed it.

Two years later, it would all be over. And only one man had imagined such a blasphemy. Unfortunately, the blasphemer was the caretaker of the faith, Walter Francis O'Malley.


October 4, 1880: Damon Runyon is born. He became one of America’s greatest writers, and one of the few to make it out of sportswriting to be honored in "mainstream" writing. His tales of Jazz Age New York made him a legend, and were adapted for the Broadway stage and later Hollywood in Guys and Dolls. He was once asked why stopped writing about Babe Ruth. His answer was that people stopped believing that what he was writing was true, even though it was.

His son Ring Lardner Jr. became a Hollywood screenwriter, blacklisted as one of the "Hollywood Ten" before winning an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for the film version of M*A*S*H. His son John Lardner also became a great sportswriter.

For a long time, Runyon's on 2nd Avenue, named in his memory, was one of New York's premier watering holes for sports fans, and is often regarded as one of the original sports bars, though its owners deplored that term. It's out of business now, but a different set of owners runs two Runyon's restaurants in Long Island's Nassau County, in East Meadow and Seaford.

October 4, 1910: Frank Crosetti is born. As a Yankee shortstop in the 1930s, he was a key member of 6 World Championship teams. As Yankee third base coach in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he was a member of 9 more. That gave him 15 World Series rings, which may be a record.

October 4, 1944: Tony LaRussa born. A mediocre player, he managed the Chicago White Sox into the postseason in 1983 (their first trip in 24 years), the Oakland Athletics in 1988, ’89, ’90 and ’92; and the St. Louis Cardinals in 1996, 2000, ’02, ’04, ’06 and again in ’09. He won Pennants with the A’s in ’88, ’89 and ’90, and with the Cards in ’04 and ’06, with the ’09 postseason yet to come.

Despite a lot of talk about LaRussa as a "genius," it rang rather hollow for a long time, as his only World Series win was in the earthquake-interrupted 1989 season. After all, how much of a genius can you be if you lose a World Series to the Red Sox? (As LaRussa did in 2004). However, by winning it all with the '06 Cards, not only did LaRussa make his career look a lot better, probably certifying his status as a future Hall-of-Famer, but he joined Sparky Anderson as one of only two men ever to manage World Series winners from both leagues.

On the same day that LaRussa was born, Al Smith died. The former Governor of New York (1919-21 and again 1923-29) and 1928 Democratic Presidential nominee threw out the first ball at the first game at Yankee Stadium on April 18, 1923.

October 4, 1946: Susan Abigail Tomalin is born in New York. She grew up in Edison, New Jersey, Edison High Class of '64. She became an actress, and married actor Chris Sarandon, taking the name Susan Sarandon, keeping the name after they split up.

She starred in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Atlantic City, The Great Waldo Pepper and The Hunger, but she didn’t hit mainstream audiences until she appeared in a baseball-themed movie, Bull Durham, in 1988. A play on the term for a groupie, "Baseball Annie," she played lusty college professor Annie Savoy, a fan of the minor-league Durham Bulls:

"I believe in the church of baseball. I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan.

"I know things. For instance, there's 108 beads in a Catholic rosary, and there's 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me.

"I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring, which makes it like sex."

There's no guilt in baseball? In real life, Sarandon roots for the New York Mets. And also for the NHL’s New York Rangers. As does her longtime partner, Tim Robbins, who she met on the set of Bull Durham, where he played wild (in more ways than one) young pitcher Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh. They both root for the Mets and Rangers. Well, nobody's perfect, but I don't care how good Susan looks at age 63: Being a Met and Ranger fan is double anti-Viagra for me.

"There's never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn't have the best year of his career. Making love is like hitting a baseball: You just gotta relax and concentrate."

Relax and concentrate? Isn't that contradictory? Annie, didn't you ever listen to Yogi Berra? "How can you think and hit at the same time?" No wonder Annie was pushing 40 and still in Class A ball!

"Besides, I'd never sleep with a player hitting under .250. Not unless he had a lot of RBIs and was a great glove man up the middle. You see, there's a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds.

"Sometimes when I get a ballplayer alone, I'll just read Emily Dickenson or Walt Whitman to him. And the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen. Of course, a guy'll listen to anything if he thinks it's foreplay.

"I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe -- and pretty. 'Course, what I give them lasts a lifetime. What they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball. I mean, who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God's sake!

"It's a long season, and you gotta trust it. I've tried them all, I really have. And, the only church that feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the church of baseball."

In 2008, Sports Illustrated writer Austin Murphy posted a brief "sequel" to Bull Durham on, imagining what happened to Annie, Nuke, and Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis in the intervening 20 years. But, apparently, Costner and original film director Ron Shelton have a different idea.

