Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Remembering Mickey Owen, 70 Years Later




October 5, 1941, 70 years ago today: A baseball game was played at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn that made the home fans shudder.

Arnold Malcolm Owen, better known as Mickey Owen, was a four-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.

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.”

It was Game 4 of the World Series. The Yankees led the Dodgers 2 games to 1, but trailed the Dodgers 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 first, and Owen didn’t even time 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 one more out. Even if Henrich represented the tying run and the next batter represented the winning run. Just one 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 potential winning run on 1st. But there were still two 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 his time had been stunned into silence.

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

Keller would also say that, having won their first Pennant in 21 years, and having gotten past the arch-rival New York Giants to do it -- the Giants' last Pennant had been 4 years earlier and their last World Series win 8 -- Dodger fans were talking about "taking over New York," that they were now more popular than the Giants (probably true), and that soon they would beat the Yankees and were already more popular.

Sound familiar? It was just as stupid then as it has been in recent years when coming from Met fans, the children and grandchildren of the Dodger and Giant fans of the Forties and Fifties.

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But don’t blame Owen for losing the '41 Series:

* It was Dodger manager Leo Durocher who messed up the pitching rotation that had won the Pennant -- he admitted it, a rare occasion when Leo the Lip didn't blame someone else, such as an umpire or a dirty player on the other team, and didn't try to claim credit solely for himself.

* 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, Giant pitcher and Dodger nemesis turned Dodger hero Fred Fitzsimmons, literally knocking him out of the game and the Series.

* It was Henrich who was alert enough to realize he could take first, and it was DiMaggio and Keller who followed it up with key hits.

* And, frankly, it was the Yankees. They were just the better team. Certainly, with many of the men on that '41 team having played on World Championship teams of '39, '38, some '37 and '36, a few even in '32, they were much more experienced. The Dodgers had finished 2nd in '40 and 3rd in '39, but before that the team hadn't been in a Pennant race since '24 or a World Series since '20. Only Durocher, Joe Medwick (both '34 Cardinals), Fitzsimmons ('33 and '36 Giants), Billy Herman ('32, '35 and '38 Cubs), Johnny Allen ('32 Yankees) and a washed-up Paul Waner ('27 Pirates) had appeared in a World Series before.

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Despite America's entry into World War II, Owen never went into the service. I wonder if some Dodger fans said, "Mickey Owen is such a bum, even the Army don't want him!"

I wonder if a lot of the accolades that would later come the way of Roy Campanella were due to “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 prior to the '41 Series, and most Dodger fans didn’t go on to hate him. Certainly, he escaped the scorn that was heaped on Ralph Branca after 1951. And neither one of them got the kind of treatment that Bill Buckner got from Boston fans after 1986.

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

Owen died on July 13, 2005, in his home town of Mount Vernon, Missouri. He was 89. Henrich died on December 1, 2009, as the last survivor of this game. He was also the last surviving person who had been a teammate of Lou Gehrig. Herman Franks, who later helped steal a Pennant from the Dodgers as a 1951 New York Giant, had died earlier in 2009 as the last surviving ’41 Dodger.

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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, 1910: Philadelphia Athletics manager/co-owner Connie Mack inserts his son Earle Mack behind the plate in a game against the New York Highlanders. This appears to be the first time a manager father put his player son in a game.

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-season 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. No manager would again put his son into a game until 1985, when Yogi Berra played his son Dale with the Yankees.

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October 5, 1942: The St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series over the Yankees in 5 games, taking the last 3 at Yankee Stadium after splitting the first 2 in St. Louis. It is the only World Series the Yankees will lose between 1926 and 1955. It beings a 5-season stretch in which the Cards win 4 Pennants and 3 World Championships. The year they will miss the World Series will be 1945 -- the first full season since his arrival that Stan Musial was not in Cardinal red. (He was in Navy blue instead.)

October 5, 1949: 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 first game-ending home run in the history of postseason baseball, the first October “walkoff.”

Newcombe is the only Dodger still alive who played in this game, 62 years later. Yogi Berra and Jerry Coleman are the last surviving Yankees from it.

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.

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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 first three games of this Series are all close, so the Phillies did have their chanes. And it should be noted that their second-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.

Still alive from this game, 61 years later: Berra and Coleman for the Yankees; for the Phillies, 3 reserves, Stan Lopata, Ralph "Putsy" Caballero, and Jackie Mayo, who was a defensive replacement for Sisler in the bottom of the 10th. Whitey Ford would start and win Game 4, and is still alive, but did not appear in Game 2.

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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. Three in a row has been done since, but not four, and certainly not five. The Montreal Canadiens would soon start a streak of five straight Stanley Cups, but they were unable to make it six. The Boston Celtics would later win eight 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 first 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.

Still alive from this game, 58 years later: Yankees Berra and Ford, and Dodgers Carl Erskine and Bobby Morgan. (Newcombe was in the Army for the Korean War in 1952 and '53, as Ford was in '51 and '52.)

October 5, 1957: The first World Series game in the State of Wisconsin is played. The Yankees beat the Milwaukee Braves 12-3 at Milwaukee County Stadium in Game 3.

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October 5, 1966: In the first 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 first-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.

McNally and Drabowsky, and Dodger starter Don Drysdale, have died. Still alive from this game, 45 years later: Orioles Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, John "Boog" Powell, Luis Aparicio (though better-known as a Chicago White Sock), Russ Snyder, Andy Etchebarren, future Yankee World Series hero Paul Blair, and future Met manager Davey Johnson; and Dodgers Maury Wills, Tommy Davis, Lou Johnson, Jim Lefebvre, Wes Parker, Ron Fairly, Joe Moeller, Jim Barbieri, and Fair Lawn, New Jersey native Ron Perranoski.

Future Hall-of-Fame pitchers Sandy Koufax and Jim Palmer, both still alive, would start Game 2; it would be Koufax's last, though only he and a few others knew it at the time, while Palmer was just getting started.

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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, to make matters worse, both clinch the NL West and eliminate the giants from Playoff eligibility.

Bonds will raise his total to 73*. With teammate Rich Aurilia’s 37 (as far as I know, his are legit), they set a (tainted) NL record for homers by teammates, 110. The real major league record remains 115, by Mickey Mantle (54) and Roger Maris (still the legit record of 61) in 1961.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Mickey was the best. He worked out at the gym here in Springfield, Mo for many years and I spoke to him often around the year 2000. He told me about his baseball gaffe, "If you win in baseball, people pat you on the back, tell you "Great job!" and forget you, but if you want to be remembered forever, make a mistake in the big game." He laughed.. and I realized he was long over it. His contributions to society post baseball were obviously were far more important to him. He cared about people and really did his part to make the world a better place.