Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Happy Thomson-Winfield Day

October 3, 1951: Bobby Thomson hits a home run that wins the National League Pennant for the New York Giants, 5-4 over the Brooklyn Dodgers, at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan.

“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.”
-- Red Smith, in the next day’s New York Herald Tribune. If Red wasn’t the greatest sportswriter ever, this paragraph certainly shows why he’s a contender for the title.

Thomson died on August 16, 2010, at age 86. The home run ended the most amazing Pennant race that New York City, perhaps any city, has ever seen.

The pitcher who gave up the home run, Ralph Branca, is now 87, and recently wrote a memoir, A Moment In Time. In spite of the scorn he’s received for giving up that home run, he admits he’s had a pretty good life.

And, besides, he’s remembered. Larry Jansen, the Giant pitcher who relieved Sal Maglie in that game, ended up as the winning pitcher in a game that’s on the short list for the title of “greatest game ever played,” would have won the NL Cy Young Award had it existed then, and was a member of the Giants’ 1954 World Champions as well; yet when he died in 2009, I didn’t hear of it immediately. Jansen was forgotten; Branca is remembered. Alternately a blessing and a curse.

For this worldwide coverage, it was called “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” after the description in poetry by Ralph Waldo Emerson of the musket shot that began the War of the American Revolution on the Lexington Green, outside Boston, in 1775.

Round the world? It was beamed around the U.S.A. in the first nationally-televised (NBC) broadcast of any non-World Series game, and the Armed Forces Radio Network played it for every U.S. military base.

Including London.  The writer George Plimpton claimed to have heard it while studying at England’s Cambridge University.

Including Korea, where a war was raging that would soon claim as draftees Willie Mays, the Giant batter who was on deck, and Don Newcombe, the Dodger pitcher who’d nearly won the game before being relieved.  (Yankees Whitey Ford, Jerry Coleman and Billy Martin would also serve in that war.) This was reflected in an episode of the TV show M*A*S*H.

There are 6 men who played in that game, 62 years ago today, who are still alive: Giants Willie Mays, Monte Irvin and Alvin Dark; and Dodgers Branca, Newcombe (whom Branca relieved) and Andy Pafko (over whose head in left field the ball traveled). Giant pitcher George Spencer did not appear in the game, but was on their roster and is also still alive; so are Dodger reserves Carl Erskine, Rocky Bridges, Tommy Brown and Wayne Terwilliger.

UPDATE: Andy Pafko died on October 8, 2013.  He was 92.  That leaves just Mays, Irvin, Dark, Branca and Newcombe alive among those who played in the game.


The same day Thomson hit that homer, 1,200 miles to the northwest, David Mark Winfield was 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, Josh Phelps, Michael Dunn, Pedro Feliciano, and the second, unwanted coming of Javier Vazquez.

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, Ian Kennedy, the execrable Vazquez, Rafael Soriano, current wearer and future Hall-of-Famer Ichiro Suzuki, and a man who should one day join Big Dave and Ichiro 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 held by George Steinbrenner’s children, after all this time?


October 3, 1900: The Dodgers, then known as the Superbas, beat the Boston Braves at the South End Grounds to win the NL Pennant — and, with the setup then in place, the unofficial World Championship of baseball. They would not win another for 55 years, but, then, it would be official.

The last surviving player from that Dodger team was pitcher Harry Howell, soon to be an original 1903 New York Highlander (Yankee), who lived on until 1956, aged 79.

October 3, 1947: Floyd “Bill” Bevens takes a no-hitter into the bottom of the 9th in Game 4 of the World Series. He gets to within 1 out of the first World Series (and thus first postseason) no-hitter ever. But 10 walks put him in danger, and Harry “Cookie” Lavagetto pinch-hits a double-off the right-field wall at Ebbets Field, and the Dodgers win, 3-2.

Two days later, Al Gionfriddo will rob Joe DiMaggio with an amazing catch to preserve the Dodgers’ lead in Game 6, but the Yankees win the Series in Game 7. By a weird twist of fate, neither Bevens, nor Lavagetto, nor Gionfriddo will ever play again.