Sarandon's daughter, Eva Amurri, is now an actress. Her father is Italian film director Franco Amurri. Although Sarandon and Robbins have never married, they've been together for 22 years, longer than a lot of Hollywood marriages, and have sons Jack and Miles. They've been activists for opposition to the Iraq War, hunger relief, gay rights, animal rights, and freedom of expression.

Sarandon has since starred in Thelma & Louise, Lorenzo's Oil, The Client, The Banger Sisters, Igby Goes Down, The Stepmom, and the soon-to-be released film version of The Lovely Bones. She won an Academy Award for portraying Sister Helen Prejean, a real-life nun and anti-death penalty activist, in Dead Man Walking.

Wait a minute, you're thinking, Susan Sarandon played a nun? And got an Oscar for it? Wow, she must really be a great actress! I've often joked that if Susan Sarandon can play a nun and get away with it, then Harvey Fierstein – short, lumpy, Jewish, gay and gravelly-voiced – can play JFK!

At 63, she shows no sign of slowing down, either as an actress or as a liberal activist, and I'm certainly not going to stop her. And, yes, she still looks great. Now, if she can just change her favorite sports teams...


October 4, 1948: In a one-game playoff for the AL pennant at Fenway Park‚ the Cleveland Indians beat the Boston Red Sox 8-3, behind 30-year-old rookie knuckleballer Gene Bearden, who wins his 20th game. It was the year of a lifetime for Bearden: He had never been that good before, and he never would be again.

Red Sox manager Joe McCarthy, who had won so much with the Yankees, ignores the well-rested rotation pitchers Ellis Kinder and Mel Parnell to go with journeyman Denny Galehouse, who was 8-7. It wasn’t a totally crazy pick: Galehouse had helped the St. Louis Browns win the 1944 Pennant. 

With the score 1-1 in the 4th‚ Ken Keltner hits a 3-run home run over the left-field fence. Indians shortstop-manager Lou Boudreau gets 4 hits‚ including a pair of homers‚ and finishes the year with just 9 strikeouts.

That same day, in St. Louis‚ Taylor Spink‚ publisher of The Sporting News, writes in a Baltimore newspaper that Baltimore will have an AL team within two years: "You can put a clothespin in this: Baltimore will be in the American League‚ if not next year‚ then surely in 1950."

He turned out to be off by 4 years. It was his hometown Browns who became the new major-league version of the Baltimore Orioles, following previous major- and minor-league teams with those names. Spink and the NL's Cardinals were tight, and he didn’t particularly care whether the Browns moved.

October 4, 1960: Joe Boever is born. The relief pitcher reached the World Series as a rookie with the 1985 Cardinals, but had a bit of competitive misfortune after that: He pitched for the Braves, Phillies and Astros, leaving each before they reached postseason play; and the A's after they stopped reaching the postseason.

October 4, 1965: Pope Paul VI delivers the first Papal Mass in the Western Hemisphere, at Yankee Stadium. "No more war, never again war," He says. "Peace, it is peace that must guide the destinies of people and of all mankind."

The New York branch of the Knights of Columbus donates a plaque in honor of the event, which is hung on The Stadium's outfield wall. It was moved to the renovated Stadium's Monument Park in 1976, and was later joined by those commemorating the Masses delivered by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The Plaques are now in the new Stadium’s Monument Park.

Phillies executive Paul Owens was believed by those who knew him to look like Paul VI, and was thus nicknamed "Pope."

October 4, 1975: Joan Whitney Payson, the only majority owner the New York Mets have ever known dies at age 72, just six days after the death of original Met manager Casey Stengel. A former stockholder of the New York Giants, she and M. Donald Grant were the only ones to vote against the move to San Francisco. When the new expansion franchise for New York became available, she became the first woman ever to buy a major league sports franchise, rather than inheriting it from her father or husband. She appointed Grant to chair the team’s board of directors.

Upon her death, control of the Mets passed to her husband, Charles Shipman Payson. He was not a baseball fan, and he passed control to their daughter, Lorinda de Roulet. She was not much of a baseball fan, either, and Grant run it. He ran it, all right, into the ground. Finally, with attendance so low that Shea Stadium was nicknamed Grant’s Tomb, Charles fired Grant, and eventually sold the Mets to Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday.