Who is still alive from this Series, 66 years later? For the Yankees, just Yogi Berra and Bobby Brown. For the Dodgers, no one: Duke Snider was the last survivor, and Gene Hermanski was the last survivor of the Dodgers who actually played in this Series.

October 3, 1962: The Giants beat the Dodgers in a Playoff for the Pennant again — this time on the West Coast.  At Dodger Stadium, San Francisco wins the rubber game of the Playoffs beating Los Angeles, 6-4 as Don Larsen (yes, the hero of 1956 bedevils the Dodgers again) gets the win in relief of Juan Marichal.

Thanks to the extended season, Maury Wills sets a major league record for the most games played in a season, appearing in 165 games.  This was the year he stole 104 bases, setting a new major league record.

October 3, 1968: Mickey Lolich picks a great time to hit what turns out to be the only home run of his career.  The Detroit Tiger pitcher hits it off Nelson Briles, to aid his own cause, as the Tigers beat the St. Louis Cardinals 8-1 at Busch Stadium, and tie up the World Series at 1 game apiece.

October 3, 1972: Roberto Clemente plays in his 2,433rd career game, breaking the Pittsburgh Pirates team record set by Honus Wagner.  In the 9th inning, he replaces left fielder Gene Clines, as Vic Davalillo moves from right field to left field to open up Clemente’s usual position, and doesn’t come to bat.  The Pirates win, 6-2.  But it turns out to be Clemente’s last regular season game.

October 3, 1974: The Cleveland Indians hire Frank Robinson, currently playing for them, as the first black manager in Major League Baseball.  It has been almost 2 years since a dying Jackie Robinson, making his final appearance at a ballpark during the World Series, announced to the crowd he wanted to see a black manager.  Frank, no relation, said his only regret was that Jackie didn’t live to see the day.

Indians manager Ted Bonda knew that Frank had already been the Captain of the Baltimore Orioles teams that had won 4 Pennants between 1966 and 1971, and that he had already been considered for 2 different managerial posts.  Bonda knew that if he didn’t hire Frank, somebody else might.  He knew that, racial history aside, Frank was qualified.  So he did the right thing for history, as well as the right thing for his team.

Actually, Frank wasn’t nearly as good a manager as he was a player.  Only once, in a managerial career that lasted from 1975 to 2006, did he take a team into a genuine Pennant race, the 1989 Orioles.  But he still deserved the chance.  He was also the first black manager in the NL, hired by the Giants in 1981.

October 3, 1976: Hank Aaron plays his last game.  In his last at-bat, playing for the Milwaukee Brewers at County Stadium, where he had previously played for the Milwaukee Braves, he singles off Dave Roberts of the Tigers — the same pitcher who, for the Houston Astros, had given up his 712th and 713th career home runs.  Hank retires with 755, but the Brewers lose, 5-2.

On the same day, On the last day of the season, the Kansas City Royals’ George Brett and Hal McRae and the Minnesota Twins’ Rod Carew are separated by .001 for the AL batting title. Brett, who goes 3-for-4, edges his Royals teammate (.333 vs .332) for the crown with the the deciding hit, an inside-the-park home run.  Outfielder Steve Brye misplayed a line drive, leading McRae to believe the lack of effort was intentional and racist.

October 3, 1982: On the last day of the season, the Brewers celebrate their AL East title-clinching victory on the field at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, after beating the Orioles, 10-2, to edge Baltimore by 1 game in the final standings.  The O’s had been 4 games down with 5 to play, and had won 4 straight to forge a tie after 161 games, but the Brewers did their jobs.  This turns out to be the only Division title the Brew Crew ever won in the AL.  (They have since won one in the NL.)

The 51,642 hometown fans, although disappointed by the results, stay after the game and give retiring manager Earl Weaver a heartfelt, tremendous 45-minute series of ovations for his 15-year tenure as the Birds’ skipper.  He would, however, return in 1985 and ’86, but it would not be the same.

October 3, 1990: George Brett strikes again.  He pinch-hits a 5th-inning RBI sacrifice fly, and then singles in the 7th inning, to end the season winning the batting title with a .329 batting average.  Having already won in ’76 as stated earlier, and having batted .390 in 1980 to forge the highest single-full-season batting average any player has had since 1941, he is the only player to win batting crowns in three different decades.