In 2003, original Met broadcaster Bob Murphy, dying of cancer (though we didn't know that at the time), retired. There was a big ceremony at Shea on the evening of the season's home finale, and lots of dignitaries were on hand, including Met legends like Tom Seaver and Keith Hernandez. Only 2 people got booed: Mayor Mike Bloomberg (good) and Mrs. de Roulet. She had this look on her face, as if to say, "What did I do?" You let the Met team of 1969-73 be demolished, Linda. After nearly 30 years, she still didn’t get it.

October 4, 1978: Kyle Lohse is born. His pitching helped the Minnesota Twins reach the Playoffs in 2002, '03 and '04, and the Phillies to do so in '07. He now pitches for the Cardinals, and is thus in the postseason again.

October 4, 1980: Mike Schmidt hits a 2-run home run in the top of the 11th inning, giving the Phillies a 6-4 win over the Montreal Expos‚ clinching the NL East title for the Phillies. It is the Phils' 4th Division Title in 5 years, but they still have not won a Pennant since 1950. That will soon change.
The home run is Schmidt's 48th of the season‚ breaking Eddie Matthews' single-season record for third basemen set in 1953. Jimmie Foxx’s 58 homers for the 1932 Athletics remains the city record, although Schmidt’s 48 will stand as the Phillies’ record until 2006, when Ryan Howard surpasses Schmidt and ties Foxx.

October 4, 1981: Fred Lindstrom dies at age 75. A Hall of Fame 3rd baseman for the New York Giants, he had a .311 lifetime batting average. Unfortunately, he is best remembered for something that wasn't his fault. In the bottom of the 12th inning of Game 7 of the 1924 World Series, the rookie Lindstrom went to field a grounder hit by Earl McNeely of the Washington Senators, but the ball hit a pebble and soared over his head, allowing the Series-winning run to score. For years, Lindstrom was ripped as the "goat" of the Series.

This was unfair, as the Giants had plenty of chances to win, and the pebble incident could have happened to anyone; he hadn’t botched the play. His son Chuck Lindstrom played a few games for the White Sox in 1958.

October 4, 1982: Anthony Keith Gwynn Jr. is born. Like his Hall of Fame father was, he is an outfielder for the San Diego Padres, wearing Number 18 compared to his father's retired Number 19. Unlike his father, he has not spent his entire career with the Padres: The Milwaukee Brewers drafted him, and he helped them reach the Playoffs in 2008, the first time they'd done so since… October 1982, when Tony Jr. was born and Tony Sr. was wrapping up his rookie season.

Although he hasn't yet become the kind of hitter his father was, Tony Jr. did bat a career-high .260 this season, and it was the first time he has approached 400 at-bats in a season. He should be a contributor to the Padres for a long time to come. Tony Jr. and his wife Alyse have a daughter, Makayla, but, as yet, there is no Anthony Keith Gwynn III.

October 4, 1983: Kurt Suzuki is born. He is a catcher for the Oakland Athletics, and had a breakout season this year, batting .274 with 15 homers and 88 RBIs, not a bad set of power numbers considering he's a catcher playing his home games in the spacious Oakland Coliseum.

October 4, 1987: Reggie Jackson, my all-time favorite athlete, now 41 years old, plays his last game, as the designated hitter for the Oakland Athletics, against the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park. His last at-bat is rather un-Reggie-like, but unlike a lot of legends, his last at-bat is a hit, a broken-bat single up the middle.

He retires with 563 career home runs, 6th on the all-time list at that point behind Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714), Willie Mays (660), Frank Robinson (586) and Harmon Killebrew (573). Since then, only Ken Griffey Jr. (currently with 625 but he may be about to retire) and Jim Thome (clean as far as I know, his total is now 564) have passed him honestly. Closing his second tour of duty with the A's, he was with them when they moved from Kansas City to Oakland in 1967-68, and is the last active Kansas City A's player.

October 4, 1995: The Yankees played their first postseason game in 14 years the night before, taking Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Seattle Mariners. Tonight, Game 2 is a back-and-forth affair that features two home runs by Mariners star Ken Griffey Jr. But homers by Ruben Sierra, Don Mattingly (his first in postseason play) and Paul O’Neill keep the game within reach for the Yankees.

It goes to the bottom of the 15th, at 1:22 AM, in a light rain, and utility player Jim Leyritz comes to the plate against Mariner reliever Tim Belcher. Although this is not the first time he said them, this is the first time I can ever remember hearing Yankee broadcaster John Sterling say the magic words: "The pitch, swung on, and driven to deep right-center, that ball is high, it is far, it is... GONE! Yankees win! The Yankees win!" Sterling hadn't yet developed the stretched-out "Theeeeeeeeeeee... Yankees win!" but who cares? It was a great moment in Yankee history.

Except… well, you'll see the "Except" on October 9.

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