October 3, 1993, 20 years ago: Despite winning 103 games, the Giants are eliminated from the Western Division race when the Dodgers derail their division dreams, 12-1. Catcher Mike Piazza, who will be named the league’s Rookie of the Year, hits two home runs in the game.
The Braves, who will be moved over to the NL East the next season, win 104 games to complete an amazing comeback, having been 10 games back on July 22 and 7 1/2 games back on August 22, before winning 22 of their last 27.

The Giants won 103 games and still didn’t make the postseason.  (The record is 104, for the 1942 Dodgers, as the Cardinals won 106.) Since the Wild Card began the next season (well, the one after, due to the Strike of ’94), the most games any team has won without officially making the Playoffs is 96, the 1999 Cincinnati Reds.  (They lost a play-in game with the Mets, but that is officially counted as a regular season game.)

On the same day, the Indians play their last game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, with Mel Harder, who won the first game there in 1932, throwing out a ceremonial last pitch.  No such luck for the Tribe this time, as they lose 4-0 to the Chicago White Sox.  And the last game is played at Arlington Stadium, with Nolan Ryan of the Texas Rangers and George Brett of the Royals, both retiring, exchanging the lineup cards.  Again, the visiting team spoils the fun, the Royals winning 4-1.

October 3, 1999: In the final regular-season game ever to be played at the Astrodome, Mike Hampton of the Houston Astros raises his record to a whopping 22-4 as the ‘Stros beat the Dodgers, 9-4. The victory clinches the division title as the Astros finish 1 game ahead of the Reds in the National League Central.

October 3, 2000: Against the Braves, Cardinal rookie starter Rick Ankiel sets a modern day major league record by uncorking 5 wild pitches in the 3rd inning of Game 1 of NLDS. He joins Buffalo’s Bert Cunningham, who accomplished the same feat in the 1st inning in an 1890 Players League contest.  Ankiel was a great pitching prospect, but, soon, his pitching days will be over.  He will, however, be converted into an outfielder.  Hey, it worked for the Cardinals when they did it for Stan Musial 60 years earlier.

October 3, 2001: Barry Bonds walks 3 times, breaking Babe Ruth’s major league record established in 1923 of 170 bases on balls. Astros’ reliever Nelson Cruz gives up the historic walk in the 6th, and the Giants left fielder will finish the season with 177 walks.

October 3, 2004: On the last day of the season, Blue Jays television announcer John Cerutti is found dead in his SkyDome hotel room. The death of the 44-year old Albany native, who had pitched for the Jays, is due to natural causes with foul play not being suspected.

On this same day, at the site of the franchise’s first regular season game in 1969, the Montreal Expos, who are scheduled to move to Washington, D.C. next season, play their last game in their 36-year history, losing to the Mets at Shea Stadium, 8-1.

October 3, 2012: The greatest moment in Washington Nationals “Racing Presidents” history.  After getting off to a slow start in the regular-season finale against Philadelphia, Teddy Roosevelt finally beats George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and Tom Jefferson to the finish line, winning the race for first time since it made its debut at RFK Stadium in 2006. The victory, the mascot’s first in over 500 tries, is assured when a green furry creature, who bears a striking resemblance to a phony Phillie Phanatic, waylays the other three presidential contenders in right field.

On the same day, in other dubious baseball action, Ranger center fielder Josh Hamilton’s 4th inning-error opens the floodgates that allow the A’s to erase a 5-run deficit when they score 6 times, en route to their 12-5 victory at the Oakland Coliseum.

The A’s had been 13 games out of 1st place on June 30, and 6 games out on August 25.  But their hot streak and the Rangers’ nosedive leaves the A’s as Division Champions, and puts the Rangers into the new 1-game AL Wild Card contest, against the Orioles.  This comes after the Rangers’ pathetic performance in the 2010 World Series and their embarrassing chokejob in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series.  They do not yet have the choke reputation of, say, the Red Sox, the Cubs, or the Indians — but they should.

In positive baseball news, Miguel Cabrera clinches the AL Triple Crown becoming the first player to do so since 1967 when Carl Yastzemski accomplished the feat with Boston. The Tigers 3rd baseman and eventual MVP led the circuit in average (.330), home runs (44), and RBIs (139) playing with the American League champs.

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